Mugging: is it a black and white issue?

Polly Toynbee looks at how Sir Paul Condon's blunt use of statistics may have succeeded in simply clouding the issue

Polly Toynbee
Friday 07 July 1995 23:02
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Criminologists, race relations experts and social statisticians were yesterday expressing surprise at the bluntness and crudity of Sir Paul Condon's statement that 80 per cent of muggings in high crime areas of London are committed by young black men.

Though few experts doubted the basic truth of the figures, this bald statistic on its own tells only part of the story. It is, they say, an over-simplification that is seriously misleading.

Dr Michael Keith, who for years has researched with police forces into police/race relations issues, said: "If you were to standardise for everything else - education, unemployment, housing estates, life chances - race on its own would have virtually no significance."

One-third of the non-white population falls within the poorest one fifth in Britain, and crime and poverty are closely related. Whether intended or not, the implication of Sir Paul's remarks is that there is something about blackness itself that is significant in these crime figures.

One criminologist said: "That is why he says he is calling on black community leaders, instead of asking the Government to do more about poverty, the root cause."

It is exceedingly difficult to screen out every possible disadvantage statistically to ascertain the truth or falsehood of this.

The London Research Centre says that in Lambeth, one of the high robbery areas quoted by Sir Paul Condon, 23 per cent of young men aged 16 to 23 are Afro-Caribbean.

Forty-five per cent of these are unemployed. The national figure for young black unemployment is 62 per cent, according to the Commission for Racial Equality.

But most of the robberies, which have increased from 19,000 to 22,000 in London in the last year, are committed by a tiny number of young men, some 30 or 40 who may come to dominate one area.

One reason why black robbers may do so well out of this crime is linked to the history of policing black areas, according to Dr Keith.

Police have virtually no informants, no friends, no sources in black areas where relations have always been bad. Afraid of sparking riots, they are far less likely to go in to arrest known street gangs than they would in a white area, making it easier for young blacks to commit the majority of these crimes.

It may explain partly why robbery has such a very low clear-up rate, at 10-15 per cent. The British Crime Survey shows that Afro-Caribbeans and Asians are three times more likely than white people to be the victims of muggings, partly because they live in these police virtual no-go zones.

Mary Tuck, criminologist and former head of the Home Office Research Department, said young blacks are pushed into robbery by the racism of the criminal underworld. Young white men commit many more burglaries and car thefts, while young blacks turn to street crime.

Fences are usually whites operating out of pubs, many of which have a National Front aura, intimidating to young blacks who might want to sell stolen VCRs or car radios.

In this atmosphere, blacks find they are offered a fraction of the price their white counterparts receive for stolen goods. So they turn instead to the easiest crime for them, mugging.

The image of the black mugger is self-perpetuating and actually assists them in the crime. It is suggested that people are so frightened of young blacks that it is very easy for them to take money off passers-by in the street. Dr Robert Reiner, of the London School of Economics, said: "Race is of little importance. It is just a proxy for class in some areas. If you put people of any nationality into the same history as these young black people, you would get the same results."

He said that in the Fifties and Sixties, the Afro-Caribbean community was far more law-abiding than the rest. "What have we done to these people to change them so much?"

Once a particular racial underclass is developed, it is difficult to undo the damage. "If you suddenly created jobs in these black areas, you wouldn't stop the crime overnight. People develop a certain set of alienated attitudes and many of them may be lost for ever."

Does he think it better a statistic of this kind should be brought out into the open so its full implications can be discussed frankly? "My preference would be not to publish it. In the current atmosphere, it's like 1930s Berlin publishing a statistic that 60 per cent of bank managers are Jewish. It may be true, but it isn't a helpful way to discuss crime."

Robbery nationally is not a black crime - 81 per cent of those jailed for it are white. In many other areas, such as Newcastle and Glasgow, street crime is as high as in London and is overwhelmingly committed by young white men.

One civil service researcher said: "Would the local police chief call for white community leaders to come and help in the same way? Of course not. Whites are us and blacks are them in 'the black community'."

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