Thursday, 6 June 2013

Race-framing, Self-fulfilling Prejudice and Abusing the Notion of Courage

So, here we are half way through 2013. Consider the following from the past few months: 

The first of these stories might well be unfamiliar, even though it is the most recent. I have linked to The Independent website (04/06/2013) reporting the court's judgement as the story broke on the afternoon of the the 4th of June, but trying to find any report on the case in the papers the following morning is, by and large, a fruitless task. The case was reported briefly in a few places and then it died. 

There is something unsatisfactory about my use of the passive voice in that last sentence; it just doesn't seem quite right. The story didn't die a natural death, people made decisions that led to its premature death. Editors across the country decided not to discuss it further. Nothing in the next morning's Times. Nothing in the Daily Telegraph the morning after the story broke. There was nothing in The Independent's own "i" paper, not even half a dozen sentences taken from the previous afternoon's website copy. Similarly, the Guardian gave a little web-space to the Press Association statement on the case, as the story broke, but it wasn't considered worthy of a Guardian reporter's attention at that time or worthy of reporting in any form in the following morning's edition of the paper. 

You see, one of the cases that I open this blog by listing has been clearly marked by the desire to discuss the ethnicity or race of the perpetrators, and to argue over the significance we should accord that. This desire was so strong that it kept the story prominent in the media for days (rather than disappearing within hours). This is how the Oxford sexual abuse case was framed in the media on each occasion it was discussed. How you frame a picture can really contribute to how people respond to the picture. That's what it is to frame something.

Repeatedly, the Oxford case was not presented as a story about a group of predatory men abusing children over a number of years, it was presented as story about predatory Asian or (because of pesky details such as: not all of the men were Asian) Muslim men. 

Think about that. 

Did you hear anyone framing the discussion of the crimes of Savile and Hall in terms of white men? In terms of Catholicism? In terms of irritating Northern extroverts? No, such framing would have been seen as at best stretching the credibility of the commentator and at worst being a distraction from the real issue, which in-turn promotes dangerous stereotyping. You see the problem with stereotyping is that wholly innocent people come to be directly associated with crimes that have absolutely nothing to do with them. That's why stereotyping is not only sloppy thinking, but is dangerous when one is talking about horrible crimes. Not all irritating Northern extroverts are sex offenders. 

Is it not odd then that such framing was not considered to be credibility-stretching or an irrelevant distraction feeding into dangerous stereotyping when people flocked to discuss the Oxford crimes?

... Well it was considered so by me and by others. Joseph Harker deserves special mention for his two excellent CiF articles, one which was published in July 2012, in the wake of the Rochdale case; and the other published in May this year, in the wake of the Oxford case. But such voices were ignored in the clamor to talk about race and proclaim oneself courageous for doing so. The story wasn't sex crimes it was race-framed sex crimes. If you happened to hear the Oxford case discussed in the apparent absence of this type of race-framing in the days that followed the story breaking, then you could guarantee that however brief the piece or the interview, and whomever the interviewee was, the question of the 'role race played' would be broached. Yes, in reality, the race-frame was always there, it was just that on some occasions it was one of those perspex frames from Ikea, which while not so obvious at first glance is there holding the picture in position, all the same.

Let us return to the news of the armed British soldier who was found guilty of instructing a five year-old Afghan boy (and other children) to caress his crotch. In this case we find the judge justifying the punishment of a fine of £1000 by arguing that it was not sexually motivated. Take a moment here. ... ... Yes, that's correct. Man with gun, accompanied by other men with guns, instructs five year-old child to caress his crotch and the judge takes time to make a statement to the effect that this is not sexually motivated, and hands-out a £1000 fine as punishment. Really, no exclamation mark was required at the end of that sentence. To insert an exclamation mark there would have made a movie director's choice to have Barber's Adagio for Strings play over a tragic death scene seem like an exercise in minimalist understatement. 

My point here is not to question the judgement and the sentence. Simply because we do not need to question the judgement to identify inconsistencies in the reporting of these stories. My point is about how this story has been dealt with. My presentation of the story here could be taken from one of many British news outlets reporting this story as it broke on the afternoon 04/06/2013. But eighteen hours on from the story breaking there has been no race-framing of the story in media discussions reflecting on the crime, and that is mainly because there have, to my knowledge, been NO media discussions reflecting on the crime. The story was effectively and collectively euthanised.

"Help for Pedos" anyone? ... 

Is that problematic? Maybe pretend it was written by Jimmy Carr and he followed writing it by doing one of those little "what?!" facial expressions and shrugs that he does when he has gone close to the bone. Oh, odd, it seems to work for him. Okay, if that doesn't work, read to the bottom and see what I write there about frames.

