Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It couldn't have been a white person...? More on ethnic descriptors of criminals

I wrote in a recent post about the issue of describing the ethnicities of criminal suspects, which the conservative media in Australia have been playing up recently. There are legitimate concerns - police can sometimes be too vague about describing a wanted suspect's race, which can often be the most obvious trait by which to identify him or her. But at the same time, there is the obvious problem that many people do not fit into clearly defined racial categories, and often police are relying on brief and unclear visuals and eyewitness accounts with which to make their judgement as to the perp's ethnicity.

Well, Australia's most popular conservative journalist/blogger has given me the perfect example with which to illustrate the point I was making. As well as an example of his agenda to highlight non-white crime and downplay crime committed by white people.

This is from Andrew Bolt's column on Monday in the Herald-Sun:

Victoria Police play another game of “let’s not mention the ethnicity”:

A MAN has been treated in hospital after a savage glassing attack on a nightclub dancefloor in Melbourne’s CBD early yesterday… Police would like to speak to two men, the first is white, with a tanned complexion, in his twenties, approximately 183cm tall, of solid build and with short brown curly hair. He had a fine beard along his jaw line.

That’s him in the middle and right of the pictures above. If a wanted man isn’t Asian, Caucasian or Aboriginal, the police are suddenly struck blind.

Okay, so first thing's first. Is the man in the photo white?

Maybe. I dunno. He could equally be from the Middle East or Southern Europe, or India. Or Northern European, come to think of it, with a tan.

The point is, it's not easy to tell just from those photos. So how did the police come up with "white"?

Actually, did they? Reading the original news report, the description actually says "Caucasian"; Bolt changed it to "white". So what does "Caucasian" actually mean? It's a problematic and somewhat outdated term, primarily because it groups a diverse range of people into a single category. But it includes people from Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Northern India.

So he is definitely "Caucasian". Is he "white"? You be the judge. He may well be, whatever "white" actually means.

In any case, Bolt is arguing that the police are fudging their racial description of the man by calling him "white". Whatever he is, he is clearly "Caucasian", which is what they appear to have described him as.

His accomplice, by the way, was clearly described as Asian, so the police don't seem to be timid about mentioning that.

So where did the description of the "white" man actually come from? Not from that photo, but from the victim and witnesses who were there. So if they say he was Caucasian, then he probably was. They mention he has brown hair, which more likely to indicate he is European - if it is natural. The fact that he is tanned could give a clue as to his ethnic background, but he could also just be a Northern European with a tan. Lots of people have tans in Australia, if you hadn't noticed.

Many of commenters on Bolt's article are convinced the man is Middle Eastern, probably Lebanese. Why? He has a beard. And lots of Muslims have beards. White Europeans apparently do not have beards.

The point is, it is very difficult to tell what he is, and without better footage it is hard to question the description offered by police.

Yet Bolt and his mob of followers can't let it go at that. They don't seem to like the idea that the man who committed a violent crime might be one of them - a white person - when the idea of him being a dirty foreigner holds much more appeal.

It's important to understand the context in which articles like this are written.

It is a commonly held view on the Right that the media and police are under the sway of a Left agenda which makes them reluctant to publicise crime committed by ethnic minorities. There may be some truth in this.

But it is also very clear that there exists an agenda on the Right to draw attention to non-whites who offend, while treating the ethnicity of white offenders as irrelevant. Bolt is the most obvious example.

I blogged earlier this week about a violent riot in which the mob is clearly dominated by people who are Caucasian. I argued that no one will notice their race, yet their race would have been made an issue had they been black or Asian. Well Bolt mentions the riot here, but then straight away adds more examples of "feral" behaviour from a few months back - video footage in which people of African origin are clearly front and centre.

Okay those aggressive people are white ... but look over here! Aggressive black people!

The result: commenters who talk not about the riot, but about the failings of multiculturalism. Because that is one of the dominant narratives on Bolt's blog, and we wouldn't want to be distracted from that now, would we?


  1. Based on THAT photo, I would have no idea. I had a friend in year 5 who was Eurasian (Malaysian mum, German dad), but before I met her parents, I thought she was Polynesian! (I'd never met a Eurasian person before)
    ; )

    I think the easiest way maybe is to use the sketch or Identikit, so you can be like THIS is what this *individual* looks like. Dunno how you would do it on radio accurately.

  2. To be honest, that guy looks white to me. He actually looks a bit like a man I know.

    So what does "Caucasian" actually mean? It's a problematic and somewhat outdated term, primarily because it groups a diverse range of people into a single category. But it includes people from Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Northern India.

    True, but to me, Caucasian equals white (as a race). Look, races are not biological facts, so they can be constructed any way you like. In my part of the world, all Caucasians are considered to be of the same race. This guy looks white to me. In describing him, though, I would definitely mention his beard, body build or anything that seems important. Saying "he was white, but tanned" describes millions of people so it could hardly be called "accurate description".

  3. @ Mira:

    The technical definition of Caucasian is not necessarily the same as the way many people use it. Middle-Eastern people are technically Caucasian, but many would think of them otherwise.

    As you say, this guy could certainly be described as "white". Yet some parts of the conservative media are desperate to promote the message that it is primarily non-white immigrants who are responsible for the decline of our society; so this guy being white wouldn't fit with that message.

  4. Hmmm. Internal politics at the Herald-Sun? Why would the editor right such an editorial that would go so directly against the agenda and themes of a certain prominent sub-editor at the same paper?