chapter  2
17 Pages

Racialisation and criminalisation

Garner (2009) argues that the concept of ‘racialisation’ is based on the idea that the object of study should not be ‘race’ itself, but the process by which ‘race’ becomes meaningful in a particular context. ‘Racialisation’ therefore draws attention to the process of making ‘race’ relevant to a particular situation or context, and thus requires an examination of the precise circumstances in which this occurs. In this chapter, I explore the context of racialisation in relation to the criminalisation of black men. Webster (2007) argues that black offenders, who end up in the criminal justice system and prison, are disproportionately represented, compared to their numbers in the population. He further argues that black men are disproportionately victimised, in part

because they tend to live in poorer urban areas. Patel and Tyrer (2011) express the view that when race enters the ‘othering’ process, particularly within the context of crime and deviancy, it is important to consider the roots of racially charged concepts that disproportionally targets minority groups such as black men. Similarly, Gabbidon and Taylor-Greene (2009) argue that the disenfranchisement of black men involved in crime is ideologically driven as a way of bolstering the carceral estate. Lewis et al. (2006) also put forward the proposition that some black men

may experience the criminal justice system differently as a consequence of ‘disadvantageous treatment’ based on the racialisation of the probation services that can disable some black men’s re-entry back into the community, invariably impacting on the trajectory towards their desistance. Hallett (2006) sees that these social injustices tend to follow clear racial, class, and gendered patterns that emphasise the political power of identity categories themselves. Hallett’s premise sees ‘whiteness’ as a category associated with access to power, and ‘blackness’ associated with powerless and imprisonment. It is within these binaries a power game is played out, subordinating black men in the process. Tonry (2011) proposes that these ‘racial disparities’ are unjustifiable and are more about the maintenance of political dominance over blacks. He concludes by arguing that the visualisation of black people through the

media, film, and television has created a culture that views black people as criminals and as being predisposed to anti-social behaviour. Russell-Brown (2009), like Tonry, suggests that criminology is flawed in the

way it looks at race, as it focuses too much on ‘black criminality’ in relation to ‘white criminality’, that it falls prey to media persuasion, and ultimately perpetuates the dominance of whiteness by using a ‘colour-blind’ lens when viewing the criminal justice system. Alexander (2010) argues strongly that we have not eradicated racial disadvantage, but have merely redesigned it. Mauer (2010) also strongly expresses the view that the responsibility for alleviating these disparities falls not only on criminal justice agencies, but on society as a whole, and needs to be addressed appropriately through both policy and practice at all levels of government. Hill-Collins (2005) sees black men as being situated near the bottom of a social hierarchy, revealing that they are seen differently and treated unequally. Connell and Messerschmidt (2003) also express the view that racialised

masculinities in relation to the study of crime as a whole are significantly under-theorised, and state more needs to be done to create a more equitable lens with which to view the complexities surrounding the issues facing black men. Marable (1993) also suggests that inequality for black men involved in crime is based on black male stereotypes that white society imposes via institutions, and says the wider social structure generates the type of inequality that produces subordination for black men within the criminal justice system. It could be argued that if racism underscores the plight of black men within the criminal justice system, then legitimate pathways towards desisting from criminal activity for black men will be blocked. Alexander (2010), like Marable, notes that white men in power generally ignore the role played by slavery and colonialism in the over-representation of black men in prison. They both contend that criminal justice systems adopt a ‘colour-blind’ position that renders black men subordinate. It could be that this subordination is played down and rendered ‘invisible’ in the wider understanding of black men and crime that pushes some black men into nihilistic patterns of behaviour (West, 1993). Frazier (1957) considers that the gaining and sustaining of employment

form one way to counter the impact of the subordinate position that black men find themselves in, and would give some respite from the oppressive racialised forces within society. Frazier, echoing Du Bois (1938), sees the so-called ‘American Dream’ as being beyond the reach of many black men, based on the devastating impact of slavery, combined with the failed attempts of America to include those citizens it has historically and systematically excluded. This, he argues, leads to a propensity for black men to be involved in criminal activity, based on the racialisation of the social structure. Sampson and Wilson (1995) further view the ‘social isolation’ and the

‘ecological concentration’ of disadvantaged sections of the community as leading to structural barriers and cultural adaptations that undermine social organisation and ultimately the control of crime. Again, West (1993) feels that white society should focus less on seeing black men as the problem, but more

on the failure of white society to treat black men fairly. West’s view highlights a painful reality, namely, black men have to contend with additional stress in achieving an equal status in society. Marriot (2000) argues that the picture of black men as aggressive and hedonistic embeds itself in the consciousness of society and constructs racialised typographies of black men as ‘criminal’. hooks (2004) challenges Marriot’s assumptions and contextualises how black men historically have defined their own sense of identity as a consequence of ‘confronting the hardships of life without allowing their spirits to be ravaged’ (ibid.: 147). The evidence thus far would suggest that the racialisation and criminalisation of black men have implications when looking at black men’s desistance. To support this assumption requires an understanding of theories that underpin the understandings of ‘desistance’ itself.