Racism and the Criminal Justice System


There is something depressingly familiar and predictable about the topic I am addressing this morning, for I appreciate that an audience such as this will already be cognizant of the issues involved.  So, I come to address you with, in reality, nothing new to say. The central themes remain the same, save that predictability informs us of the need for continued struggle, familiarity enjoins us to continue that struggle into the future, to keep knocking on the door until true justice is achieved.

Thus we know that at each stage of the criminal justice production line, certain easily identifiable criteria, make it more likely that certain categories of citizens, within all societies, in varying degrees of importance, will always end up being disproportionately caught within the web of the criminal justice system.

This starts with:

  • The perception of what crime is, and which crimes are considered to be most worthy of attention, it extends to;
  • It’s likely perpetrators; and
  • Where, geographically, crime is primarily located.

Unsurprisingly, all of this is reflected in:

  • The exercise of stop and search powers;
  • The exercise of powers of arrest;
  • Conviction rates, and ends with;
  • Rates of incarceration

Thus an examination of who are confined in a country’s prisons provides a rough measure of the types of criminal activities which provoke concern and fear at any given time, a picture of who is at the bottom of the socioeconomic order, and who are considered socially dangerous at any given time.

The Times newspaper published an article on Wednesday 4 February 2015, under the headline: “MUSLIM PRISONERS DOUBLE TO RECORD HIGH”, and noted that: Figures show there were 680 Muslims out of 3,231 prisoners in five top-security prisons: Wakefield in West Yorkshire, Frankland in Co. Durham, Long Lartin in Worcestershire, Full Sutton in east Yorkshire and Whitemoor [in Cambridgeshire]. Muslims thus constitute 21 % of those held in top-security jails.  The article continued: “One reason for the rise in the number of Mulsims in prison is that the Muslim community is proportionately younger than other groups, with a large number of young people in the key offending age groups.  Official figures also show that all black and minority ethnic groups received a larger proportion of immediate custodial sentences than whites and that between 2008 – 2012 average custodial lengths were longer than those given to whites.”  Shockingly, there was no mention in the article of the impact that the so-called “War on Terror” might have had in producing such figures.

We need to remind ourselves that it is now 50 years since the introduction of the first Race Relations Act in 1965.  Race relations in Britain have come a long way since such landmark legal cases like Scala Ballroom and the Smethwick by-election of 1964, when the Tory candidate was said to have campaigned under the slogan: “ If you want a nigger for a neighbor, vote Liberal or Labour”. [2] Yet 50 years on police are 28 times more likely to stop and search black men, yet less than 3% of stops lead to an arrest.

This is not a situation unique to the United Kingdom:

  • Visit a German prison and count the disproportionate number of people of Turkish descent;
  • Visit a French prison and count the number of people of North African, particularly Algerian descent;
  • Visit a prison in the US and count the number of blacks and Hispanics.

There is nothing haphazard about this, it does not happen by chance.  It is the result of an attempt to deal with a wide array of: economic, social, racial and personal problems coupled with immediate fears – mugging then terrorism now– through the machinery of the criminal justice system.  So that although lowering crime rates, making our cities safer is declared to be the sole societal goal, the latent purpose is clearly visible in the end product.


In the same vein, there is an unspoken truth about international criminal law as currently practiced.  It is that certain individuals, from certain countries of origin will never find themselves indicted before an international criminal tribunal for: “right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.  This is the fundamental operating principle of international criminal law, rooted, not in their commitment to justice, but in their vastly superior economic, military and political power, and their control of the global opinion-forming agencies.  The fact is that ruling elites can violate laws with impunity, while members of subject classes will be punished.  Contrast the treatment of bankers and rioters in contemporary Britain and the US at a domestic level.  Likewise contrast in the international arena the treatment of crimes committed by Britain, the US and Israel, and those committed in Liberia, Cote D’Ivoire or Libya.  Acts are defined as criminal because it is in the interests, or at least not against the interests, of a ruling class to define them as such.

There is nothing universal about western states’ claim to support universal human rights.  Instead, the claim is based on the assumption that some states are more civilized than others.  Thus when the former British Foreign Secretary, the late Robin Cook, was asked on BBC Newsnight, whether the newly constituted ICC might one day indict western leaders for their decisions to go to war in Iraq, he retorted outraged and indignant: “..if I may say so, this is not a court set up to bring to book Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom or Presidents of the United States”.  It is not surprising then that the guardians of “international justice” have yet to find a single crime committed by a great white northern power against people of colour, equally the idea of “responsibility to protect” and “the end of impunity” have never been extended by the western media or its intellectual elites to encompass crimes committed by these same powers.  In reality international criminal justice is governed by the law of gravity it always travels from north to south, from top to bottom from whites to non-whites.  Consequently it is vital that we appreciate the critical role of racism in this discourse.

In this regard it is important that we recognize the centrality of selectivity in this process:

  • Selectivity of denunciation;
  • Selectivity of investigation;
  • Selectivity of prosecution;
  • Selectivity in terms of impunity.

Despite all this talk of an end to impunity, it turns out that all of the ICC indictments have been issued against Africans.  Every investigation bar one was launched in Africa.  Every arrest warrant has been issued for an African.  Yet even within Africa this selectivity is nuanced, in that it carefully excludes Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda’s President Paul Kagami, both with much blood on their hands, but immune from censure or prosecution because they are both highly-valued clients of the west.  Likewise, when one recalls the west’s response to the “Arab Spring” one sees a marked divergence of attitude towards Libya as contrasted with Egypt, Bahrain supported by a reactionary Saudia Arabia, and Syria.

Africa has had more than its fair share of despots and war criminals, from Emperor Bokassa in the Central African Republic to President Mobuto in Zaire, from President Verwoerd to President Vorster in South Africa.  All of them supported in their criminal and brutal actions by the west.  I am certainly in favor of an end to immunity.  However, when I studied law at university I was taught that whether you be constable or convict, princess or prostitute, the president of the United States or the president of Liberia, the law was above you.  Yet looked at from either the domestic or the international perspective, this is just not the case.  Unequal treatment is still the order of the day.

Courtenay Griffiths Q.C.

[1] Speech given at Corruption, Spying, Racism and Accountability Conference, on 7 February 2015 at Conway Hall.

[2] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/west_midlands/7343256.stm

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