The morning after the story of the soldier's conviction broke, BBC Radio 5Live chose to have their "Your Call" phone-in on the topic of drivers hogging the middle lane on motorways. Contrast this with the 15th of May this year when one finds the same programme choosing to discuss the Oxford case. Fair enough, you might say, the Oxford case was a bigger story. And we can remain agnostic on this aspect of the choice. But, and this I am suggesting is crucial, when they chose to have the "Your Call" phone-in on the Oxford case they did so in a specific way that would suggest to a listener that the real story here, in Oxford, was not about pedophilia, grooming or simply about how sexual abuse seems to have been dominating the news of late. Indeed, neither was it about the long-term effects abuse has on the abused, not about how imagery that permeates our culture (as a whole), like that used in much advertising, might contribute in some way to the abusers doing what they do. Indeed, there was no decision to reflect on the way, for example, women are represented in our culture. What BBC Radio 5Live chose to do was have a phone-in about the significance of the "race" of the perpetrators. 

Think about that. BBC Radio 5Live made an editorial decision to have a phone-in on a serious case of the sexual abuse of teenagers (instead of, as they would do 20 days later, decide to run with a phone-in on tolerable but occasionally irritating middle class motorway driving habits) and in doing so, of all the things upon which the editorial team could have decided to focus, they chose to focus on the "race" of the perpetrators. Here's the website copy for that day's programme

Your Call 15-05-2013
Serious questions are being asked about how a gang of men - from Pakistan and North Africa - were able to groom, rape, and abuse young white girls in Oxford.Similar cases have been prosecuted in Blackburn, Rochdale, and other towns. So is it fair to bring race into this?Does focusing on race - or religion - detract from the real issues? Powerful men preying on the weak? The difficulty victims have in coming forward? What about failures by the police, social workers, local authorities?Or is facing up to cultural differences vital to ending this pattern of abuse?
Nicky Campbell takes your calls. 
And this briefer heading from the list of May's episodes:

Your Call 15/05/2013
Is it fair to bring race into the Oxford grooming case?
Nicky Campbell takes your calls.

It was as if the country as a whole just could not let pass such an opportunity to present a problem we need to address as a country, as instead a problem that comes from elsewhere. You can see how that might serve some interests, right? It's not "our" problem, a problem we must take responsibility for as a society, it is "their" problem. However, one difficulty with this reaction, as Harker in particular has forcefully argued, is that it simply doesn't fit the facts. But don't let the facts get in the way of a good story and a convenient bit of scapegoating. Articles continued to appear that sought to reflect on the issue of race in such cases.  The reason is that the facts are not what drive these different ways of framing otherwise similar stories; what drives the propensity to race-frame Oxford on the one hand but not Hall and Savile, and not the British Soldier in Afghanistan, on the other, is an already-existing set up assumptions. The facts are rendered irrelevant because the assumptions render them so. The pre-existing underlying prejudices are what guide our gaze in one direction or another. This is what prejudice is and how it operates. Prejudice is not answerable to facts because it is what frames the way one sees or interprets those facts. The clue is in the term itself: pre-judice is pre-judgement; forming a judgement on a matter before you have available to you the resources for doing so.

So there is a lack of consistency: when the perpetrator is white, race and ethnicity are simply not relevant. Newsnight does not invite on to the programme "white community leaders" and expect them to condemn the actions of Savile and Hall, publicly admit that there is a problem in the "white community", while also providing assurances that not all white men are sex offenders. On the other hand, when the perpetrators are black or Asian or Muslim the story is, at inception, a story about the crime which is inevitably, always and already framed by the ethnicity or race of the perpetrators, and which swiftly transforms into a story about the race or ethnicity of the perpetrators. In such cases Newsnight invites on "community leaders" so that they can be sat beside Paxman (who effects a suitably disapproving perma-frown) and condemn the crimes, acknowledge their community has difficult questions, which however difficult must be acknowledged and addressed, and give assurances that not every member of "their community" is a sex offender (or bomber, murderer, terrorist -- you see the pattern..?). Just in case you are not offended enough by such double standards and crude, illegitimate racial stereotyping, those doing the stereotyping, those driving this way of framing and then presenting the story, want to then claim that they are courageous for doing so. You see, if they did not have the courage to insist on raising the question about race or ethnicity no one would, because the country is dominated by cowards who shirk such questions. It is brave to racially stereotype, you see. Don't you? It is courageous to hijack a story about the sexual abuse of children and transform it into a story about Muslim men, you see. Don't you?

No. At least I don't.

