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How literature failed me as a black student

My name is Francine Bitalo, I am 21 years old and a Criminology undergraduate at the University of Northampton. Coming from a black African background I have always had a strong interest in the Criminal Justice System and its treatment towards different groups in society.

My dissertation was based on the impact of police practices such as stop and search on young black men and their families. Whilst statistics present the alarming racial disproportionately which exist in many areas in the criminal justice system, it fails to portray the long-lasting effects it has had on Black families. For example, the daily harassment and differential treatment subjected to young Black men has forced black families to reinvent themselves to conform to institutional racism. Coming from a Black family myself and having male family member, the findings in my dissertation quickly became personal to me, as I could constantly relate them to the structuring of my own family. For example, the fact that it would take my father longer to find a job due to institutional racism, making my mother the breadwinner, or when my mother is preparing my brothers for police harassment and discrimination, but not me and sisters.

While conducting my research I was quick to learn that what literature may describe as a phenomenon, for many of us is a reality. If I am honest the writing stage of my dissertation was difficult for me because it was a passionate topic. I experienced a lot of self-doubt regarding my positionality for example, being a Black woman and facing my own forms of discrimination and now having to talk about the experiences of young Black men. I think my dissertation tutor would agree with me on this as I remember emailing her after I submitted my work expressing how I felt like I didn’t effectively capture the effects and the voices of the young Black men I interviewed, despite that being my main goal. I mean who would blame me, as a student, if I am honest I felt like literature really let me down for instance, when writing my literature review I found that literature neglected the subject of racism solely from the perspectives of young Black men, despite statistics showing them to being the largest group to experience institutional racism. At this point I had to laugh at the criminal justice system and its propositions to improving police relations as well as re offending.

With that being said the information I did come across I couldn’t help but sense the notion of white privilege lingering in the perspective of some scholars. I understand this is a strong claim to make however I say this because not only did literature provide little of the work of Black scholars regarding the topic, yet it was evident that most white scholars did not see the issue with stop and search and its discriminate use. Arguments for this were discussed in my dissertation for example, some argued that the process of racial socialisation in Black households were ineffective to police relations and the functioning of their services, which creates the notion that the Black community should submit to discrimination and harassment in favour of procedures and compliance during police encounter. Some tried to justify the disproportionality in stop and search by claiming that young Black men should be harassed because they tend to be out more especially in certain urban areas or the disproportionate targeting of Black minors is due to parental criminality. I felt there was a lack of accountability from white scholar thus, little understanding in the issue of race which is natural because their experiences do not allow them to understand. Yet this led me to ask questions such as why shouldn’t Black mothers have the right to prepare their sons for police discrimination, does it matter what time and area should a person of colour be around for them to be targeted at?

After completing my dissertation and getting a First Class I felt extremely proud of myself, the fact that I did not shy away from the research topic despite it being limited in literature. As a result, it was satisfying to know that I was able to articulate the experiences of others to a First Class standard. I hope this can encourage others to trust in their abilities and put aside any doubts especially when choosing a research topic. As a student writing a dissertation or even an assignment, I believe we should explore the unexplored, open the unopened and always be willing to discover and learn. Do not be afraid of researching something that is limited or has never been done. Lastly as my dissertation was extremely passionate to me I have decided to turn it into a personal project and continue researching the topic

Documenting inequality: how much evidence is needed to change things?

In our society, there is a focus on documenting inequality and injustice. In the discipline of criminology (as with other social sciences) we question and read and take notes and count and read and take more notes. We then come to an evidence based conclusion; yes, there is definite evidence of disproportionality and inequality within our society. Excellent, we have identified and quantified a social problem. We can talk and write, inside and outside of that social problem, exploring it from all possible angles. We can approach social problems from different viewpoints, different perspectives using a diverse range of theoretical standpoints and research methodologies. But what happens next? I would argue that in many cases, absolutely nothing! Or at least, nothing that changes these ingrained social problems and inequalities.

