The final straw

January 12, 2011 — Comment

Written by Jenny Bourne

Why is the former home secretary embroiling himself in a racialised crime issue?

Jack Straw is at it again – saying the unsayable. He seems to think his working-class roots and pragmatic reputation gives him the right to say the racially unsayable or, rather, to racialise the sayable. Straw has joined the fray about gangs of men of Pakistani origin preying on vulnerable white girls for sexual gratification/retribution. It is an explosive allegation incorporating a whole phalanx of issues on which the public is known to be sensitive. But Straw it was who in 2006 suggested that women constituents should remove their face veils in his presence at surgeries.

The issue of ‘Pakistani’ men grooming young, sometimes underage, white girls for sex has been simmering – but mainly on a back burner – for some years. In 2004, a Channel 4 investigative piece ‘Edge of the City’ about Bradford social service’s attempts to deal with the problem was initially withdrawn (and later shown during the summer) after the BNP claimed the contents provided it with a party political broadcast. In fact the BNP went on to produce its own videos about Asian ‘grooming’ and, if you look at its website, it has repeatedly returned to this theme over the years. But it was the Times which thrust the theme into the headlines in the first week of 2011 as it quoted ‘evidence’ based on just fifty-six cases studied by the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science at University College London. This was followed by alarmist stories in both the Daily Mail and Daily Express. Libby Brooks in the Guardian[1] pointed out how the Times had created a category of ‘on-street grooming’ which neither existed in law nor was recognised by any social agencies she spoke to. It looks as though the researchers are now, in the wake of the racist reception of their research – with the BNP crowing, ‘we told you so’ – trying to disown the way their findings have been used.[2]

Apart from what is being said, there is also the matter of how and where things are said. Straw did not on this occasion go to his local mosque or Muslim associations in Blackburn with some evidence of local cases that needed to be discussed – or at least there is no evidence that he did. Instead, he made a public pronouncement on BBC’s Newsnight on 8 January about a national ethnic trend for which he gave absolutely no evidence. This followed the sentencing of two Pakistani men for a series of crimes involving the rape and sexual abuse of numerous girls which took place in Derby – hundreds of miles from his constituency in Blackburn.

Straw has legal training and served as Home Secretary for four years, so can hardly be unaware of what constitutes a crime and also how statistics actually stack up. Moreover he is a hardened speaker and well used to dealing with inquisitors such as those on Newsnight. He is unlikely therefore to have been provoked by the heat of the moment into sloppy thinking and intemperate language. But, after starting with the sensible observation that ‘Pakistanis are not the only people who commit sexual offences and overwhelmingly sex offenders’ wings are full of white offenders,’ he went on, ‘But there is a specific problem which involves Pakistani heritage men who target vulnerable young white girls.’ And worse, he then held the whole of the Pakistani community responsible for ‘their’ reprobates. ‘We need to get the Pakistani community to think much more clearly about why this is going on and to be more open about the problems that are leading to a number of Pakistani heritage men thinking it is OK to target white girls in this way.’ He then managed to visit the problem onto Pakistani culture: ‘These young men act like any other young men. They’re fizzing and popping with testosterone, they want some outlet for that but Pakistani heritage girls are off-limits.’ And finally ended his contribution by echoing misogynistic ghetto language to somehow emphasise his point. ‘So they then seek other avenues and they see these young women, white girls who are vulnerable, some of them in care, who they think are easy meat.’

There was, as Keith Vaz chair of the home affairs select committee was quick to point out, absolutely no justification for racialising what is a crime and not a community-based cultural trait. He termed Straw’s remarks as ‘pretty dangerous’. No doubt he was aware that a moral panic around an ethnic group could be in the creation. For just as ‘mugging’ was created as a supposed Black crime of robbing white people on the street in the 1970s, a backlash was being provoked against people of Pakistani descent who were now prone to another supposed crime of ‘on-street grooming’ of young ‘indigenous’ girls.

But we can probably guess why Straw did it. He seems to believe that Labour has to move on to the ground and take up the issues that the extremist EDL or BNP might take up. By showing that Labour can also hear working-class dissent, he expects that the Right’s racial agenda will be undermined. But evidence over the past fifteen years reveals the contrary. When mainstream politicians take to the racialised ground, they do not cut the aforesaid ground from under the racists’ feet. Rather they serve to normalise racist arguments. In other words, in this case Straw will be assuring those white working-class people who are already anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, ‘anti-P**i’ that there is something in their fears – making extremist arguments mainstream and lending them respectability.

As Vaz implied sexual predators and allied crimes exist in many avatars and cannot be attributed to one ethnic group. Sexual trafficking, grooming, exploitation etc unfortunately are prevalent crimes in the UK and often involve a group of men ie a gang. The women who are their prey will inevitably be some of society’s most vulnerable and rightless. If they had a family, a community, a support system to go to, they would not be victims of such criminals. And where gangs are not involved, the majority of sex crimes actually take place within the family – and that includes Pakistani ones.

Related links

Jack Straw on Newsnight

Newsnight

[1] Libby Brooks, 'Our ignoble tradition of racialising crime is revived', Guardian 7 January 2011. [2] 'Child sex trafficking study sparks exaggerated racial stereotypes', Guardian 6 January 2011. One of the researchers made it clear on Newsnight that evidence from a small study of two areas had been generalised to a national trend.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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