Such inconsistencies have exercised (and offended) me for some time now. Ten years ago I wrote the following, which I used for a while in my teaching. I reproduce it here:

 Operation Sentinel is a special Met Police initiative to tackle sex crime amongst London's white communities. It has a particular focus on alcohol-fueled pedophilia.
The significance of Operation Sentinel is demonstrated by the fact that it exists as a dedicated Sentinel operational command unit (OCU) within the Met's Serious Crime Group. It has a substantial number of officers who carry out proactive operations whilst continuing to gather intelligence on the pedophiles and developing closer links with other agencies.
Local community support plays an integral part in Operation Sentinel. An Independent Advisory Group, comprising senior community leaders, helps to create a positive climate for members of white communities to come forward with information about Sentinel related criminal activity. The group is chaired by John Smith [read: prominent white adviser to Mayor], who is also an adviser to London Mayor Ken Livingstone.This is a sustained and unrelenting response by the Metropolitan Police Service backed up by substantial resources.

Of course the above is satire. There is no Operation Sentinel and there never will be. Statistics tell us that most pedophiles in the UK are white, or that as a white man in Britain you are more likely to be a pedophile. We also know that alcohol consumption is a bigger problem in the white "community" than it is in other "ethnic groups". There must surely be a connection..? It would be cowardly to shy away from exploring such a possible connection because of misplaced ideas about what is a legitimate question. Because of political correctness. So, should we campaign for an Operational Unit to focus on ‘white on white’ sex crimes? That would be preposterous; right? We should investigate sex crimes per se and do our best to eradicate them. Levels of skin pigment are just irrelevant.

However, some readers will have been struck by the familiarity of the language used in the above italicised paragraphs: "amongst London's white communities", "senior community leaders". Try playing the substitution game:  change "black" for "white",  "drug-related" for "alcohol-fueled", the name of a prominent black adviser to the Mayor for the name of a prominent white adviser, and "gun crime" for "sex crimes" then you will have something that sounds familiar for very good reason. Consider the following quotation, taken from the opening paragraphs of the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Trident website in 2003 (This quote was taken from here: The page has been removed since, as the unit was disbanded some years later):

Operation Trident is a special Met Police initiative to tackle gun crime amongst London's black communities. It has a particular focus on drug-related shootings. 
The significance of Operation Trident is demonstrated by the fact that it exists as a dedicated Trident operational command unit (OCU) within the Met's Serious Crime Group. It has a substantial number of officers who carry out proactive operations whilst continuing to gather intelligence on the gunmen and developing closer links with other agencies. 
Local community support plays an integral part in Operation Trident. An Independent Advisory Group, comprising senior community leaders, helps to create a positive climate for members of black communities to come forward with information about Trident related criminal activity. The group is chaired by Lee Jasper [read: prominent black adviser to Mayor], who is also an adviser to London Mayor Ken Livingstone.This is a sustained and unrelenting response by the Metropolitan Police Service backed up by substantial resources.

Operation Sentinel is a piece of crude satire. However, for satire to appear so crude while remaining so close in wording to that which it is satirising, the crudity must lie with the object of the satire. Operation Trident as a concept was crude, maybe even grotesque. It was certainly counterproductive in many ways.

Let's think about some of the problems. The Operation Trident website talked of "black communities" as if there were such things as strictly demarcatable, or even practically demarcatable, "black communities". It talks of community leaders as if this is a straightforward and unproblematic term. Think about it for a moment. Who are your community leaders? Ask yourself, where does the idea that you are part of a community in this sense – white, black, gay, etc. – and have community leaders who can speak on your behalf and about you with authority come from? Is it something that is familiar to you, part of your experience? Or is it an idea which doesn't in any real sense have resonance at all. Is this idea really pertinent to you? I mean would you consider yourself a member of one of these "communities", outside of seeing such things referred to in statements like that quoted above from the (now defunct) Operation Trident website and seeing "community leaders" presented to you in the media, on television programmes like Newsnight?

This way of talking of communities and community leaders takes some affiliations one might have with others, such as shared geographical location, shared beliefs, shared sexuality, shared levels of skin pigment, shared musical tastes, etc. and identifies you by them. In sharing similar levels of skin pigment, and maybe having some affiliations with others owing to this, one is identified as part of a "black community". You are identified in terms of some affiliations to the exclusion of all the other affiliations you might have.

Furthermore, there is practical problem which goes hand-in-hand with the crudity of the very concept of Operation Trident. The problem is this: talking of a "black community", setting up an operational unit to focus upon crime within that (putative) community, and referring to certain, usually non-elected non-representative, individuals as "community leaders", puts the thought in peoples’ minds that there is such a community which is separate and distinct in significant respects from the rest of society. It is self-fulfilling prejudice. The thought that there are such demarcatable communities has its origins in prejudice and serves to reinforce and perpetuate that same prejudice. In the case of Operation Trident, it supported the thought that gun crime was/is a problem for that community and not for society as a whole.

