If you can’t be it, you can’t see it

When will there be BAME representation in the justice system?

BAME people.

Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic (used to refer to members of non-white communities in the UK).

It’s summer conference season and in the last month or so I have been to several seminars, talks and lectures. One thing that they’ve had in common: almost exclusively run by white chaps. All of whom had really interesting things to say, by the way; but very few looked like me or had a name like mine.

Last week saw the release Chartered Management Institute’s ‘Delivering Diversity’ report, which highlighted that BAME people are significantly ‘under-represented in business and especially in management roles’ in the UK. Why did I read the replies from overtly nasty people under the tweet…? I’m still not entirely sure, but actually, it spurred me to write these thoughts, which I have been ruminating on for a while.


If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.

A great, old feminist adage. Whether you want to be a Ghostbuster, a kick-ass superhero or a politician, the sisters are crushing it right now. The clip of the young girl’s joy-filled reaction to the fact the next Doctor will be a woman, was a beautiful and succinct display of what it means to feel represented.

Of course, even in the entertainment industry, there is a long way to go, as the BBC wage gap showed us. While all the fall out was going on (justifiably) about the difference in pay between women and men, and to a much lesser extent between BAME people and white people, referred to as  a “deeply troubling” lack of diversity at the top of the BBC; I found myself yearning for the same level of outrage about the lack of representation throughout our justice system. If we can be incensed about the lack of diversity in our entertainment industry, why can’t we hone the same sentiments for the system that decides whether somebody remains with their children or put in a cage?

When thinking specifically about criminology and justice sector roles, I am just not seeing the diversity that is represented in our communities and certainly not representative of the population involved in the criminal justice system. The overrepresentation of BAME people in the justice system has been well documented in the press and has led to the Lammy Review. Official data released this year from the House of Commons ‘UK Prison Population Statistics’, showed that while the national BAME population is around 12%, the BAME prison population is 25%.

What you probably didn’t hear about, while the Twittersphere and news providers were discussing just how many hundreds of thousands of pounds from the public purse should be given to which TV personality, was that a separate report was released on 20th July, detailing the Judicial Diversity Statistics 2017. And guess what? While the BAME prison population is up at 25%, as of 1st April 2017, only 7% of court judges identified as BAME. Further breakdown showed that Asian and Asian British accounted for 3%, and if you identify as Black or Black British only 1% of court judges represent you. In terms of Magistrates, the BAME representation is 11% with large regional variations.

If the judiciary and the justice system cannot represent the groups that they are judging, there is a massive barrier in understanding those communities and appreciating their situation. In this case, maybe we need to adopt the phrase:

If you can’t be it, you can’t see it.


Representation is not the end goal, it’s just the beginning

There should be people that took like you and administer justice like you – more importantly there should be people who know what your life is like. Not only do we need diversity in the bench and the people making those decisions but we need to have relationships with people coming from those communities.
— James Bell. Speaking on BBC World Service’s News Hour programme.

Recently I attended an inspirational seminar from James Bell at the House of Lords, run by the Centre for Justice Innovation, and he talked about how the whole psyche related to how we police our communities needs to change. I particularly appreciated Bell’s discussion of two clear approaches to policing that he has observed in the US:

Approach 1:    In the rich or privileged areas, which are overwhelmingly white, the police are seen as Guardians of the people. Protectors and heroes. They are who you call if you are in trouble, or even suspect it. The police are there to help you.

Approach 2:    In the underserved areas (I don’t like the term poor, as it’s too blamey towards the population and negates the responsibility of the state to provide and the overt exploitation from others), where you find the largest population of BAME people, the police are Enforcers. They are not guardians but instead used as a tool of social control. They confine the population to certain areas. They make sure that you are doing A, but not doing B. That you are carrying X, but not carrying Y. You don’t call them if you are in trouble – if you see them, you are in trouble!

Bell was talking about the US context, but I recognise echoes of this dichotomy in the UK. Even if the officer that is stopping and searching you happens to look like you or come from a similar background as you, if the approach is clearly enforcing rather than guarding, then the result is likely to be the same. Incidentally, a new report from Peter Keeling at the Criminal Justice Alliance has shown that ‘BAME people collectively are now three times more likely than white people to be searched, up from twice as likely the year before’ and that ‘Black people in particular are now six times as likely to be searched’

These are deep rooted strategies that aren’t necessarily overtly thought about by individual officers, but nonetheless function to carve out two very different forms and experiences of justice. It’s these unspoken strategies that need to be addressed.


So, what do we do?

As BAME criminologists and criminal justice professionals, we need to support each other to navigate the additional struggles that white privilege shields many from. Our white colleagues and allies can help by acknowledging the inequalities where they are evident and work with us to work towards meritocracy. Getting to a place where somebody named Mohamed doesn’t have to send triple the amount of job applications to every one send by somebody called Adam will not be easy and will not happen overnight. If we, as a society, are going to move closer to the same experience of justice for all our citizens, then people who understand those overrepresented communities in the system need to be a greater part of the conversation and influence the debate.

Improving representation in criminology and in criminal justice sector positions is not enough alone. But it is the first step towards greater understanding and being able to truly tackle the systematic discrimination inherent in our justice system.

Are you a BAME criminologist or criminal justice leader and interested in improving BAME representation in justice?

If so, Omar would like to hear from you.

what do you think is the cause of the over and under-representation? 

What do you think should be the next step?

Please leave your thoughts below: