It’s a peculiar feeling to agree with Theresa May. But in response to the moral panic about knife crime she is absolutely correct to explain that police cuts have nothing do with the rise in these kinds of offences.
The causes of knife crime are obvious for anyone seriously interested in tackling the problem. The places where blood is shed on the streets are in deprived communities where people lack opportunities and have become so marginalised from society that they have been cut adrift. Young people who see a future for themselves in society do not stab each other. Knife crimes are a symptom of the problem, while we are treating them as the cause. She may have been right on one thing, but Theresa May’s Tory government is wholly complicit in creating the current “crisis”.
That knife crime disproportionately affects young black people is just further evidence of the racism that is alienating a generation from society. Black male youth unemployment is 29 per cent across London, and far higher in areas of deprivation. Knife crime is only a “black issue” in as much that young black people are far likelier to be pushed to the margins of society, whether it be through unemployment, in schools or, of course, by the police.
Unfortunately, rather than seeing the root cause, the violence is coded as a “black on black” crisis sweeping the inner city. This is no different from the moral panic around “mugging” (a word charged with racist feeling used in place of the actual offence of robbery) in the Seventies, which led to countless black young people being locked up for disproportionate sentences.
The majority of knife crime in this country is committed by white people, but we somehow fail to name this “white on white” violence. By labelling this a black problem we mark it as violence innate to the savage young black men roaming the streets, the inner-city bogeyman that society needs to be protected from.
The response is then to flood the streets with more police and trample on all young black people’s right with stop and search so that the dangerous thugs can be controlled. Hopefully, it is not hard to see that this only makes the problem worse. Already marginalised by the system, being constantly harassed by the state’s boots on the ground just further pushes a generation away from society.
An increased police presence – the Labour Party’s official position – means that many more young people on our streets will be arrested. Half of young offenders in England and Wales already are from an ethnic minority. This would only get worse. Once you are trapped in the criminal injustice system your life chances plummet, only further increasing your likelihood of reoffending. In many ways we are training a generation into crime rather than helping them out of it.
The continued panic around so-called black on black crime further reinforces the stereotypes that are so important in creating the problem in the first place. When society associates black young people with violent crime you really should not be surprised that the first look that teachers and potential employers give to that group is one of suspicion. By treating this problem as a law and order issue we just compound the problem of racial disadvantage and ensure that the violence does not stop.
One of Thatcher’s successes was her appeal to the notion that crime, particularly committed in the dark inner cities, needed to be suppressed by strengthening the police. It truly is a shame to see the Labour Party indulge in the dog-whistle politics of law and order.
By joining the baying mob calling for more police they are betraying their black voters who were a key part of their electoral coalition. The problem is not the cuts to the police, the issue is the savagery done to the rest of the public sector, which has eroded Britain’s already limited safety net.
The prime minister may be right about the police but it is the actions of her government that have compounded the problem. As austerity bites it should be clear to all that there is as much blood on the government’s hands as there is in the streets.
If, and this is a big if, politicians are serious about stopping the violence, rather than trying to outdo each other by locking young, working class kids further out of society, they should immediately come to the table with a plan to invest in the future of youth in the inner city. I won’t hold my breath.
Kehinde Andrew is a professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University and the author of ‘Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century’
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