An undercurrent of hostility pervades the treatment of British ethnic minority communities by media and public discourses. They are often scrutinised and ‘Othered’, their sense of belonging constantly undermined. The Brexit debate prior to the referendum was dominated by immigration, stoking a climate of hatred, most notably exemplified by the UKIP ‘breaking point’ poster campaign which had disconcerting similarity with Nazi era posters. This vilification of minority communities gives fuel to right-wing and xenophobic sentiments that have swept across Britain and Europe since the ‘war on terror.’ The government has reported that 78% of hate crimes were racially motivated in 2016-2017, a 27% increase from the previous year.
It is within this context that we have witnessed prominent media reports of British-Asian men, mainly British-Pakistani men, grooming vulnerable white girls in gangs. This has taken placed in Rochdale, Rotherham, and Oxford, and most recently, in Newcastle, that have resulted in subsequent convictions including life sentences. There has been public debate regarding this phenomenon and attempts to produce research determining what role race plays, and whether there is an overrepresentation of British-Pakistani men who perpetrate these crimes. This article looks at how these cases are framed in the media and public discourses, in light of the #MeToo campaign, and argues for a nuanced perspective regarding the race angle.
In 2012, Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale, said that ethnicity ‘is a factor’ in on street grooming talking to BBC Radio 4. He expressed similar sentiments to BBC Radio 5 live that a small minority of Asian men have a ‘completely unacceptable’ view of young white girls. Judge Clinton’s verdict at the Rochdale case would support this analysis, who claimed white girls were targeted because they were not part of the perpetrators ‘community or religion.’ In the Mail on Sunday, Nazir Afzal acknowledged race as a factor, but pronounced ‘misogyny’ as fuelling the growth of grooming gangs, asking ‘Will my Asian community NOW end the vile misogyny behind the latest child sex gang scandal?’
Others have placed this phenomenon in a wider context. Keith Vaz MP, at the time chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, stated that the root causes of the abuse of young girls needed to be addressed but that investigations must not focus on the ethnic origin, religion or geographical location of those involved. In the recent case in Newcastle, Judge Penny Moreland said victims were not targeted ‘because of their race, but because they were young, impressionable, naive and vulnerable.’ Jeremy Corbyn echoed this view in an interview with the BBC in summer 2016, saying that the ‘the problem is the crime is committed against women from any community’ and that ‘much crime is committed by white people’. Of course, an entire community cannot be at fault, according to Corbyn’s view.
Constructing a phenomenon of ‘grooming’ gangs, the evidence does point towards perpetrators who come mainly from a particular ethnic group. In 2013, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection command (CEOP) found that that 75% of group abusers are from Asian backgrounds. Most recently, a report by Qulliam found there was an overrepresentation of South Asian men in group-based child sexual exploitation crime. Avoiding political correctness and recognising this phenomenon as a discrete ‘sub-culture’ within the British-Pakistani community could help to gain intelligence and insight into potential cases of grooming, so that more vulnerable women and girls can be protected. As such, more ethnographic research should be done on the root causes of this abuse. Nazir Afzal, former Chief Crown Prosecutor, argues that ‘ultraconservatism’ has swept across South Asia in which men can get away with anything and women have become second-class citizens.
Whilst media reports and research highlight a pattern of abuse, we must critically examine this ‘evidence’. The crimes here are being constructed around identities of race, rather than say misogyny, so they are being treated by a race angle. Any purported sub-culture in a community ought to be situated in a wider context in media and public discourses, recognising the prevalence of sexual violence towards women and girls that pervades everyday life in the workplace, on campuses, at sports clubs, and in this case, on the streets. Without reference to that wider context of sexual violence, the visibility of race in the media renders a whole minority community ‘othered’ and stigmatised. Last summer, Sarah Champion, MP for Rotherham, argued vociferously in the Sun that “British-Pakistani men ARE raping and exploiting white girls…and it’s time we faced up to it”, implicating every single British-Pakistani man, though she later distanced herself from such rhetoric. Earlier, Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadhan Foundation went as far to say that grooming was “a significant problem for the British Pakistani community.”
If grooming is framed in a wider context of entrenched sexual violence towards women and children, then the ‘problem’ is not unique to any one community. We live in a culture in which sexual violence seems to be the norm, as we have seen recently in report after report and in the #MeToo campaign which has taken social media by storm. Conversely to the group phenomenon in media discourse, sexual harassment, institutional sexual abuse and paedophilia by lone white abusers are not considered a problem in the ‘white community’, nor are ordinary white people made to feel accountable for it. These cases are not framed in reference to race because they are committed by members of a majority community. We are not seeing the same analysis about the nature of ‘white middle-class culture’ that led to the exploitation of young children by Jimmy Saville and the people who helped to cover him up at elite levels of society.
When crimes are committed by members of a minority community, a causal link is created between that crime and the race, and the whole community is implicated in it. Moreover, British Asians themselves choose to make themselves accountable for the crimes of these gangs with whom they have no actual connection. As Qulliam co-author Haras Rafiq states, “…We didn’t want there to be a pattern of people from our ethnic demographic carrying out these attacks. But unfortunately, we were proven wrong.” In stating ‘our ethnic demographic’, he implicitly makes himself accountable to the perpetrators.
To summarise, starting from 2012 in relation to Rochdale, it is fair to assume a trend or sub-culture of mainly Pakistani men grooming young white girls and at the same time recognise it as one manifestation of sexual violence which spans across ethnicity and class, right up to elite levels of society. There is no contradiction between the two. The consequence of not seeing this phenomenon in a wider context only serves to ‘other’ the British Pakistani or Asian community, helps people to feel ‘holier than thou’ and gives fuel to far-right groups. Responsibility for remedying the shocking culture of sexual violence and challenging the attitudes that objectify women lies with everyone, including the public institutions who failed to protect these vulnerable girls.
The intermeshing of crime around race in media and public discourses should have the objective of raising awareness and gaining intelligence about a style of crime so that knowing the pattern of abuse allows agencies to detect further abuse. What it achieves instead is that it ‘others’ Asian communities, and detracts from the crucial issue of misogyny and objectification of women. If media and public institutions are able to position such crimes in a wider context of the prevalence of sexual violence in Britain today, it allows institutions to refer to race in a meaningful way, in a way divorced from hostility or racism. The aim should not be to ‘other’ communities or pit them against one another but focus on the vulnerable women and children who are affected by this abuse and whose right it is to be safe from predatory sexual violence.