Sunday, September 28, 2008

Racializing crime

I wanted to write about stay-at-home moms and patriarchal systems, but A very Public Sociologist posted an interesting anecdote about racializing crime. I have heard the story of particular ethnic or racial groups being seen as the criminal elements in particular areas over and over again.

The one I know most about is that of Roma in Eastern Europe, which are often being portrayed by the media as organized crime outside and above the law. As a child, I was often told to stay away from Roma, because they are thieves. My grandparents in the countryside hated Roma because poultry disappeared when they were around - and the causality was quite clear to them. And I vividly recall the day when one guy - whom I instantly identified as Roma - inappropriately touched my girlfriend on the street. I hit him with an umbrella, yelling and shouting after him, calling him racialized names that I won't repeat today. I hated 'them' too. I was afraid of 'them'.

Since then, I've heard the stories over and over again. "You don't know what they do to us", the refrain went, "they abuse us, they steal from us, they swear at us, they attack us". Without having a clue about race and racism at that time, these were powerful mechanisms of making sense of the world around me. Of drawing the lines of trust and the boundaries of the community to which I allegedly belonged. It took me a long process of learning and gradual understanding to be able - and most importantly, to be willing - to remove the racial lens I used in interpreting the world around me. While it is true that race relations do shape events and interactions, those are not determined by race.
These being said, I can see what a powerful meaning-making mechanism racism is - and I can also see why, when you are a victim, no amount of critical thinking would deal away with your feelings of loss and trauma.

As I learned more and more about the history of Roma people in Eastern Europe, as I came to think about how we stereotype and how we draw the boundaries of 'our group', I came to understand things differently. But it took me years to realize that I was seeing people first and foremost through their race/ ethnicity, without ever questioning that. It was as if race/ ethnicity defined them. And I knew nothing of their circumstances, I completely disregarded them. I assumed everyone had the same opportunities as I did; and that there's only one right set of values - mine, of course. Not that circumstances or different values might justify criminality, but criminality always signals something else: an inescapable circle of poverty and oppression; a corrupt rule-of-law system; a weak civil society, etc.

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