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24 August 2017
Sarah Champion, MP for Rotherham, resigned as shadow minister for women and equalities on 16 August. This followed the backlash against her article for the Sun on child sexual exploitation and grooming gangs.
Champion wrote that "Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls. There. I said it." The article came after a similar grooming scandal that has been exposed in Newcastle, where 17 of the 18 convicted men were of Asian heritage.
She makes these remarks as if they are a radical standpoint. In fact, this over-simplistic and bigoted narrative - which does nothing to help survivors or prevent new victims - has been produced by the establishment and its media ever since the Rotherham scandal was first exposed.
The vicious, right-wing Sun tabloid is not the only outlet responsible. Across the mainstream media there has been coverage giving credence to the idea that child sexual exploitation cases come about in part due to a kind of 'reverse racism' - Asian men targeting white girls.
Sajid Javid, the Tory communities and local government secretary and a British Pakistani, and former Ukip leader Nigel Farage, leapt to Champion's defence. They are among the establishment figures who have heralded Champion as standing up for the victims of child sexual exploitation.
And at face value, the pictures the media shows us of convictions for these crimes might seem to match her statement. But to suggest that Asian men are the main perpetrators of child abuse, or that Pakistani heritage is behind child sexual exploitation, is completely wrong.
In fact, what little evidence there is suggests that the largest known ethnic group among perpetrators of child sexual exploitation in Britain is white, and that a majority of imprisoned male sex offenders in Britain are white. But establishment politicians and the press don't make the same sweeping generalisations about white men, labelling the entire demographic as responsible for the abuse of children.
There have been many cases of all-white and mixed-raced sex gangs that do not get the same level of media attention.
There have even been government meetings convened on 'male Asian abusers' on the very day white adults were being tried for child abuse. On 13 May 2013, the Department for Education held a meeting on this topic when Stuart Hazell was on trial for the sexually motivated murder of his partner's granddaughter.
What data exists on the ethnicity of child abusers is extremely patchy. Even so, as mentioned above, it does not overall give Asian people - let alone specifically British Pakistani men - as the major group of offenders.
A 2008 study by Sheffield Hallam University found that in 2007, 82% of male prisoners across all sex crimes were white - and 6% were Asian, compared to around 8% in the general population.
Sometimes cited is a 2011 report by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre (CEOP). This studied the demographics of 2,379 individuals reported to police as "possible offenders," not necessarily proven ones, with regard to grooming and child sexual exploitation. There was a low level of action and varied reporting by authorities. Almost half of the cases reported were immediately excluded because there was no information available. Of the remainder, ethnicity was unknown in 38% of cases. The largest known ethnic group was white at 30%, then Asian at 28%.
The most recent data seems to be the CEOP report from 2013. This found that 75% of a small number of reported "known or suspected" perpetrators - again, not all proven - from 2012 who targeted victims by "vulnerability" were Asian. It also found that 100% of an even smaller set reported to have targeted victims "as a result of a specific sexual interest in children" were white. But even the limited data available was based on groups a fraction of the size of the 2011 report, and again had inconsistent levels of police action and reporting.
Taken from their context of heavy caveats, some of the CEOP numbers could be used to suggest that Asian people might be overrepresented among grooming offenders and suspects relative to their size in the British population. But both reports explicitly refute this. As the much larger 2011 study puts it: "Caution should be taken in drawing conclusions about ethnicity due to the relatively small number of areas where agencies have been proactive around this particular type of crime. We do not draw national conclusions about ethnicity from the data available at this time because it is too inconsistent."
In any case, numbers alone do not make the case that racial heritage is a causal factor in these appalling crimes. Rather, it has been suggested that adults in occupations linked to the night-time economy - such as taxi drivers and takeaway workers, who in many towns and cities are more likely to be Asian men - have more opportunities for this kind of crime. My own experience working with Leeds City Council is that this is our biggest target area for education and training around child sexual exploitation, domestic violence and sexual violence.
Abuse of children - and women - is ubiquitous globally. It transcends race, culture, religion and class. It is a travesty, and divisive, to paint child sexual exploitation as some kind of import from migrant communities.
Also, it encourages racial profiling of potential perpetrators, causing exactly the kind of blind spots that Champion's article falsely claimed to be addressing. And not just potential perpetrators. To say that Asian child abusers are exploiting white girls also creates blind spots regarding victims who have other racial heritage or gender.
There are many cases of Asian girls being among the victims of grooming gangs, such as in the Rochdale grooming scandal. Asian children and women can suffer abuse - by abusers of any racial background - just like white children and women.
The Jay Report on Rotherham in 2014 found that, yes, fear of being called racist played some part in delaying the crimes coming to light.
But Professor Jay actually found that the bigoted, victim-blaming culture at the top of the council and social services was the major factor. An unsupportive, sexist attitude among senior officials meant social workers were discouraged from tackling child sexual exploitation.
Champion asks: "We've got now hundreds of men, Pakistani men, who have been convicted of this crime - why are we not commissioning research to see what's going on?" Has she ignored the findings of the report into abuse in her own constituency?
Research on organisations supporting women and children who have suffered abuse, and accounts from workers, show overwhelmingly they are not getting the resources to support victims and do preventative work around sexual violence.
Champion's article did not take up the record of successive Tory and Blairite governments chipping away at the youth, women's and social services which give women and children safe places to go and support for their personal and home issues, rather than leaving them vulnerable to grooming. The cuts mean even high-risk cases are falling through the net.
The real answer to tackling abuse is not racial profiling. It starts with fully funding essential services, guaranteeing environments with the information and resources to support survivors - and to intervene to prevent abuse in the first place. A large-scale programme of council house building, the creation of jobs with decent pay, living benefits, and grants for college and university students are also essential to offer financial independence and security to all young people and women.
This must be linked to challenging the systemic sexism, racism and authoritarian attitude which blocks action in cases like Rotherham. The roots of this poisonous culture go right back to the very earliest class-based societies. Capitalism cannot fully overcome it, because the capitalist class benefits from division and super-exploitation in the working class. To fully tackle the abuse of women and children we must link the fight for resources and the fight against repression to the fight for a socialist society.
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Article dated 24 August 2017
The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party
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