Dog-Whistle Politics, African Gangs and Moral Panic - Hope 103.2

Dog-Whistle Politics, African Gangs and Moral Panic

Does Melbourne really have a problem with African crime gangs or is this just the stirring of moral panic and dog whistle politics? Criminologist Rob White told Open House we have seen this kind of ethnic targeting before.

By Stephen O'DohertyFriday 3 Aug 2018Open House InterviewsNewsReading Time: 5 minutes

Listen: Professor Rob White in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.

Does Melbourne really have a Sudanese gang problem or is that community just the latest to suffer the injustice of being the targets of a “moral panic”?

Ahead of the November 2018 Victorian State Election, senior Federal Coalition figures in recent days have joined their State counterparts in criticising the Andrews Labor Government over its record on law and order.

Is it real crime or fear of crime?

Since 2016 community concern has been running high over violent assaults and robberies committed by young offenders. Hundreds of arrests have been made and, according to the Victorian Police, many of the crimes are being committed by repeat offenders, many of whom are “known to police”. New laws have been passed to ensure that the Youth Parole Board notifies police when violent young offenders are about to be released.

A constant feature of debate about the issue relates to the ethnic background of some of the offenders. An area heavily impacted by the attacks coincides with suburbs which saw the settlement of migrants and refugees from Sudan. This has led many to allege that there is a problem with “Sudanese Crime gangs”. Sudanese community leaders says this has led to the harassment of African youth by Police, and other forms of discrimination in the community.

Dog-Whistle Politics

Asked his response to a Seven Network report on a “Sudanese Gang Crisis” Prime Minister Turnbull said “the fact is there is a gang issue here and you are not going to make it go away by pretending it doesn’t exist”.

He denied the comment was a reflection on Sudanese migrants. “I have spoken about the enormous achievements of Sudanese migrants to Australia, in every respect,” Mr Turnbull said.

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However the man he deposed as Liberal leader, Tony Abbott, showed no such restraint.

Tony Abbott unleashes, again

“It’s an African gang problem, and the Victorian socialist government should get real and own up to the fact that there is an African gang problem in Melbourne,” he said.

Mr Abbott even used the issue to advance his concerns over not just the current rate of immigration, but the ethic and national background of migrants.

“I guess the big question though is: why do we store up trouble for ourselves by letting in people who are going to be difficult, difficult to integrate?” he asked.

“And this is why I think all credit to Peter Dutton, who is doing his best to manage our immigration program in our national interest – not in the interests of all sorts of people who might simply want to come here.”

Mr Dutton, a politically conservative ally of Tony Abbott, was widely criticised for linking the death of a 19 year old woman from South Sudan to a “gang” issue. Police have said there was no indication of any such link. A 17 year old man has appeared in court charged with murder.

Mr Dutton had previously said that people were afraid to go out to dinner in the city famous for its restaurant culture.

So What Do the Numbers Say?

Mr Abbott seized on figures sourced to the Victorian Crime Statistics Agency, saying that while Sudanese-born people represent less than 0.1 per cent of the Victorian population, they were responsible for more than 1 per cent of Victorian crimes. He concluded that they were 57 times more likely to commit aggravated robbery than the general population.

So what to make of the comments, and those numbers?

What is it really about?

Firstly, the comments of Peter Dutton and Tony Abbott need to be read in the light of their desire to be tough on border security issues. They relate to Mr Dutton’s recent declaration that Australia would not give away its “sovereignty” by signing  draft UN agreements on Immigration and Migration (as Open house recently reported).

They also can be read as part of an ongoing effort by the Liberal party’s conservative forces to undermine Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership, often with the support of conservative media personalities. Mr Abbott has a regular commentary sport on 2GB’s Ray Hadley programme.

But what of the statistics behind the latest remarks? Are Sudanese people in Melbourne 57 times more likely to commit a violent crime than their neighbour?

Misunderstanding of statistics

According to Criminology Professor Rob White of the University of Tasmania, the suggestion is “racist nonsense”.

Professor White, a leading expert on youth gangs and the author of the text book Youth Gangs Violence and Social Respect, told Open House it is not valid to use the crime statistics in that way. For starters, he said, the number of offences committed includes multiple offences by the same people and can’t be extrapolated to the general population of Sudanese-born Victorians.

No moral panic over the other 99% of crime

Professor White also said it was ridiculous to focus on 1 percent of crime but ignore the other 99 percent. “Let’s find out who is comprised within  that 99 percent. Usually what we find in criminology research that it is the established white Australian population that is committing most of the crime anyway, but we don’t have a moral panic over that”.

The Sudanese were just the latest of a long line of migrant communities to be singled out in this way, following the patterns of migration in recent decades. Professor White said once a community was targeted for attention it just draws more attention and effectively adds to the perception problem.

Its very easy to call a group of young people hanging out on a street together a gang. If they happen to come from a similar community background, maybe they like the same food or  we might be perceived to be a gang by an outsider.

These are our neighbours

“When I’ve looked at so called youth gangs, in most cases it has been labelling. It’s very easy to call a group of young people hanging out on a street together a gang. If they happen to come from a similar community background, maybe they like the same food or we might be perceived to be a gang by an outsider,” he said.

“Remember these are our neighbours, co-workers, people that we travel, live with and have dinner with. I think it is shameful and quite disgraceful that we are stigmatising whole communities when we know that we are getting wonderful positive contributions in the multicultural mosaic that is Australia from all communities,” he said.

To listen to the podcast of this conversation click the red play button at the top of the page, or you can subscribe to Open House podcasts in iTunes and they will appear in your feed.