To give an example: The reporting of shootings of young black men in Hackney  often make it no further than The Hackney Gazette; they very rarely make the London-wide media, and almost never the nationals. A couple of shootings outside London, and outside those ‘black communities’, and gun crime is headline news across the national media, giving rise to ‘spin-off’ stories and comment pieces for weeks afterwards. Why is this so? Do we believe the lives of young black British men to be of less value? Or is it that the language of Operation Trident and other similar initiatives alongside the presentation of stories in race-frames slowly numb or pervert our emotional and moral sensitivities? Such ways of talking, such framing, promotes a mindset where people start to think of "them" as not part of "our" society, and "them" as having problems of "their" own for which we as a society have no or little responsibility. Indeed, what are now presented as problems in "their" communities become problems for "us" only such that they might spill-over in some way and effect "us". The result is "them as perpetrator" = days of race-framed stories which inevitably become race-stories; while "them as victim" = a story that is swiftly euthanised through pro-active neglect. 

And the problem does not stop here. The focus upon ethnicity and levels of skin pigment are not only morally dubious but they are obfuscatory when attempting to predict future trends in crime. Even if one ethnic group were found to be disproportionately represented in a particular crime (let's say white sex offenders), a focus upon the activities of that ethnic group should not lead one to assume that that group’s current prevalence tells us anything intrinsically about the group and their future role. There will be lots of people from the same ethnic background that do not commit these criminal acts, and never will. Trends are more likely to be related to socio-economic background and restrictions on social mobility, access to ‘tools of the trade’, access to markets, and to opportunity to commit the crime. Indeed, they might well be related to the prevalent political and economic culture as a whole. Decades worth of criminology and sociology literature from diverse methodological approaches support this claim. 

To reiterate, reference to race and ethnicity (or culture, for that matter) fails to account for the huge numbers of people who are taken to share that ethnic background yet do not become involved in the crime that is under scrutiny. Most white people are not pedophiles, and they never will be. Most black people have never seen a gun outside of a film and have no desire to see one, let alone wield one in a drug deal. Moreover, talk of race, culture and ethnicity also fails to account for the number of different ethnic groups that are involved in these crimes. These two points should not need making. Ethnicity, race and culture are simply not explanatory or even significant categories in this context. 

To race-frame something one does not need to be making an overtly racist remark. I engaged in a bit of framing in the opening paragraphs of this blog entry. The examples I chose in talking of Savile and Hall: "Catholicism" and "irritating northern extroverts" were chosen deliberately because they would make some people bristle. Similarly the crude pun on "Help for Heroes". I made no claim that could be reasonably interpreted as me suggesting that we should see Soldiers not as heroes but as pedophiles, but my coining of the pun "Help for Pedos" served to frame things in a way that plants the thought in the reader's mind, in a similar manner to how the instruction: "Don't think of an elephant", leads one to inevitably think of just that.  

It is in the very fact of employing the categories of "race" or "ethnicity" in presenting an issue that we perpetuate the problems. BBC Radio 5Live don't make any overtly racist claims in the copy I cut and pasted above. That is not the charge I am making. The point is that in choosing to frame the phone-in on the Oxford Sexual Abuse case as a phone-in on the question of the race of the perpetrators they introduce the prejudice from the outset. They are not instructing us that the racial backgrounds of these men made them do what what they did but they are instructing us, through the race-frame, that it is a question that needs to be, and therefore will be, discussed. They are insisting that it is a pertinent question for members of the public to phone in and offer their opinions on, irrespective of their knowledge of the relevant facts. I simply question the foundation for such an insistence. (As has Joseph Harker). Moreover, the behaviour of the same editorial teams in the same media outlets when they are dealing with white perpetrators shows that, implicitly at least, they know such questions are impertinent. It is (maybe latent) prejudice that leads to the selective myopia regarding pertinence across different cases.

I do not want to end without reiterating what I said above, and thereby leave one thinking that the problem is simply one of asking impertinent questions. Framing matters! It has consequences. As I noted above, the propensity to race-frame some stories (those that involve non-white people) and not to race-frame others (those that involve white people) emerges from, serves as evidence for, existing prejudice. But it then serves to perpetuate that prejudice further and to reinforce, maybe even reinvigorate it. Facing up to and addressing the obvious inconsistencies in how some crimes and not others are discussed rather than in a somewhat self-serving and self-congratulatory way claiming to be courageous for race-framing stories involving non-whites would be a good start.  Acknowledging the inconsistencies is a first step in addressing the prejudice that leads to race-framing double standards.

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