Questions of ethnicity and gender were barely looked at by sociologists of crime and deviance until the 1970’s. Prior to this, the primary focus was on class. Since the 1970’s, sociologists have recognised the need to examine ethnicity and gender. In the early phase of post-war immigration, there was an assumption that members of ethnic minority groups were no more likely to be offenders or victims than the majority white population. It was also assumed that the criminal justice system treated all ethnic groups fairly. According to a major investigation into police and immigrant relations in 1972 ‘black people were more law-abiding than the general population’ and there was little evidence against Black and Asian immigrants with regards to an increase in crime rates (Layton-Henry, 1992). During the next 10 years, however, relations between the police and the black community deteriorated and evidence mounted of increasing racist attacks.


The media pushed the idea that certain ethnic groups within the UK were more likely to commit crimes and end up in prison as a result of this. In 2000 a nationwide study presented the following statistics that appeared to prove that some ethnic groups were more likely to offend:


The white population of the UK made up 94.5% of the total population but only made up 82% of the prison population. The black population made up 1.8% of the UK’s total population but made up 12.1% of the prison population. In contrast the Asian representation in this study showed that they made up 2.7% of the UK’s total population and had a prison population of 2.8%.


‘Members of ethnic minorities are no more prone to crime than other sections of the population, but are over-represented in crime statistics.’ Many members of society assume that ethnic minorities are more prone to being involved in criminal activity, than white Caucasian people. This is reflected in official statistics, and we will now question the validity of such claims.


Researcher Lea and Young accept that policing policies and police racism exaggerate the black crime rate. However, they do believe that there has been an increase in the number of crimes committed by blacks and that this is the result of unemployment and discrimination. They find it hard to understand how “left idealists” such as Gilroy can argue that the disproportionate number of black males convicted of crimes in Britain is caused by police racism. They are even more critical of Gilroy’s claim that such black crime as there is, results from a continuation of “an anti-colonial struggle”. This is not plausible because most first generation immigrants appear to have been law-abiding and most of the victims of black crime, are themselves black.


Becker suggests that there is really no such thing as a deviant act. It only becomes deviant when others perceive it as such. Possible effects of labelling ethnic minorities can lead to assumptions being made about certain classes or ethnic backgrounds. The underachievement of Afro-Caribbean boys in school could lead to teachers naturally assuming that any such individual in his or her class would be pre-disposed to deviance. Such a belief may affect their treatment of such children, which in turn would back up the idea of the “self-fulfilling prophecy”. If a child is labelled as deviant, they will behave to fit their label.


Many theories of deviance are based on official statistics provided by the government. These statistics tend to show two main trends: some social groups appear to be more involved with crime than others, namely ethnic minorities. They appear more likely to commit crimes than white people. Sociologists such as Merton and Miller have taken these statistics at face value, and gone on to explain why these groups appear to commit a disproportionate amount of crime. Crime rates in Britain remained low until the 1950s but have increased rapidly since then. Some sociologists have affiliated this rise in crime rates with the continuing influx of immigrants into the United Kingdom.


Self-report studies indicate that there may be police bias against ethnic minority delinquents. Policemen are five times more likely to arrest or stop a person of an ethnic minority on suspicion of drug related crime, than they are to stop a white person. These claims back up the idea of “the canteen culture” whereby police officers are openly racists when off duty.


Marxists argue that crime is widespread in all parts of society. Snider argues that many of the most serious deviant acts in modern society are corporate crimes. She claims that corporate crime cost much more in terms of loss of money and loss of life than crimes such as burglary and robbery. She believes that these crimes are generally assumed to be mainly committed by members of ethnic minorities. They are severely over-represented in the media.


Some researchers argue that the greater likelihood for ethnic minority groups, particularly Black ethnic groups, to be criminalised (arrested and imprisoned, for example) reflects their greater involvement in crime. Other researchers argue that ethnic differences in criminalisation stem from institutional racism within the criminal justice system.


Institutional racism (also called structural or systemic racism) is any form of racism occurring specifically within institutions such as public government bodies, private business corporations, and universities (public and private). Institutional racism is one of three forms of racism: (i) Personally-mediated, (ii) internalised, and (iii) institutional. The term institutional racism was coined by Stokely Carmicheal of the Black Panther Party, who, in the late 1960s, defined institutional racism as “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin”.


In the UK, the inquiry about the murder of the black Briton Stephen Lawrence concluded that the investigating police force was institutionally racist. Sir William Macpherson of Cluny used the term as a description of “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin”, which “can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes, and behaviour, which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping, which disadvantages minority ethnic people”.


The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report, and the public’s response to it, was among the major factors that forced the Metropolitan Police to address its treatment of ethnic minorities. More recently, the former Metropolitan Police commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, said that the British news media is institutionally racist, a comment that offended journalists, provoking angry responses from the media, despite the police association welcoming Sir Ian’s assessment.


In May, 2010, London’s Metropolitan Police Service faced a racism case as a senior black officer claimed he was side-lined. A top black officer sued the Metropolitan Police for race discrimination amid claims that senior police covered up a damaging report alleging racism in the ranks.


The Macpherson Inquiry analysed and assessed claims of racism against the Metropolitan Police. Its report suggested major changes in the ways the Metropolitan Police handles members of an ethnic minority.



Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex