Flat White

The enduring appeal of African gangs

19 July 2018

8:06 AM

19 July 2018

8:06 AM

There are some political issues that have a peculiar ability to remain topical over many news cycles, interest slowly waning then somehow being sparked again. The term ‘African gangs’ is probably instantly recognisable for this reason – if you live anywhere around Melbourne you will have heard about the menace of immigrant teenagers terrorising communities and burglaring homes in an unprecedented binge of lawlessness and violence. Or you may have heard the exact opposite, and been told that the press and conservative-leaning parties have sensationalised the issue in a pernicious attempt to stoke racial tensions and win cheap votes.

Malcolm Turnbull is the latest figure responsible for bringing the subject back into media focus, with his recent press conference showing all the signs of an experienced politician deftly poking around in an area that he knows to be extremely sensitive.

But why would Turnbull deliberately flirt with such a contentious issue? Given the impending by-elections, it’s hard to believe that this was either spontaneous or accidental. More likely the reason is that the idea of ‘African gangs’ offers almost endless political ammunition for nearly every major party, and Turnbull is gambling that it offers the Coalition the most.

Take the Greens, and to some extent Labor. Every time a headline or political figure refers to immigrant crime or even suggests that such a thing as African gangs really exist the bleating platitudes of the left rise in a familiar whine. Accusations of race-baiting and racism blend with trite defences of ‘multiculturalism’ and heartfelt calls for social unity. Adam Bandt has taken it upon himself to repeatedly call out Turnbull for ‘using race to try to win votes’. The Victorian Labor party has denounced election flyers that promise to ‘stop gangs hunting in packs’ issued by the Liberals as ‘nasty and bigoted’despite the flyers making no reference to race whatsoever. The Age has responded with a disgraceful slur that would leave MPs without the wealth of the Prime Minister browsing realestate.com.au pondering what to do with the defamation payout.

The message is simple enough – both the Greens and Labor wish to make it known that they operate from a position of perfect ideological purity, harbouring an evolved utopian worldview that has completely transcended race in a quest for love, peace and every other banal humanitarian buzzword. The flaw in this position is the brute fact that it’s only racist to suggest that individuals of African heritage are somehow more genetically predisposed towards being violent criminals – it’s perfectly valid to observe that crimes are being disproportionately committed by groups of people with African descent. Unfortunately, the subtlety is lost at both ends of the political spectrum.

Historically, the Coalition has been the party of law and justice, espousing disciplinarian criminal justice policies and harsher penalties for serious crime. The official website of the Liberal Party makes this clear enough, promising zero tolerance approaches to policing everything from terror to drug offences. In that context, the notion that there might be a gang violence problem becomes an irresistible point of political difference. The corollary of this is obvious – dedicate media resources to shifting the debate from the mere existence of African crime gangs to a discussion about how to address the threat they pose.

Being blind to the racial element of the problem is just as egregious as deliberately inflaming racial division for political gain. It’s almost inconceivable to suggest that the Coalition (at both a state and Federal level) haven’t deliberately used the qualifier ‘African’ in their talking points on gang violence and crime. This becomes more complex to criticise because while the qualifier is technically accurate (even the ABC freely recognises that Sudanese teenagers are far more likely to commit a violent crime than someone of Australian heritage) it’s difficult to make the case that this does not serve to degrade race relations and promote unnecessary fear. Moreover, it’s fundamentally unfair to the clear majority of those with African ancestry living peaceful and productive lives in Australia.

The ideal solution to the issue would be to have both major parties recognise that there is a small subset of African immigrants more susceptible to engaging in criminal behaviour and address the root causes of this susceptibility instead of proselytising about racism or crudely suggesting that crime is a strictly African problem. It is entirely possible to have a nuanced discussion about certain ethnic groups being overrepresented in crime statistics without suggesting that the ethnicity of the offenders itself is a causal factor.

Sadly, there are few political points to be won by admitting that the causes of immigrant crime are multifaceted and extremely difficult to address. Expect to see more virtue signalling and fearmongering until well after the next election.

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