Select Committee on Home Affairs Written Evidence

30.  Memorandum submitted by Professor Gus John


  On Thursday 27 April, I am launching a book, Taking A Stand, which deals with issues of education, race, social action and civil unrest in the period spanning 1980-2005, issues which are germane to the objectives of this inquiry. My preoccupation with that project has not enabled me to provide a thoroughly researched series of observations at this stage in the inquiry's work. Nevertheless, I offer this for what it is worth.


  The matters the Committee wishes to focus upon are complex and must be approached with extreme care. For one thing, it is important to be clear as to the specific groups that cluster within the ONS Census ethnicity category "Black or Black British". Public perceptions of criminality among young people of Caribbean extraction are different from perceptions of criminality among West African or Somali young people. Within the generic "African" group there are further variations. Popular perceptions of criminality among young Nigerians differ from that among Ghanaians or young people from Zimbabwe.

  It is important in this regard to consider patterns of migration and settlement and the profile that certain "black" groups came to have or to be given in the society since the early 1950s. Authors such as John Lambert and Camilla Filkin (Crime, Police and Race Relations 1970), Augustine John (Race in the Inner City 1970) and Humphry & John (Because They're Black 1971 & Police Power and Black People 1972) were among early writers pointing to the process of "racialising crime" and criminalising young black (African Caribbean) people indiscriminately that was a major source of concern to black communities. The racialisation of crime mirrored the racialisation of immigration and of other processes and practices within the society. In time, that process became more and more widespread and invasive, extending to the racialisation of school exclusion, youth unemployment, etc.

  The importance of this approach lies in the fact that too often there is a failure in these discussions to have regard to context. They also fail to take into account that certain categories of people experience their oppression as a group, whether they be asylum seekers, Asian women or the children of "first generation" West Indian immigrants. That context is shaped first and foremost by the state and its apparatuses, particularly the police and the criminal justice system. But it is a context determined in time, also, by the excluded and marginalised groups themselves. That context is equally important to our understanding of different patterns of crime among the same category of people over time. It also helps to explain the attitude towards crime that future generations of young people develop because of the lifestyle and life choices of those around them and which they regard as "cultural" and functional.

  Lambert, John, etc, wrote in the early 1970s based on work done at the end of the 1960s. By 1978, in a seminal study that is still critical to the work of an inquiry such as yours, Stuart Hall et al, (Policing the Crisis—Mugging, the State and Law and Order) were able to point to the way the police, the judiciary and the media had racialised "mugging" and street robberies and in the process had profiled black youths (British born of African Caribbean descent) as a potential threat to safety on the streets and to law and order more generally.

  It is worth exploring here, also, how a culture of racism in the society, manifesting in job discrimination, negative attitudes to young black people and low expectations of them, their unjust treatment by the justice system, especially when colluding with police malpractice, has spawned a culture of resistance to the values that the society projects as consensual: the work ethic, respect for persons and for property, obeying the law, etc. There is a tendency in public policy circles and among social analysts to examine young people's involvement in crime or on the periphery of crime purely from a socio-economic perspective. Educational attainment, employability, availability of jobs and income are typically the variables employed in such analysis. A concern that a number of parents and social commentators have, for example, is why is it that despite the Gordon Brown "revolution" and the fact that the country has enjoyed almost a decade of low inflation and low unemployment, youth offending amongst black young people and the incidence of gun related crimes have shown no marked decrease.

  This is a question that needs to be addressed.

  Without any attempt at a considered response, I would argue that part of the "culture" within our communities to which I referred above is the fact that in addition to the well known indicators of social exclusion that impact upon black young people (low educational attainment, school exclusion, low income, single parent families, repeated offending, etc), social exclusion of an active kind is being perpetuated. Active social exclusion could be defined as:

    "... the form of exclusion that comes about when young people lay claim to particular identities and make choices about lifestyles which compound their disadvantage and their existence on the margins of the society". (Tom Wiley, National Youth Agency)

  Young people's persistent involvement in certain practices within the "alternative economy" even in a period of low unemployment, the lifestyles that accompany that, the consequences of those practices for their parenting, for their offspring, and for their communities are all manifestations of that active social exclusion. Interestingly, there is growing evidence of this phenomenon precisely at a time when workers from the former Eastern Europe are inserting themselves into the economy and taking jobs which are equally open to those young black people.

  Their involvement in the "alternative economy", however, continues to support the mainstream economy and the activities of other young (and older) black people within it. Their patronage of mini-cab firms, barber shops, hairdressers, food outlets, fashion outlets, hair products, private gyms, music and entertainment outlets, etc, within the black community is huge, let alone their engagement with the mainstream economy.

  The concerns of the Youth Justice Board and other agencies, and the findings of the Cabinet Office's study on Ethnic minorities and the labour market (2004), point to what I have described as "... the inexorable growth of a British born, British schooled, black underclass, operating on the margins of society".

  Certain structural arrangements serve to exacerbate the growth of this marginalised sector of the population, school exclusion being among the most serious:

    "The 13,000 young people excluded from school each year might as well be given a date by which to join the prison service some time later on down the line".

    Martin Narey —Director General of the Prison Service (2001)

    "Of 400 young people in a Young Offender Institution (YOI), 200 had been excluded from school".

    Martin Narey

    Two-thirds of the population of YOIs had left or been put out of school at age 13 or under.

