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How colour-blind is the criminal justice system?

Should the media refer to a criminal’s ethnicity? Law students held an online afternoon symposium on discrimination in the criminal justice system – and, while they were at it, society at large.

Working for the police can make you more discriminatory, says Peter Rodrigues, Professor of Immigration Law at the Europa Institute in Leiden. He is one of the speakers in the first panel discussion, on racism and inequality in the criminal justice system. Rodrigues gives training to the police. ‘If you’re in Den Helder and are confronted with lots of Antillians getting up to no good, that may have an effect on your ideas.’ People in the service should retain the authority to form their own judgement, he says, but should at the same time be able to correct each other. The police should also offer guidance on how to avoid racism and ethnic profiling.

A criminal’s circumstances

In the Netherlands, first- and second-generation migrants represent 24% of the population but 52% of all crime suspects and 66% of people in detention even. Sigrid van Wingerden, Associate Professor of Criminology, carried out interesting research into these figures. ‘I discovered that the differences vanish if you correct for circumstances such as not having a job, having the wrong friends and the severity of the crime. The criminal justice system was pleased: see, we don’t discriminate. That’s what I thought at first too, but it doesn’t mean the problem has gone away. That these people evidently live under more criminalising circumstances isn’t something we can just brush aside.’

Media references to ethnicity

Would it help if the media didn’t refer to a criminal’s ethnicity, asks audience member Franchesca Van Wingerden: ‘That’s right: you shouldn’t mention people’s background with every robbery because that reinforces stereotypes. But when half of Gouda was being terrorised by young Moroccans, I thought it was good that it was mentioned. However, we should also mention what people without a migration background get up to.’ Rodrigues has a different opinion: ‘You should either always mention it or never mention it at all. Each selection is debatable.’ His preference appears to be to always mention it: ‘When Pim Fortuyn was murdered, the Muslim community were quaking in their boots. It was a huge relief when it became clear that the perpetrator was Dutch.’

Do look at people’s backgrounds

One member of the audience suggests that, to prevent prejudice, a suspect’s name and background should be concealed from the people who are working on a criminal investigation. That might have the opposite effect, says the panel. ‘You can also do people an injustice by not looking at their background,’ Janssen explains. Fischer: ‘If you can’t see race, you can’t deal with racism.’ You also have to take a person’s background into account in court, says Van Wingerden. ‘Say a suspect won’t look at the judge. In the Netherlands, it’s a sign of respect to look at someone, but in other cultures the opposite is true. It’s important to know that.’

Society as a whole

The second panel discussion is about racism and inequality throughout society. In his work for the Netherlands Committee of Jurists for Human Rights, panel member Abdullahi Abdulrahman Abdalla sees all sorts of injustices. ‘Things go wrong with protecting all sorts of human rights, especially those of certain groups of people. We see that it’s easier for some groups to claim their right to legal aid or education than for others. Participating and feeling safe and involved in society, the political system or a university is more difficult for a Dutch person who is gay or of Somali origin, for instance.’

Aircraft cleaner with two master’s degrees

After the two panel discussions, Amir Ali Abadi helps take stock. He is a project manager at the Europa Institute and a member of the University’s Sounding Board on Diversity Policy. ‘My father always said: “You’re a guest here. Be an example. Be the best, work harder than the rest and you’ll automatically reach the top.”’ Abadi did three degrees while working 40 hours per week, but realised that it didn’t make a difference. ‘I couldn’t believe it when the job centre sent me to the “office for highly educated migrants” with my two master’s degrees. Once I’d uploaded my CV, I was advised to apply for a job as an aircraft cleaner.’

Wine-free Christmas hamper

It’s a familiar story for Wibren van der Burg, Professor of Legal Philosophy and Methodology at Erasmus University Rotterdam. As a gay Frisian who grew up in the Veluwe region of the Netherlands, he has experienced his fair share of discrimination. ‘One joke is okay, but the same old joke becomes really trying.’ A Dutch Moroccan colleague once told Van der Burg that they could pour the whole Christmas hamper down the drain. It was two bottles of wine. Van der Burg: ‘Everyone’s allowed to buy wine, but you just can’t stick it in Christmas hampers for the entire workforce anymore. When I suggested that I got loads of hate mail. But it has to happen anyway because these small changes have a huge effect.’

Time as a factor

Leo Lucassen, Professor of Global Labour and Migration History, emphasises how time is a factor in integration processes and the disappearance of stigmas. ‘A stigma on a group has long-lasting effects. Take the stigmatisation of the Jews. Even the Holocaust failed to eradicate it. It has remained stable over the centuries.’ And about Black Lives Matter: ‘If figures of authority like Trump make jokes, other people feel justified in doing so too, and racism becomes more open and entrenched.’

Eyes closed to injustice

According to Lucassen, it’s all about empathy. ‘You have to be willing and able to put yourself in the shoes of people who sometimes experience very overt discrimination.’ 

This brings us back to something that symposium chair Maartje van der Woude said in her introduction. Behavioural biologists say that people are naturally empathetic: ‘But, out of guilt and shame, people with privileges may close their eyes to injustice and the suffering of others. However visible these images might be with modern media, we prefer to block them. And group stereotyping that is based on prejudices can lead to indifference and even hostility.’

These two mechanisms are an excellent explanation for the lack of empathy that too often characterises the debate on racism, Van der Woude concluded. More empathy, less polarisation: that was the aim of the symposium.

Text: Rianne Lindhout

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