Knife Crime and Race: Correlation Without Cause?

In 2018, 285 people died from a fatal stab wound in the UK, the highest figure since 1946. The rise of knife crime and its causes have been debated for many years now; cuts to the policing services, 19% of which happened under austerity, are currently being blamed. In his Spring Statement, Chancellor Phillip Hammond promised an emergency £100m to police forces in the seven worst affected areas to deal with the “epidemic.”

A decline in the use of controversial stop-and-search powers since 2009 has also been cited as a reason for the increase of knife-related violence. Use of the method was discouraged amid criticisms of its efficacy along with claims it was unfairly targeting the young BAME community. 

Despite this, Scotland Yard has recently advised officers to reintroduce the use of stop-and-search in an attempt to appear in control of the violence. After the killings of teenagers in Islington and Birmingham, police issued an emergency Section 60 waiving the requirement for “reasonable grounds” before a search. This tactic has received criticism for relying on racist stereotypes when carrying out police work; black men are stopped nine times more often than white men.

Last year, researchers from the Centre of Crime and Justice Studies concluded that there was “little evidence of the effectiveness of stop-and-search in reducing crime.” Conversely, they argue that punitive measures, such as tougher sentences, “have the unintended consequence of pushing people into gangs as a form of reaction and defiance.” The decision to reintroduce stop-and-search looks like a knee jerk response to public opinion.

Public opinion is largely fuelled by the media, and in turn influences government policy. The rhetoric surrounding knife crime has become racialised; think of how many times “black on black crime” is mentioned in contrast to “white on white crime.” The media continually places black faces alongside the phrase “knife crime.” In 2017, the only stories in which the term was used in the national press were in relation to the murders of two black men, neither of whom were suspected of being a gang member. Earlier this year, the parents of murdered teen Jaden Moodie condemned the media for referencing London gangs, despite their son having no association with any. 

Another example of the media and politicians conflating blackness with crime is with drill music. In 2006, then leader of the opposition David Cameron cited music taste as responsible for youth violence: “I would say to Radio 1, do you realise that some of the stuff you play on Saturday nights encourages people to carry guns and knives?” More recently, the Met Commissioner, Cressida Dick, stated that drill music was having a “terrible effect” on the capital’s levels of violence, and suggested it would be best “to get these people locked up.”

In an interview on Channel 4, rapper and author Akala highlighted the hypocrisy of racist rhetoric used when reporting knife crime. “It’s revealing that what happens in London is ‘black-on-black crime’ […] When it happens in Glasgow, race is not important,” he said. The musical taste of Glaswegian teenagers is never brought into question. 

It is true that a proportionally higher number of BAME teenagers carry knives; 41 per million black people, according to the Home Office, in comparison with 7 per million white people. However, unlike what we are told by the media and politicians, ethnicity is not the influencing factor. A recent study, Young People and Street Crime, which covered 32 London boroughs, found that it is class, not race or culture, that is the crucial issue surrounding crime levels.

Higher levels of poverty mean higher levels of crime. Census data from 2017 revealed that around half of all black children live in the most deprived twenty per cent of English neighbourhoods, compared to only one in five white children. When you compare this with recent evidence from a major London trauma unit, that seventy-one per cent of patients under-25 suffering from stab wounds came from the most deprived twenty per cent of the capital’s neighbourhoods, it is clear that poverty is the main influence.

As Akala states, “racial explanations are a way out for the powers that be.” Under austerity, cuts to youth, mental health and education services have hugely impacted already deprived communities. According to a recent Unison report, between 2010 and 2016, £387 million was slashed from youth services, while the thinktank CentreForum revealed that, on average, mental health services turned away twenty-three per cent of the children referred to them for treatment.

Politicians and the media use dangerous racist rhetoric to justify ineffective punitive measures, which in turn stigmatise the very people who need help from the state. They become scapegoats for inhuman government policies which foster the perfect environment for violence. By alienating its youth, the government is failing them.

Image Credit: Getty Images.

Image of the “Knife Angel”, a large statue made up of over 100,000 weapons that were used to maim or kill people.