Even the most cursory examination reveals discrimination, inequality, injustice (often on the grounds of gender, race, disability, sexuality, belief, age, health…the list goes on), often articulated, the subject of heated debate and argument within all strata of society, but remaining resolutely insoluble. It is as if discrimination, inequality and injustice were part and parcel of living in the twenty-first century in a supposedly wealthy nation.  If you don’t agree with my claims, look at some specific examples; poverty, gender inequality in the workplace, disproportionality in police stop and search and the rise of hate crime.

  • Three years before the end of World War 2, Beveridge claimed that through a minor redistribution of wealth (through welfare schemes including child support) poverty ‘could have been abolished in Britain‘ prior to the war (Beveridge, 1942: 8, n. 14)
  • Yet here we are in 2019 talking about children growing up in poverty with claims indicating ‘4.1 million children living in poverty in the UK’. In addition, 1.6 million parcels have been distributed by food banks to individuals and families facing hunger
  • There is legal impetus for companies and organisations to publish data relating to their employees. From these reports, it appears that 8 out of 10 of these organisations pay women less than men. In addition, claims that 37% of female managers find their workplace to be sexist are noted
  • Disproportionality in stop and search has long been identified and quantified, particularly in relation to young black males. As David Lammy’s (2017) Review made clear this is a problem that is not going away, instead there is plenty of evidence to indicate that this inequality is expanding rather than contracting
  • Post-referendum, concerns were raised in many areas about an increase in hate crime. Most attention has focused on issues of race and religion but there are other targets of violence and intolerance

These are just some examples of inequality and injustice. Despite the ever-increasing data, where is the evidence to show that society is learning, is responding to these issues with more than just platitudes? Even when, as a society, we are faced with the horror of Grenfell Tower, exposing all manner of social inequalities and injustices no longer hidden but in plain sight, there is no meaningful response. Instead, there are arguments about who is to blame, who should pay, with the lives of those individuals and families (both living and dead) tossed around as if they were insignificant, in all of these discussions.

As the writer Pearl S. Buck made explicit

‘our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is in the way that it cares for its helpless members’ (1954: 337).

If society seriously wants to make a difference the evidence is all around us…stop counting and start doing. Start knocking down the barriers faced by so many and remove inequality and injustice from the world. Only then can we have a society which we all truly want to belong to.

Selected bibliography

Beveridge, William, (1942), Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services, (HMSO: London)

Buck, Pearl S. (1954), My Several Worlds: A Personal Record, (London: Methuen)

Lammy, David, (2017), The Lammy Review: An Independent Review into the Treatment of, and Outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Individuals in the Criminal Justice System, (London: Ministry of Justice)

The Bride of Frankenstein

The classic novel by Mary Shelley back in the early 19th century was an apocalyptic piece of work that imagined the future in a world where technology appeared to be a marvel that professes to make everyday people into gods.  The creation of a man by a man (deliberately gendered) in accordance to his wishes, and morals.  The metaphysical constraints of the soul seemingly absent, until all comes to head.  This was dystopic, but at the same time philosophical, of the future of humanity.    

In the 20th century John B. Watson believed that he could shape the behaviour of anyone, mostly children in any possible way.  Some of his ideas even made it into popular psychology where he offered advice to parents of how to raise their children.  Although no monster is mentioned, there is still the view that a man can shape a child in whatever way he chooses.  A creationist and most importantly, arrogant view of the world.

Decades later Robert Martinson, a sociologist will look at all these wonderful and great programmes designed to challenge behaviours and change people, so they can rehabilitate leaving criminality behind.  He found the results to be disappointing.  In the meantime, child psychologists could not achieve this leap that Watson seem to think they could make in changing people. 

