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Reflections on a crisis of social relations


By Dr Amy Clarke, Research Fellow, Centre for Hate Studies 

As nations across the world continue to contend with a major health crisis, this year’s 9th National Hate Crime Awareness Week (9-16 October) gives us an opportunity to acknowledge and respond to a crisis of social relations. On a global scale we are witnessing spiralling levels of hate crime, the mainstreaming of far-right ideology and a heightened sense of hostility directed towards minoritised groups. Closer to home ‘trigger’ events such as Brexit, terrorist activity, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter protests and counter-protests have led to significant spikes in hate crime reporting across all parts of the UK. Yet despite the record numbers of hate crimes reported to the police on a yearly basis, research regularly demonstrates that hate crime remains one of the most under-reported crimes, with fewer than one in five reporting to the police.  Most commonly, victims state that they do not feel the police will take them seriously, or that previous bad experiences of reporting deter them from ever reporting again. In my own research with new migrants and asylum seekers, many did not report their victimisation for fear of it affecting their legal right to remain in the country. Others normalised the behaviour to such an extent that they felt it was not ‘important’ enough to report.  

Alongside the rising levels of hate crime and targeted hostility in physical there has been a dramatic rise in online hate. One study conducted by AI-based Company, ‘L1ght’, found that hate speech on social media platforms rose by 900 per cent between December 2019 and April 2020 alone. They also report a 70 per cent increase in incidents of racist and anti-Semitic hate speech between young people during online chats. Despite the obvious need to tackle online hate, no official cohesive strategy to manage this form of targeted victimisation has ever emerged. Furthermore, the Home Office admit that police officers routinely under-record online hate incidents so the data available is hugely unrepresentative of the reality.   

The police most often act as the first point of call for victims, but there are fewer police officers in active duty today in the UK than in 2010, despite Boris Johnson’s pledge to hire 20,000 new officers. Furthermore, a Skills for Justice Report published in October 2020 found that, ‘the pandemic has had a detrimental impact on the mental health of public sector workers with nearly 70 per cent reporting a decline in mental health due to working and living during the crisis. This has led to staff requiring leave, or even resigning’ (p. 10). With a depleted workforce, the additional pressures of enforcing new and ever-changing COVID-19-related laws, and attempting to maintain their own safety and wellbeing, it is unlikely that the police have the resources or the necessary incentive to meaningfully improve their response to hate crime at this time or in the near future. When considered alongside the falling rates of hate crime prosecutions, the back log of cases going through the courts as a result of COVID-19, and the disturbingly high numbers of victims and witnesses withdrawing their cases before reaching trial, an alarming picture emerges.      

Ultimately, victims are left to deal with the very real consequences of a chronically over-stretched criminal justice system and a political and social climate which enables hostility and scapegoating to thrive. This is not a moment for quick fixes or empty pledges but rather a crisis point which demands structural change and imaginative solutions.  In the summer of 2020 we witnessed an eruption of Black Lives Matter protests all over the globe aimed at highlighting institutional racism, inequality and the prejudicial treatment of Black people after the murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020. These protests were radical in the way that they re-evaluated what ‘justice’ really means to victims and can be used to inspire new ways of responding to the crisis of social relations.  

A recurring theme evidenced throughout our research at the Centre for Hate Studies is that victims of hate crime simply want their experiences of being targeted to stop and for the perpetrator not to reoffend. As such, they are in favour of whatever intervention is most likely to fulfil that objective, and this includes tailored programmes of education, restorative dialogue, and effective rehabilitation alongside a judicious use of extended sentences for the most serious of cases. While conventional criminal justice responses may be entirely appropriate in some cases,  the current climate presents a compelling argument for us to reframe these problems as a public health crisis and to consider more holistic solutions to tackling hate crime with input and ownership across different sectors and communities. Let us hope that this year’s Hate Crime Awareness Week can signal a desire to explore such solutions.

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