White society, black victims

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LAW and order is being tested by a new phenomenon: the victim as challenger, whose pain is an accusation against society. The rise of survivors' movements is destabilising the traditional politics of law and order, not least because it is 'traditional values' that have caused a lot of the harm.

In a rigorous report last week, the Commons home affairs select committee recommended a new offence of racially motivated attack. Behind this conclusion is an unprecedented coalition of rich and poor Jews, Afro-Caribbeans and Asians, united by a shared experience of the threat from perpetrators whose values are embedded in Europe's history of white supremacy. Yet the immediate response from the police and the Home Secretary was dismissive.

A chilling sense of urgency powered the select committee. There were an estimated 150,000 racially motivated incidents last year. The committee received no evidence to suggest that racism is ebbing in Britain. 'Racism is rising, so time is short,' warns the report. The committee's concern was animated not only by British abuse of black people but also European anti-Semitism.

Survivors' movements are reinterpreting the meaning of individual acts of violence by putting them in the context of habits and histories motivated by tyranny. To specify violence as racist means the criminal system should not only take the side of individual black people as victims of crime, but treat them as a source of illumination, telling us something about white society. That is why, despite the best efforts of Michael Howard and Tony Blair, the politics of personal and public safety can no longer be about the restoration of traditional values.

In 1989 the home affairs committee charged the criminal justice system with a duty to monitor and act upon evidence of racist attacks. But both the police and the Crown Prosecution Service failed to generate systems that would have enabled them to do that. While the police and the CPS may have been logging racial motivation in records of offences, the select committee last week endorsed the evidence of black and Jewish communities that that intelligence has not been integrated into the culture of criminal investigation.

The examination of police records reveals that only one in 16 racial incidents are reported. It is no surprise: police stations are still populated by white faces and people who can only speak one language. Ethnic minorities constitute almost 6 per cent of Britain's population but only 1.5 per cent of the police.

Compare the resistance of the Home Secretary and the police to the proposed new offence with their response to a category of victim they understand rather better: the car owner. Car owners were deemed deserving of a special offence when joyriding became epidemic in the late Eighties. The Home Office needed to be seen to be doing something to respond to fears both for the security of cars, and the safety of communities. What was significant about the new aggravated vehicle theft offence brought in in 1992, was that it focused on the fate of a sacred - and insured - object rather than the threat to public tranquility caused by joyriders.

By contrast, the police seem to feel threatened rather than empowered by the experience of racial attack victims. Dan Crompton, Chief Constable of Nottinghamshire, the chair of the Association of Chief Police Officers' race and community relations committee, told Radio 4's PM programme last week that a new offence would not help - the prosecution rate would drop.

He feared that creating new offences also creates 'new categories of victims'. He imagined a hierarchy in which 'victims at the bottom of the list are not protected the same as others'.

Mr Crompton may not be best placed to judge: he presides over the only force in Britain to have had two cases of racial discrimination successfully brought, by PCs Singh and Hussain. Improved recording procedures nationally show an average 100 per cent rise in racial incidents between 1988 and 1993; in Nottingham the figure was 6,000 per cent.

The head of Nottingham's Racial Equality Council, Milton Crosdale, supports a new category of offence, because 'clear definitions need clear sanctions'. Strategies armed by sanctions are something no chief constable has been able to deliver, he says.

Resistance to new categories of victim and perpetrator is a refusal to come to terms with Britain's diversity. Police officers have no difficulty pursuing property crime, even though they, like everyone else, pinch paper clips and stationery. They arrest speeding motorists even though they enjoy speedy motoring. The problem lies in learning from the experience of otherness. Racist attacks can no more be reduced to simple violence than rape can be understood solely as physical assault. An new offence also implies a new offender: the violent racist.

Michael Howard's lack of empathy for victims contrasts with his interest in punishment and prison. No Home Secretary has yet dared make white society compensate for crimes against black people.