In the 21st century we began to realise at a discipline level that forcing change upon people is rather impossible.  How about a man creating a man?  Can you develop a new human that will be developed espousing the creator’s desired attributes and thus become a model citizen?  In recent years we have been talking about designer babies, gene harvesting and genetic modification.  Such a surprising concept considering the Lebensborn experience during the Nazi regime.  That super-man concept was shattered in thousands little pieces, and for many relegated to history books.  Therefore, designer babies are such a cautionary tale. 

As a society we are still curious on what can technology can achieve, how far can we go and what can we develop.  Still in science there are seeds of creationism proposing ideas of that we can develop; a world of people without illness, disorder and deviance.  Pure, healthy and potentially exceptional individuals who may be physiologically right but sadly devoid of humanity.  Why devoid?  Because what makes a person?  Our imperfections, deviances and foibles.  These add to, rather than substract from, our uniqueness and individuality. 

In a recent twitter discussion one of my colleagues engaged in a discussion about the repatriation of one of those women called “Isis brides”.  The colleague posed the question, why not allow her to return, only to receive in response, because these are no humans.  As I read it I thought, well this is a new interpretation of the monster.  A 21st century monster that we can chase out of the proverbial village with torches because its alive and it shouldn’t be.  We can wish for people to be good to us, open armed and happy all the time, but that is not necessarily how it is.  We know that this is the case and of course we want to be reminded of our humanity, not for the positives but for the negatives.  Not what we can be but what the others are not.  So, we can always be the villagers and never the monster.   

Mary Shelley (1888) Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, London, George Routledge and Sons.  

Interview with a sex offender

BD sex offender

Bethany Davies is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first year.

“Was this your first arrest?”

“Yes I’ve been in trouble with the police before, but just like cautions, like some old man called the police because we played football on the grass near his house. That was literally only about a couple months before i got arrested… for rape.”

I had just turned 20 years old when I conducted my first interview with a sex offender.  I was prepping for my dissertation in the summer before my final year, conducting research in a probation office I volunteered at. I was allowed to observe, teach and in the final week I would be able to interview 3 males I had been observing. I interviewed the first two males who both I had taught some very basic numeracy skills to, they were both as they were in my observations, very calm and just trying to get through each day without breaching their probation orders.  My final interview was with a young male who I had been helping prepare to apply for a construction worker card, which would allow him to apply for building work. In my months of observing and teaching him I felt like he was no different to males I went to school with or anyone you would pass on the street. I did not want to know what his crime was, as a probation mentor that was never my focus, nor my business to know.

Ethically speaking, I was challenged by the idea that I was conducting an interview and research with the consent of an individual who in my eyes did not understand the concept of consent. That may seem like a harmful way to view this man and the outlook of his time in probation as ultimately it was about reform and reintegration after his time in prison. I have progressed a lot since this day and I no longer view this person so hopelessly in my memory, then again, I am unsure of what he is doing now.

Each time I remember the interview and my experience there, I have different thoughts and different feelings, which I suppose is human nature. I also get annoyed at myself that I cannot seem to understand  or rather pinpoint my own thoughts on it, I go between thinking what I did (teaching) was a good thing and it may have helped him, to thinking what I did was waste my time on someone who probably didn’t deserve it in many people’s eyes.

I had always felt I was very understanding of those labelled ‘ex-offenders’ and the cycle they can become trapped in. But before this experience, I had always worked with those whose crimes seemed relatively minor comparatively. Sexual violence is not something to me that is as simple to categorise or try to understand.  I remember getting home a few hours later and sobbing for a victim I knew nothing about other than her perpetrator.

The experience has always stuck with me and made me appreciate the complexity of not only sexual offences but also the role of reform with sexual offences. It has led me to explore research around sexual violence and I have recently been exploring the work of Elizabeth Stanko and also revisiting my books by Susan Brownmiller. Both examine the role of the victim of sexual violence and raise questions about how historically sexual violence has been viewed.

This is a personal experience and not something I think everyone will relate to, but from experiences shared, there are lessons to be learnt.

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