The first month in office as a new MP is a delicate time, but also full of opportunity: a chance to set out your ideas and connect to your hopeful new constituents. That’s partly why last week it was so disappointing to hear what Tom Hunt, newly elected Conservative MP for Ipswich, had to say. On Friday, in a column in the Ipswich Star, Hunt set out his agenda for “crime and anti-social behaviour”. Discussing potential “remedies” for the phenomenon, Hunt takes aim at “politically correct mantras”, stating that we must “confront the possibility that a disproportionate number of crimes are committed by individuals from certain communities”.
It doesn’t take much investigation to conclude that Hunt’s comments are likely racist – without naming a particular group, the phrase “certain communities” operates as a dog whistle, calling on readers to fill in the blanks with stereotypes about both migrants and people of colour being linked to crime.
As Hunt ramps up, he goes on to discuss “bad behaviour which may be rife in other countries but is not traditionally in ours”, an indication that, to me, suggests he closely associates “bad behaviour” with migrants, or considers it a side effect of immigration. Blaming crime on specific communities, to me, is a familiar type of racism, couched in the insidious and coded language that increasingly characterises Tory rhetoric on race, migration and criminal justice.
Hunt, who was elected MP in December’s general election, listed “tackling crime” as a key part of his platform during his campaign – praising Boris Johnson’s broader plans to “crack down” on crime and induct 20,000 new police officers. But it has been shown time and time again that this uncritical focus on increased criminalisation fails to support communities most likely to face incarceration, and offers no hope to transform the conditions that might give rise to harm. It also leads to comments like those made by Hunt last week, placing blame in the hands of communities (without interrogating institutional police racism).
Black people, who make up 3 per cent of the overall population in England and Wales, make up 12 per cent of the prison population. But this says more about the criminal justice system than about our communities. Black people, and a number of other ethnic minority and migrant communities, face racism in a number of domains that sees them more likely to be policed, arrested and incarcerated.
We have seen a decade of Tory austerity in our communities: 69 per cent of youth services in England have been wiped out, with young people lacking positive activities, spaces and programmes of personal development that help many young people of colour thrive. Hunt’s constituency of Ipswich has been affected more than any other East Anglian city by the results of austerity on local councils – and we know that austerity hits people of colour uniquely, as well as the hardest. Meanwhile, there is no correlation between migration and crime – correlations instead spring up when migrants face issues like underemployment. Yet increasingly hostile rhetoric and policy around migration sees people of colour and migrants more likely to be scapegoated, criminalised, and to have their most basic rights threatened at the hands of the government.
In the realm of policing – disproportionate arrests of black people don’t occur for the reason that Hunt appears to think they do. Rather, in the UK, black people are 40 times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts – and Sajid Javid, the former home secretary, made it easier for police to use these powers in May last year.
In a Black Mirror-meets-Orwell form of racist artificial intelligence, algorithms are increasingly used in predictive policing to clumsily anticipate who is “most likely” to participate in criminalised activities before they even take place. This obviously operates along racist lines – one concerned officer told The Guardian: “human bias is [...] introduced into the data sets, and bias is then generated in the outcomes of the application of those data sets”. Another described how this leads to resources being “piled” into particular areas and communities: “it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy”. For these reasons and so many others, abolitionists like myself believe the justice system causes active harm to the most vulnerable communities.
Racist words have tangible repercussions – Hunt’s comments come just a few days after reports of an increase in hate crimes in Suffolk. We have seen it before, and with five more years of Tory government ahead of us, I believe we will increasingly see the government not only perpetuating racism in the form of policy, but also in rhetoric. This form of racism is insidious in that it offers sloppy (yet to many, plausible) hypotheses to explain away complex issues. Arguments that demonise migrants and people of colour rely on racist assumptions to make sense of the symptoms of a deeply racist system.
Last year, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Opal Tometi told me that policing is racialised, and that she wished more people understood the need to defund policing across the world. “Oftentimes people think that safety is law enforcement, that safety is criminalisation, but that’s not safety. Safety is having good schools. Safety is having social workers and therapists where needed ... Safety is having a roof over your head. Not more police breathing down our necks in our neighbourhoods.”
But Hunt’s position, which echoes that of our prime minister’s, and indeed of the Conservative Party more broadly, serves as the antithesis to Tometi’s care-centred anti-racist approach, and doesn’t look to understand the complex causes for any connection between race and crime.
I have no doubt base-level analyses like that of Hunt’s are informed by racism, and, in turn, perpetuate the racism we see across the justice system. If Hunt really wants to interrogate the disproportionate policing of people of colour, he should turn his attention from “certain communities”, and perhaps instead focus instead on “certain” governments.