The myth of ethnic crime


Sarah Stephen

Drunken brawls marred this year's Australia Day fireworks show on Perth's waterfront, with groups of intoxicated young men chasing each other down the city streets bent on violence. Fifty people were taken to hospital.

The ethnicity of those involved in the Australia Day riots didn't even rate a consideration. Journalists didn't ask them whether they were from Irish, Serbian or Italian backgrounds — because it wasn't relevant.

Just consider for a minute what the media response would have been if a similar incident had occurred in the south-western Sydney suburbs of Bankstown or Lakemba with their large concentrations of Muslim and Arab-Australian immigrants. Politicians would have immediately condemned the behaviour as "unAustralian", a sensationalist media campaign would have cast suspicion over the "patriotism" of the entire community, and talk-back radio would have run hot with fury at the way "they" behave in "our" country.

Ethnicity is only linked to anti-social behaviour, it seems, if you're not white.

There are suburbs in Sydney's west that have become synonymous with "ethnic" crime, thanks to a systematic campaign of hysteria by the corporate media in the past six years. Cabramatta is synonymous with "Vietnamese triads" and Bankstown is synonymous with "Lebanese gangs".

Based on a handful of crimes committed in the Bankstown area in the past six years, including the stabbing death of 14-year-old Edward Lee, the drive-by shoot-up of the Lakemba police station, and the gang-raping of a number of young women by a group of young Lebanese Australians, the corporate media has run a sensationalist campaign about a "crime wave" in south-western Sydney involving "Lebanese gangs".

'Middle Eastern crime gangs'

The January 25 Sydney Morning Herald revealed that three "secret" police reports, submitted to the NSW Police Department between 1998 and 2000, have only just surfaced. They warned of "specific and serious problems of organised crime, drugs and criminal gangs of young men of Middle Eastern background".

The SMH also referred to comments by the author of the 2001 annual report of crime agencies, Clive Small, in which he "warned former police commissioner Peter Ryan of an urgent need to train more detectives to specialise in Lebanon-Australian crime". According to the SMH, Small predicted by 2001 such gangs' drug trafficking would cause 'increasing economic and social harms".

A senior officer, who spoke to the January 19 SMH on condition of anonymity, said: "The Lebanese criminals have been a growing concern for more than 10 years and now every unit in state crime command is dealing with some form of major crime being committed by someone from the Lebanese community. It just makes sense to create a squad of specialists who are able to understand their way of crime and the way they do things."

This is exactly what the police department did. Task Force Gain — described by police as a "Middle Eastern" crime squad — was set up last October to investigate a series of shootings in south-western Sydney which claimed four lives. After a lengthy covert operation, efforts to find an extensive criminal network resulted in the arrest of just six men.

If, as planned, Task Force Gain is made permanent in March, the unit will join the South-East Asian crime squad as one of a growing number of racially based police crime squads in NSW.

The existence of racially based crime squads presupposes that crime is more prevalent among the targeted migrant communities, or that crimes committed among these communities are unique and specific to them alone.

The evidence does not support the view that immigrant groups are over-represented in criminal activity. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the migrant-dominated suburbs are experiencing higher rates of crime, let alone a "crime wave".

Figures from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research study into trends in recorded crime statistics between 1998 and 2002 indicate that in the local government area of Bankstown the incidence of robbery, assault, break and enter, car theft and stealing all remained stable or declined.

The six men recently arrested by Task Force Gain were allegedly involved in drug peddling, gun-dealing and car theft. According to the January 19 SMH, Task Force Gain's brief is to investigate "the security industry, gun thefts and illicit gun supply, extortion, car rebirthing and drug crimes". Clearly these are not crimes exclusive to Australians from Middle Eastern backgrounds, nor are they more prevalent within these communities.

Racialising crime

Are there unusual characteristics to the crimes committed by ethnic minorities? On November 7, ABC Stateline anchor Quentin Dempster attempted to answer this question when he explained: "Police have told Stateline the ethnic or cultural factor in suburban Sydney gang crime is comparable to Mafia-like hierarchies. With Anglo crime, family links are said to be not so strong although Anglo tit for tat killings have occurred.

"In Cabramatta in the late 1990s, Vietnamese and Chinese-Australian gangs operating the heroin trade would often display their strong familial links. When one family member got hurt or killed in a dispute over drugs or other criminal deals, retribution violence would rapidly escalate."

