Racism and sexual abuse

Operation Sanctuary has uncovered, prosecuted and convicted members of another large child sex grooming ring, this time in Newcastle.

As is always the case when the majority of the perpetrators are not white, this has provoked a 'debate' about race, that vacillates between the hand-wringing and the downright sinister. Sarah Champion MP has managed both, attacking the Tories from the right on race, and berating the "floppy left" for finding anything problematic in this. In particular, Champion avers that these offenders are "predominantly Pakistani" and castigates the government for not investigating this. Such debates are not provoked when the perpetrators are white, and this tells us something about the role of "race and culture" as talking points.

Now, contrary to what Champion claims, she is not breaking new ground here. Back in 2012 when a string of major child sex abuse stories, inculpating politicians, celebrities, senior police and others, exploded onto the national news, there was also a national panic about Muslim men as a result of child sex rings in the north. Keith Vaz MP explained on BBC Radio that one in five of the perpetrators of child sex grooming are British Asians. He was drawing on data from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre.

Even he wasn't breaking new ground, merely reiterating what Jack Straw MP had said years before. This is an old and dishonourable tactic by a certain kind of politician. In particular, it is Labour politicians who think that they have to demonstrate their un-PC credentials by pandering to racism.

That this is in fact what Champion is doing, and knowingly, is disappointing given her record. She won her seat by defeating a toxic Ukip campaign orchestrated precisely on the axis of a panic about child abuse, implicating British Asians as a menace to white sexual innocence. Ukip claimed that Labour was more worried about political correctness and not being racist than in protecting white British kids.

Champion did not, at the time, concede ground to the racist fearmongering. She, as a professional with direct experience in dealing with child abuse, knows the literature and expertise well enough to refute race-baiting. And she increased Labour's majority. Now she is repeating the Ukip lines.

There are a few things to clarify before a sensible discussion can even be had. First of all, "race and culture" should not be spoken in the same breath, as if they are the same type of thing. Cultures exist, but they are raggedy in outline, porous, and changeable. Their outlines are more like weather fronts than borders. Races don't exist, except as a political and ideological construct. The idea that any one specific culture could be imputed to British Asian men is incoherent.

Second, as an elementary point of logic, correlation is not causation. Commenting on the CEOP figures, an investigator told The Guardian that the higher representation of British Asian men in the data is likely to reflect not 'race' or 'culture' in these cases, but occupation. In other words, these grooming rings were made possible by a night-time economy populated by young girls moving between taxis and fast food outlets. Which, given a racial segregation of the labour force, meant that there was a unique opportunity for a small number of men, mostly British Asian in the case of Operation Sanctuary, to generate a grooming circuit, based on attention, flattery, parties, booze and drugs. Relatedly, where biases toward the over-representation of a particular minority group have been found among child sex abusers, typically it is because race is indexed to other factors that make children vulnerable, such as class.

Third, proof of the stereotypical nature of this debate is Champion's claim that gang-related child sexual abuse is "predominantly Pakistani". This is often asserted, but there's no evidence for it, and the CEOP figures simply don't bear that out. "Just 35 of the 415 Asians are recorded as having Pakistani heritage and thus highly likely to be Muslim, and only five are recorded as being from a Bangladeshi background. The heritage of 366 of the Asian group is not stated in those figures." As a result, the CEOP is quite explicit about its inability to draw any nationwide conclusions based on the fragmentary and partial nature of its data. It depends entirely on data deriving from cases reported to a police unit investigating these crimes.

Fourth, the construction of child abuse along racial or national lines depends entirely on how you focus your search. The majority of sex offenders in the UK, according to statistics collected by Sheffield Hallam University, are white. In the figures collected in 2007, 5.6 per cent of the sex offender population was 'South Asian' by origin, and 81.9% white. Taking into account the fact that this was the prison population, and that there are racial biases in the criminal justice system from arrest to prosecution, it would be surprising if these figures didn't exaggerate the representation of British Asians among the sex offenders population.

Fifth, one reason for the extraordinarily high rate of estimated non-disclosure is that the majority of sexual assaults are inflicted on children. And abuse selects for vulnerability. This means that there is, even in the best official data, a huge zone of blindness. But with the data we have, it is possible to say that the majority of child sex abuse is not like the grooming cases. It usually involves one-to-one assaults, in a residence, either first thing in the morning, during after-school hours, or at midnight. So, attempting to draw wider conclusions about the nature of child sexual abuse from the high profile grooming cases is at best a mistake.

The problem with Sarah Champion's intervention is not that she wants to talk about culture. If we started to talk about the cultural biases and cognitive distortions that enable abusers, that would require a careful and nuanced discussion, which would take into account the specific ways in which different groups of offenders -- be they the abusers at Kincora Boys Home, the groomers of Rotherham and Newcastle, or the fathers who assault their children ongoingly -- are informed by their cultural self-understandings, their religion, their socioeconomic position, and so on. It would not try to simplify all this by forcing it through the morally charged and oppressive grid of race.

To reinforce race as the appropriate framework for analysis and police action is to, as Sarah Champion admits, raise the pitch of nationwide Islamophobia. It is also to add one more giant weapon to the arsenals of silence. Children don't speak out for many reasons. In part because they fear they will not be believed, in part because they fear punishment or revenge. But one of the best known reasons is their fear of the process of accountability and prosecution itself. Their fear, in a word, that the process will run out of their control, that it will have consequences well beyond their intentions. If you turn child sex abuse into a national morality tale about race relations in 21st century Britain, you haven't made it easier for people to speak -- especially children who are particularly vulnerable because of the way they are racialised.

Because contrary to Champion's claims, this sort of intervention is not about protecting children. Racism is not child protection.

Addendum: Since I wrote this, Sarah Champion has taken to the pages of The Sun to further incite racial hatred. The headline: "British Pakistanis ARE raping white girls ... and we must face up to it". Followed by the first sentence: "Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls."

It is not trivial to point out that the majority of those arrested, prosecuted and convicted in this latest grooming circle in Newcastle are not Pakistani. To respond to this case by, as Champion has from the start, inciting against Pakistani men, is to conflate all the men with brown skin who were arrested, be they Iraqi, Bangladeshi, or Indian into a sort of racial amalgam, a Muslamic horde.

It also goes without saying that Champion styles herself as someone very brave and original, as though what she is saying has not been said over and over again by opportunistic Labour MPs, Tories, Ukippers, Sun columnists, and so on. "There. I said it. Does that make me a racist?" She asks. Yes.

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