11 April 2011

Scotland's useless racist incident statistics...

I've railed on several occasions before against the racialising concepts used all too commonly in government-sponsored, quantitative social research. White is not an ethnic category, it is a racialising category. These old, guilty, pigment-obsessed familiars dominated the 2011 Census and furnished the analytic categories deployed in the recently-published Scottish Government statistics on Racist Incidents Recorded by the Police in Scotland, 2009-10.

Not only are these categories objectionable in theory. In terms of trying to understand the phenomenon of racism and racist abuse in Scotland, they prove totally useless. Squeezing useful information out of this document is about as straightforward as milking a bull, casting almost no light whatever on how and why bigotry and intolerance are practised in Scotland. We should also record the clear caveat that here we're only dealing with incidents recorded by the police, doubtlessly excluding a great deal of racist sentiment and conduct and presenting a limited picture of the phenomenon. Immediately implied here is the question, how parsimonious should we be about using the term "racism"? What should the definition be, the grounds of inclusion or exclusion? To pose this question should not be taken to imply that abuse or recrimination which falls outside the category is fine and dandy. However, it may be analytically useful and normatively important to distinguish different kinds of hatreds and loathings. For example, one might be an enthusiastic Scottish chauvinist with a hatred of the English, without any belief that the latter is a categorically different, organically-constituted "race". Alternatively, one might be an old-fashioned biological bigot, with a selection of books on phrenology and a delight in intellectual bell curves, confident that your black fellow citizens are essential inferior, and are allotted their subordinate social position by the unerring operation of physical and racial necessity.

In both cases, the villain might be an abusive thug, but the mental springs and cogs of his thuggery differ substantially in their motions. In many other cases, the ideological content of "racist" hatred may be significantly less clearly delineated, however obvious or odious its effects. For example, it is very easy to envisage ways in which different issues come to be blurred together. For a devotee of the Battle of the Boyne and a great hater of Irish Catholicism, religious perceptions and perceptions of nationality seem likely to intertwine. However, if we conceive of any subsequent violence as wholly motivated by Irishness, we clearly miss the real significance of the conflict. Similar difficulties attach to the compound religious-national identity of a "Muslim Scot", and so on. 

What one is all too often left with is an impenetrable, pitiful muddle of hostile perceptions associated with (a) pigmentation (b) "ethnicity" (c) nationality and often as not (d) religion, all of which are clumsily labelled "racism". Oho, but isn't this simply reflective of a knotty, tangled Reality? you might well ask, and ask fairly. I'm certainly not contending that unravelling these threads is an easy enterprise, not least because many or even most may not have neatly delimited, consistent ideas about why and how they hate particular groups of other people. However, in terms of understanding the phenomenon of groupist abuse, if I can use that rather infelicitous phrase - whether based on perceptions of creed, colour, religion, sexuality - these fine-grained distinctions can be exceedingly important.  I realise that it will be little comfort for an individual to know that the person who assaulted them did so on the basis of cultural-ethnic ressentiment, rather than due to biological-racist assumptions. However, if we're to understand the phenomenon of Scottish racisms, it is manifestly insufficient simply to tabulate the number of ugly scenes on our streets and the incoherent, contemptible bawlings of bigoted cretins. It matters how and why such scenes arise at all.

The Scottish Government figures attempt no sort of internal distinctions, employing this entirely shapeless definition: "a racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person."  Data is recorded by the self-declared ethnicity of the victim of racist incidents, rather than in terms of the content of the abuse suffered. As a result, the data does not allow anything useful to be said about discrepancies between the self-declared ethnicity of the victim, and the animating bigotry that lead to the abuse . For example, when my father was a boy, outdoors all day, he was of decidedly dark colouring. If a passing old bigot had  mistakenly persecuted him for being Pakistani, these figures wouldn't capture that. This example is not as idiosyncratic as it might seem.  In terms of pigmentation, I've heard stories of folk from Mediterranean countries being persecuted by pale-skinned Scots youths, inaccurately accusing them of a jumble of things, from being "Pakis" to members of the Taliban. What is the nature of this incident? Mistaken, certainly - however, the way this data is recorded at present makes its implications for our understanding of the real nature of racism is Scotland unreadable. A similar point has been made by many others before about related "hate crime" datasets, emphasising that it is important to include perceived homosexuality or disability, as well as counting those who self-identify as disabled or homosexual - and so on. To do so is to emphasise the character of the incident, rather than its victim. Take, for example, this table from the publication, on the ethnic origin of the victims of racist incidents recorded by the police:

Ethnic Group 2004-05 2005-06 2006-07 2007-08 2008-09 2009-10
White British 826 1,030 983 1,030 1,094 1,145
White Irish 63 91 139 121 124 87
Other White 130 122 414 477 509 531
Mixed 127 149 170 152 150 128
Indian 443 431 507 488 609 557
Pakistani 1,773 1,545 1,833 1,654 1,584 1,452
Bangladeshi 67 26 67 48 54 61
Other Asian 508 984 532 559 505 499
Caribbean 92 171 59 53 58 46
African 321 325 404 443 478 543
Other Black 118 68 111 181 160 70
Chinese 151 153 183 117 152 126
Other 295 379 339 290 290 326
Unknown 145 346 222 177 226 187
Total 5,059 5,820 5,963 5,790 5,993 5,758

The largest group of victims, by ethnicity, are "Pakistani", numbering 1,452 of the 5,758 or 25% of the total victims recorded in 2009/10. The group containing the second highest number of victims was "White British", 1,145 of 2009/10's 5,758 recorded victims or 19.9% of the total. This second category is made up of the undifferentiated combination of "Scottish White, English White, Welsh White, Northern Irish White and British White". "Irish White" are recorded in a distinct category, as are "Other White" victims, which "includes Gypsy/Traveller, Polish White and Other White". Instantly, this strikes me as a continuation of the outmoded race relations model, which unjustifiably homogenises the racial category of "white", while finely analysing "non-white" categories. Given the research's "definition" of racism, though to style it thus is thoroughly charitable, this approach is wholly unjustified. I dare say a good many of you will have been rather surprised to discover that according to these figures, the second most "racially" victimised category in Scotland are "White British" persons, albeit with the vast majority of victims whose ethnicities were known were other than "White" (3,808 of 5,758 recorded incidents, or 66%).

So what the devil is afoot? Because of the research's undifferentiated category of "White British", it is impossible to say who is victimising who, or why.  However, the bare figure suggests, at least to me, that we should be paying much more attention to the phenomenon of anti-English abuse in Scotland. There have certainly been a number of exceedingly ugly scenes reported where little Scotlanders indulged in grotesque anglophobia, sometimes to physical injury. It is intolerable.  In no respect am I suggesting that the bare statistics on the number of White British victims of racist incidents are simply attributable to Scottish anti-English bigotry. We have no data on that point, but I am both curious and concerned to discover what percentage of racially victimised "White British" persons were mistreated as a result of Anglophobia. However, if we are properly to identify the scope of this phenomenon, and come to some understanding about its intensity and prevalence, then the Government is going to have to do a damn sight better, in picking out and presenting its data.*

*This last paragraph has been amended slightly post publication, better to express what I was trying to get at.

2 comments :

  1. "However, the bare figure suggests, at least to me, that we should be paying much more attention to the phenomenon of anti-English abuse in Scotland."

    How you reach that conclusion is miraculous. Such phenomenal insight leaves me breathless. To take raw, undifferentiated numbers and deduce that the problem is Scottish anti-English bigotry is a god given talent. Do you do dowsing as well?

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  2. McGonagall,

    I think it is vitally important to see that sentence in context, in particular the preceding one where I said that "it is impossible to say who is victimising who, or why" and the subsequent observation that "if we are properly to identify the scope of this phenomenon [Scottish anti-English bigotry], and come to some understanding about its intensity and prevalence, then the Government is going to have to do a damn sight better, in picking out and presenting its data."

    In no respect did I intend to suggest that the bare statistics on the number of White British victims of racist incidents are simply attributable to Scottish anti-English bigotry. Indeed, I precisely tried to suggest that we don't know what the character of this category is, nor the extent to which Scots anti-English bigotry constitutes part of it. That's why I concluded that the numbers suggest we should pay more attention to that phenomenon, ending with a call for better data, to determine its real scope.

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