Police and media have gone to some lengths to argue that there are unique features to the way crimes are committed by people from particular ethnic backgrounds:

  • At the time of the shootings in the Bankstown area last October, it was argued that revenge killings were "unAustralian", that they were a concept introduced from "outside".

  • After a spate of sexual assaults on women in south-western Sydney in 2000, many of them carried out by young Lebanese-Australian males, Labor Premier Bob Carr condemned the assertion that the criminal behaviour and misogynist attitudes of these young men were shaped by their experience of growing up in Australia, and not by their ethnic background. Yet figures from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research show that gang rapes are more common in country NSW than anywhere in Sydney.

  • After a spate of five killings over three years outside Salt, a popular Melbourne nightclub, in which the perpetrators and victims were almost all young Vietnamese Australians, the Victorian Equal Opportunity Commission (VEOC) declared that the nightclub's Asian-only nights were discriminatory and illegal and should be banned. The Victorian police backed the call, pointing out that each of the murders was linked to the club's Asian nights.

Despite the fact that the killings all happened outside the club, the implication was that gatherings of Asian Australians resulted in knife attacks.

To condemn the racialisation of crime is not to deny that there are Lebanese Australians or Vietnamese Australians who commit crimes. The existence of criminal activity among these communities is not the issue. All of Sydney's 180 or so ethnic communities, including Anglo-Celtic ones, have people who commit crimes. The point to be made is that there is nothing about people's ethnicity which predisposes them to committing crime.

Media hysteria

The media hysteria about ethnic youth gangs is part of an over- eagerness to ascribe the term "gang" to almost any grouping of young people in public spaces, who are assumed to be up to no good.

A 1998 study into juvenile crime by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research found that "ethnicity was, in general, not related to participation in crime amongst NSW secondary students. In fact where we found any relationship between ethnicity and participation in crime it indicated that students from an ethnic background had lower rates of participation in crime."

Rather than indicating higher levels of criminal involvement, the over-representation of youth from certain ethnic groups reflect biases in the enforcement of law across different ethnic groups.

The study continued: "Even if certain ethnic or cultural groups were found to have higher rates of involvement in crime it would not follow that ethnicity or cultural background has a causal influence on crime. The higher rates may be more attributable to other risk factors such as social disadvantage, poor parental supervision, poor school achievement and drug use, which may be correlated with ethnicity or cultural background."

These factors point to some of the reasons for a higher incidence of reported crime among sections of migrant youth. The 1995 NSW Legislative Council standing committee on social issues reported that while Lebanese-Australian youth comprise 0.9% of the juvenile population (defined as 12- to 25-year-olds), they accounted for 5.6% of those detained for violent offences and 2.8% of those detained for robberies.

Indo-Chinese youth, mainly born in Vietnam but also including Cambodian and Laotian youth, represent 3.3% of all youth in detention for violent offences, even though young people from these ethnic groups comprised only 1.5% of the total youth population in NSW.

Governments and radio shock-jocks have one goal in common: Their efforts to racialise crime, to give the impression that there are more criminal elements within particular ethnic communities, or that people from particular ethnic backgrounds commit particular types of crime, are designed to escalate racist fear and hostility. They aim to reinforce the racist inversion of victim and aggressor and the impression that "they" aren't like "us".

Ethnic labelling, which today targets Arabic and Middle Eastern communities is much more deep-going than the efforts of previous decades to criminalise southern European migrants. Its impact is multiplied and deliberately linked to the key international political development — the Australian-backed US war of plunder in Iraq. Thus, NSW Liberal leader John Brogden's response to a murder involving an Arab Australian last October — he likened it to "a scene from Baghdad" rather than Los Angeles or New York, where modern "gang war" culture originates.

The occupation of Iraq, like past colonial wars, is necessarily accompanied by the reinforcement of racist stereotypes. This is why anti-Arab racism is a global phenomenon in the imperialist countries today.

Portraying Arab peoples as millions of Saddam Husseins and Osama bin Ladens who pose a threat to the "civilised" world legitimises racist social controls (including immigration restrictions) at home and "pre-emptive war" abroad.

From Green Left Weekly, February 4, 2004.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.