Friday, 29 August 2014

Rotherham sex abuse: the PC factor

Angela Jay’s inquiry into sexual abuse in Rotherham reported its findings this week. It has ignited a fierce debate on ethnicity and crime. 

The report concluded that between 1997-2013, at least 1 400 children were victims of sexual abuse – including systemic rape and trafficking – in the South Yorkshire town of Rotherham. The report amounted to a damning indictment on South Yorkshire’s police force, care system and ultimately its politicians.

The ethnic dimension comes into play as the offenders were predominantly men of Pakistani heritage and the victims white vulnerable girls. This is a pattern we have seen in other recent cases in the Midlands and the North: Derby (2011)Rochdale (2012), Oxford (2013), Peterborough (2014).

The explanations are of course complex and multifarious. Yesterday Lola Okosie made an admirable attempt at analysing how class, race and gender might have interacted to bring all of this about. It was a fine piece, based on a complex analysis which did however not address – but neither questioned – the factor that has taken priority in the raging vitriolic debate. Namely, whether officials and politicians turned a blind eye to the abuse out of fear of being accused of racism. In other terms, did so-called political correctness (PC) contribute to making people responsible for protecting the children shrink from their responsibilities? Clear indications of this can be found in Jay’s report, which amongst other things describes how staff in the children’s social care service were:

nervous[…] about identifying the ethnic origins of perpetrators for fear of being thought racist; others remembered clear direction from their managers not to do so.
However, as a contrast, Hugh Muir had an article in todays Guardian titled “Blaming the Rotherham abuse on a fear of being branded a racist is ludicrous”. The title says it all. Muir is undoubtedly a good writer who usually brings important perspectives to the debating table. In this case, however, he disappoints. He has taken the tiresome, simplistic left-wing approach to the matter, concluding that PC: 

never, ever required anyone to turn a blind eye to the mass abuse of the vulnerable by criminals. And anyway, to do so on grounds of political correctness would never have made sense.
Oh, who's being naïve, Kay?
I do side with Hugh in his general animosity vis-à-vis the tabloid right. I am further certain that political correctness is benign in principle, and benign on average when applied. Surely, few will oppose political correctness when faced with Hugh's definition of its purpose – to make:

members of a diverse society […] accord to others the level of dignity they would want for themselves.
Benign outcomes of PC's application have e.g. been that no longer can you go electioneering under the slogan: "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour".

But Hugh’s definition is a theoretical, panglossian one. All medicines’ come with side-effects. When applied in real life, the side-effects of PC include e.g. minority individuals disingenuously ‘playing the race card’ – whereby they undermine the fight against and the people who are actual victims of racism. 

Another side-effect is that officials and politicians can refrain from addressing specific problems in specific communities. Perhaps in the misguided belief that by keeping a lid on it they discourage racism (which of course tends to have the opposite effect  people aren’t stupid), but another reason for their silence is, I fear, to safeguard their own careers. 

In a feeble attempt to strengthen his position, Hugh tries to compare and equate black gun crime in London with Muslim Asian sexual crime in relatively small regional towns. It is of course a false analogy. Both the crimes and the communities are different in character. The black community in London is diverse, is not centred round one hegemonic cultural line – and it does not carry a heavy punch in the overall running of London. 

In contrast, the Pakistani communities in certain regional towns aren't particularly diverse (usually from rural areas in Pakistan), they are centred round one hegemonic cultural line with 'accredited' community leaders (conservative men) – and they do carry a heavy punch in the overall running of the area. 

In relation to the Derby case (2011), Jack Straw said that there were in certain areas of the country: 

a specific problem which involves Pakistani heritage men [who target] white girls who are vulnerable, some of them in care ... who they think are easy meat.
Perhaps Straw dared to say it because he wouldn’t be seeking re-election 2015. But he was of course scolded by various politicians and officials for saying it (hello, Mr Vaz!). 

Watching Question Time afterwards, where Straw’s comments were discussed, the whole panel of politicians and journalists – including moderator Dimbleby – tip toed nervously around the matter, arguably more worried about their careers than the victims. 

Even Barnardo's chief executive, although careful not to single out the Pakistani community, confirmed that there was a specific problem with men from certain geographical-cultural areas. He said:

I certainly don't think this is a Pakistani thing. My staff would say that there is an over-representation of people from minority ethnic groups – Afghans, people from Arabic nations – but it's not just one nation
Further, that racial sensitiveness is a significant factor could arguably be confirmed in the Rochdale case (2012) by the fact that it needed a Muslim of Pakistani origin – chief crown prosecutor Nazir Afzal – to finally prosecute the Rochdale gang.

Fundamentally, all of this comes down to how the general discourse in society is fashioned. Which in turn influences everyone, not least officials. As stated, the concept of PC is in principle benign but its applications come with certain side-effects that can ultimately undermine the concept as a whole. It is thus vital that the applications are judiciously and continuously scrutinised in the pursuit of locating and confronting such counterproductive effects.

The columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown wrote in relation to the Rochdale case that in such cases she "as a Muslim Asian woman" is "warned not to write on them because it encourages racism against us." But, Alibhai-Brown continued: 

“Keeping the lid on dreadful crimes committed by Britons of colour only increases the number of racists. And these young lives [the victims] matter much more than any sensitivities about racism.
And how right she was. Instead of dealing with the problem from the outset it was allowed to continue and fester, to become systemic and corrupt the institutions of politics, police and social care. Thus, when it finally exploded, it had become so malign and massive that it will probably do more good for racism and the discrediting of PC than any Islamophobic stooge could have dreamt of.

And we are all worse off for it. In particular Muslim Asians.