Policing the Crisis (Critical social studies)
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My friend Patrick, who knew that I was interested in Black and Asian British culture, invited me to a screening of Looking for Langston.
I was mesmerized by the sensuous beauty of the film, by its outing of the gay scene during the Harlem Renaissance, and by its critical take on relations between white and Black men in this scene. She had given me her orals list, an amazing compendium of Black and queer feminist texts, which I had been devouring. After seeing Looking for Langston, I threw myself into research on radical Black British filmmaking collectives like Sankofa and Ceddo. Hall argued — with a patience that, looking back today, seems quite remarkable — that cultural representation plays a constitutive rather than merely an expressive role in social relations.
In the British context, the first aspect of representation that Hall highlighted was the essential marginalization of images of Black people in British culture.
In addition to this struggle, however, Hall also discussed an unfolding conflict over the politics of representation itself. His argument resonated profoundly with me since the reading list Anne McClintock had given me was filled with Black feminist interrogations of white feminism and Black nationalism. This understanding of articulated categories helped me make sense of arguments being made by Hall, Gilroy, Hazel Carby, and other Black British theorists of the day concerning the centrality of race in the endemic social, political, and economic crises that unfolded from the s onwards.
In groundbreaking texts such as Policing the Crisis and The Empire Strikes Back , Hall and his students at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies had argued that the problems experienced by advanced capitalist nations such as Britain and the US in the s were not simply economic, but that the crisis of over-accumulation became a political and a social crisis as well.
Hall and his comrades explained in searing terms how this organic crisis was dealt with by dominant elites using a cultural politics of scapegoating and moral panic: if Britain was in crisis, the logic went, it must be the fault of Black immigrants.
Race thus became a key mode of apprehending and coping with a far broader breakdown, with deadly results for Black and Asian communities in Britain. We lived in a time when US cultural politics were driven just as much by the fear of a queer nation as by racism. Even though a lot has changed in criminology — consider contemporary trends such as the rise of target culture and risk management — there is still much in this book that is relevant in understanding contemporary developments.
At the end of this article, I will shortly aim to illustrate that by looking at the uproar concerning Moroccan immigrant youth in the Netherlands. The first step taken in the book is to statistically dismantle the newspaper headline: mugging at the time is shown to be not in any way new, the major part of the escalation of crime took place in the decade before. Similar things can be said about the appeals to tougher sentencing and the media reports blaming the soft policy of judges for the alleged crime wave.
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In fact, longer sentences are passed and more offenders are being sentenced. What to do when the official reaction to a series of events is out of all proportion to the actual threat offered, when media representations stress the novel character and the sudden and dramatic increase of the threat, and when this is clearly unfounded?
Then, the authors state, the public outcry should be defined as a moral panic:. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereo-typical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or more often resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible.
The anxiety in the UK surrounding mugging in the early seventies is an instance of a moral panic. The term mugging was first used in the British press to describe street crime as part of the growing social tensions in the US.
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Mugging mobilized a series of linked frames: the race conflict, the urban crisis, rising crime rates, the breakdown of law and order, the liberal conspiracy, the white backlash. When the term was transplanted to the UK context, it allowed violent robbery to be seen through the prism of the urban and political crisis in the United States.
Policing the crisis is careful to highlight the multifaceted and interdependent nature of the institutional response to crime. The confrontation between police and black youth in British urban neighborhoods predated the mugging panic, and formed its precondition. The police, the courts and the media do not simply respond to crime and moral panics, they are an integral part of the construction process.
Policing the Crisis: the Other Side of the Story
These institutions get to decide which issues get highlighted, how crime statistics are interpreted, where police resources are allocated, and how they are given meaning in relation to the wider societal context. The remainder of the book is devoted to the exploration of the connection between the moral panic and the crisis in British politics, which led to the emergence of the British New Right. The majority of the arguments developed in Policing the Crisis could easily be transposed to the current Dutch context.
Since the emergence of a right wing backlash in Oudenampsen , crime and safety issues have become one of the principle fault lines of Dutch politics. What seems to be very similar to the British moral panic around mugging is that crime and safety became central political issues in the Netherlands at a time when crime was actually decreasing palpably, according to official statistics. The reference point for mugging was the urban crisis in the US.
In the case of Moroccan youth, a different and more complex series of frames have been mobilized. There is the frame of culturalism popularized by Paul Scheffer.
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In this frame, the problems of Moroccan youth are seen as originating from their cultural background, and their difficulty and hostility in dealing with Western modernity. In this framework, problems with Moroccan youth should primarily be solved by the Moroccan community itself. The degree of consistency and organization of that community is highly overestimated. And finally there is a broader frame of the failure of multiculturalism and progressive values leading to the need for a reassertion of core Dutch values, which are interpreted in more conservative ways than before.
Crime is an experience that touches upon the material reality of everyday life, and it plays a fundamental role in forming immaterial representations of how life ought to be lived.