The grave danger of turning rape into a racial issue
My views on what should be done with rapists run to the seriously, painfully surgical
Thursday 19 November 1998
It is vindictive, vengeful and punitive, and generally speaking, what my great aunts would call "niggerish", which means that my views on what should be done with rapists run to the seriously, painfully, surgical. Therefore it would not concern me in the slightest to have rapists, especially gang rapists, exposed, shamed and generally crucified on TV. It does not matter to me what colour or race they are - they are all marked "exterminate" in my book.
There is no excuse for this crime in the culture from which I come. It may be that some rapists see their violence as an exercise in power; momentarily it may make them feel strong and manly. However, in the Caribbean, as any holidaymaker will testify, the common belief among black men is that anyone who needs to force himself on a woman is something less than a man; the test of your masculinity is all to do with women's desire for you, rather than your capacity to compel sexual compliance. To commit rape in front of other men would simply be an admission that you just can't manage to persuade any woman that you are a good prospect. In short, rape is not an assertion of manhood - it is an admission of inadequacy.
I have not seen the film yet, but it seems strange to hear of Channel 4's Dispatches documentary (to be screened tonight) which suggests that gang rape has in some way become an aspect of black teenage male culture. Bluntly speaking, the chic associated with being a young black man in most British cities is such that most black teenagers don't need to find sex this way. However, we know that rape is not really about sex, but about power.
The Laurel Productions team is led by an experienced producer, Chris Oxley. He is not an irresponsible person and would not make something out of nothing. He himself says that the problem is "tiny", though it involves 14 cases and 79 youths. He does not, in the film, attempt to make a connection between race and sexual assault; and he says that this is really a story about a small group of estates and a few vicious teenagers.
If this were all it was, then it would be a valuable, interesting piece of journalism, but not world-shaking. I might mention that, less than a year ago, I wrote in these pages about the activities of a group of black kids who called themselves the 28 Posse. They had been excluded from school and roamed the streets of South London causing mayhem. Most people in the local community recognised this particular problem years ago, arising as it does from the poor performance of local schools, and the alienation caused by chronic youth unemployment. Channel 4 does not need to tell black people that they need to agonise over the problems with black boys; many tears have been spilt already.
But however much Oxley would like us to think otherwise, and himself want it to be otherwise, the investigation has created a sensation for one reason only - because it has been turned into a racial issue. It may indeed be one, but then the programme makers should have the courage of their convictions and say explicitly that in their book it is indeed a racial crime, carried out by one racial grouping only.
There are perfectly respectable ways in which they might make this argument. To start, with Laurel says that it was unable to find similar crimes being carried out by groups of young white men. If it is true that the only gang rapes being carried out in this country are led and executed by black boys, that is indeed sensational in the best sense of the word. However, it is less than 10 years since we were all persuaded by both the police and the then government that all muggers were black boys (and that most black boys were muggers). We now know this to have been fiction of the worst possible kind, exploiting an essentially local problem for unrelated political advantage. Many fine journalists went along with this and set back the cause of crime fighting a decade.
This kind of history does give one pause for thought. I don't know if anyone in the Channel 4 documentary asks whether the crimes are being reported by white victims in the same way as they are by black victims; or whether in cases which involve young white men it is being treated as a criminal matter at all. I gather that the programme makers did not go down this road, but I think we should know.
There is, of course some evidence that the kind of behaviour we are seeing described in this programme is not particular to blacks. Anyone who has watched the series of programmes dealing with young holidaymakers in Ibiza and Greece will conclude that if anything, the young women, mainly white, are more sexually voracious than the men; but little is heard of the incidents off-camera, where things go a little too far, and groups of drunken young men decide that "no" actually means "yes".
The principal source of information for the sample of crimes - 14 in total, remember - is the police and courts. After months of the inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence, does anyone seriously regard these sources as reliable in the case of crimes involving black men?
But the fundamental question here is not about whether Laurel's facts are right or wrong. It is about what they might mean. I have no objection to Channel 4, or anyone else, exposing a wrong, or even asking an awkward question; that is the reporter's job, after all. But it must be a real question. The problem here is that we don't know if we have found a local phenomenon or something larger.
Channel 4, for all its protestations that it does not want to racialise the issue, made its own view clear by following the programme with a panel discussion in which everyone is black - the implication being that this is an exclusively black crime, arising out of black culture, and for black people to solve. Well, sorry guys, you have to go some to get me to plead guilty on that one.
And the cost of asking the wrong question is much greater than anything that the programme makers imagine it might be: it is when people start running away from you in the street because you are black that we see the results of getting it wrong.
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