    Home Office Research

  Showing evidence of the link between school exclusion and social exclusion, Lord Warner of Brockley, then Chair of the Youth Justice Board observed:

    "80% of young offenders of school age are out of school, either through exclusion or refusal to attend; ... mainstream schooling is not willing and not able to deal with children with challenging behaviour".

  The fact that black school students (African Caribbean boys in particular) are still six times more likely to be excluded than their white counterparts is a further source of concern, given the link between school exclusion and youth offending.

  Social exclusion, passive or active, and the resistance/rebellion that has come to characterise the "culture" that obtains within sections of black communities is leading increasingly to forms of a-moral existence for a section of the young black population. The Committee will hopefully hear evidence, empirical and anecdotal as to just how large that section is.

  That existence is characterised by "life on the edge", by life threatening violence and a general cheapening of life, by conduct which suggests that there are no moral boundaries or checks and balances on the actions of individuals.

  In 2003, for example, Commander Alan Brown— Head of Operation Trident (against "black on black" gun crime) reported as follows:

    21 black on black killings in London and 67 other attempted murders during 2001.

    16 murders involving black gangs fighting for control of London's crack cocaine market. (77% increase in figures for 2000)

    74 attempted murders by black gunmen in 2002.

    "There were clear attempts to kill, and it is only because of poor marksmanship or poor ammunition that these people were not killed. It seems to be a matter of luck whether you suffer an injury or you die".

  The spectrum of youth offending is clearly very wide and types of offending differ as between young men and young women and within those groups also. Some young men engage in thefts from the person and do not indulge in any form of smoking. Others smoke cannabis and do not engage in any other form of offending. Some young women engage in credit card fraud and burglaries, others only in shoplifting. At the extreme end of the spectrum, young men engage in drive-by shootings and other gun related murders.

  Whatever similarities there may be between the criminal behaviour of young black people and young people of other ethnic groups, it is important to have regard to the respective percentages of the group in question within the population locally and nationally. Similarly, it is critical to have regard to the internal dynamics of the group in question and the profile that the wider group of which it is a part have had in the society and in the criminal justice system over time. As far as black young people are concerned, for example, perceptions of them as underachievers espousing "alternative" lifestyles, prone to school exclusion and as being in conflict with the police are crucial in determining the way they are treated by the public, public agencies and the criminal justice system.


  With specific reference to guns and gangs in African Caribbean communities, we in GJP have been developing and delivering modular programmes for conflict resolution and peace building. The broad principles on which this work is based are explored in some detail in Taking A Stand. This work is being done with young people on the periphery of gangs and/or those wanting to leave gangs. The two, inter-related modules we have developed so far are entitled:

    Working With Young People in Conflict—a programme of self-development and strategies for avoiding conflict, and

    Interactive Sessions for Self Development: young people understanding conflict and developing personal strategies for avoiding and resolving it.

  There are in Manchester and elsewhere various multi-agency approaches to combating gun crime and gang activity among young black people. My observation is that too often there is an over-emphasis on a "quick fix" at the expense of the careful work I believe to be necessary with individual young people, with groups of young people, peers and parents. Indeed, I have a concern about the level of understanding agencies bring to a situation which needs considerable thought, discussion and intervention within the dynamics of the black family and community from inside of our experience, and from an African perspective.

  I say that because the problem is essentially a product of the dynamics of race, class and identity within this society itself. So, while it manifests as a law and order, crime and disorder, youth offending problem, it is essentially an expression of pathology and evidence of the implosion at the very core of the black community itself. Yet, we buy into multi-agency approaches and address the issue from a crime and disorder perspective before we as black people give ourselves the space to do the painful work we must do on ourselves, by ourselves, in order to own the problem and draw upon one another's strengths in arresting it at its roots. It seems to me that many multi-agency approaches leap-frog over that critical part of the process, the stage most likely to guarantee sustainability.

  I believe that it is necessary to create space, safe and secure space, and time ... for our young people and their parents to work with black individuals not linked to these agencies and who have the skills and competences to assist them in making effective use of that space. Such community healing (which is, after all, what it must be) requires time and it also requires sensitivity on the part of agencies such as the police, youth offending teams, etc. We have seen the progress that has been painstakingly made with young people who are hell bent on self destruction jeopardised totally because of some overzealous and inflexible reaction on the part of the authorities or because of the absence of assessment of risk to the individual breaking ranks with his "posse".

  Restorative justice as one approach, despite its limitations, must be given a chance to work in these situations where inter-family and inter-group conflicts escalate and revenge killings are planned and executed.

  Our work suggests that in addition to the work of the statutory agencies such as the Youth Offending Teams, Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships and the rest, there is a need within communities for:

    —  Local support cells for young people and parents, not connected to such agencies.

    —  Peer strategies for learning development and conflict resolution.

    —  Local mediation councils.

    —  Local and national initiatives for celebrating success in combating young people's involvement in gangs and in crime.

    —  Local and national campaigns against school exclusions.

    —  Local and national campaigns against firearms and against the murders in our communities...

  In conclusion, these are but some "broad brush" observations which I hope will assist the Committee in focusing upon some key areas and maybe inviting specific evidence in relation to them. I shall make available to the Committee a copy of Taking A Stand and other such background material I consider of use to you (not printed).

Professor Gus John

Visiting Professor of Education, University of Strathclyde, and Chief Executive of the

Gus John Partnership Limited.

April 2006

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