Sarah Parker Remond Centre


Transcript: In conversation with Coretta Phillips

This conversation was recorded on 20th May 2022. Speakers: Clive Nwonka, Lecturer in Film, Culture and Society, IAS // Coretta Phillips, Professor of Criminology and Social Policy, LSE

Clive Nwonka: Hi, I’m Dr Clive Nwonka, lecturer in film, culture and society at University College London and an Associate of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre of Racism and Racialisation here at UCL. Today it’s a pleasure to be joined by Professor Coretta Phillips. Coretta is Professor of Criminology and Social Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her major research interests are within the field of race, ethnicity, crime, criminal justice and social policy. Her most current research is a major study providing the first systematic, comprehensive and historically grounded account of crime and the criminal justice experiences of Gypsies and Travellers in England since the 1960s.
Coretta’s most recent book, The Multicultural Prison, jointly won the Criminology Book Prize in 2013 and was shortlisted for the BBC Radio 4 Thinking Aloud, the British Psychological Association Award for Ethnography in 2014. Throughout the podcast, we’ll be discussing Coretta’s latest research and the ideas that informed her work on race within the criminal justice system. Coretta, welcome to the podcast.
Coretta Phillips: Thank you.
Clive: I want to begin by going back to your 2012 book, The Multicultural Prison, which was a fascinating interdisciplinary study with the multiracial, multi-ethnic and multi-faith inmates both at Maidstone and Rochester prisons, and the way you use ethnographic methods to capture both the organic experiences of multi-culture and the more structured and governed forms of multiculturalism taking place within the prison system. What was the motivation for the book, but also what was it that was distinctive about the everyday forms of racial interaction integration and racism and racial difference that you found in the two prisons?
Coretta: So, I guess I’ve long been interested in the ambivalences of multi-culture and changes in those complexities over time. Interestingly at that time, we had a kind of political climate that was pro equality. So, we had a New Labour Government - although this didn’t actually extend very much to Gypsies and Travellers, which I’ll say a bit more about later - but we’d just had Lawrence and, of course, many of us working in the field were hopeful but not overly optimistic that issues of societal and institutional racism would stay on the political agenda. But then in the policy domain, and I sit in my work between social policy and criminology, there we’d had the Mubarek inquiries. So, we’d had the investigation into the racist inflected murder of a young Asian boy by his white cellmate and the Commission for Racial Equality, as it was then, had investigated the Prison Service and found so many examples of unlawful discrimination in its treatment and the services it provided for prisoners.

So, that was the kind of context that I think, for prison sociologists, prison life is as much about the kind of horizontal relations between prisoners as it is about the vertical relations between prisoners and prison officers and the administration and the state more generally. And I’d seen that most criminologists, at least in the UK, had tended to focus on the latter when it came to race. So, there was a real massive gap I thought in understanding more about horizontal relations between prisoners. It was that that I really got interested in. I was really intrigued by what happens when you bring together, under very unique and constrained conditions, you’ve got, on the one hand, white, typically working class men from semi-rural areas, that I imagined would have little experience of multi-culture, and bringing them together with a primarily Black, working class male prison population, with, in the other direction, little experience of monoculture or of life outside the multicultural city.
I was really interested in exploring in more detail how relations were managed by prisoners. What was going on in prisoner society out of the view of prison officers? So, that book was published ten years ago and I was thinking about what I was doing and in 2006, round about that time period, we were into a period of New Labour and I was living in South East London then and it was a time when people were getting quite excited because the summer the research started was the 2006 Euros and there was a really interesting kind of personal, political introspection that was going on as a result of that. So, my kids at the time were at primary school and they asked me to get them a wristband to support England and I did it unthinkingly. And then when I bought these two wristbands that had the Union Jack on them, I was suddenly really staggered by how it hadn’t had an immediate and overwhelming reaction - my reaction hadn’t been one of fear and anxiety and anger and that felt really remarkable to me, because when I was my kids age in 1976, both the England flag and the Union Jack was just really symbolic of racist hatred, of violence, of exclusion and the flag literally terrified me as a child.
At a kind of personal level, I was thinking something’s changed but as ever, it’s always important to understand those kinds of nuance of what has changed. So, in the prison, there was some of the pretty old-fashioned racism that I’d grown up with. It was still alive and kicking in Kent, the so-called Garden of England, but really it’s a garden of white England and that trope of the countryside is somewhere that I think still remains inaccessible to perhaps people like you and me at least. So, there was violent racism in the accounts that some men told us about their experiences of prison. They talked about the use of the N-word, less positive discretion and leniency, quite heavy-handed policing of Black and Muslim prisoners, and what they often saw as biased decisions in their access to privileges and more positive conditions within the prison. And then there was the more subtle kind of signs of disrespect, lack of empathy felt by some; but then there were also some minority prisoners, who’d been in the prison system for a long time, who said they didn’t see racism in these kind of interactions between prison officers and prisoners at least, and some people would talk about how it had been so different for them in the 1990s than it was in the early 2000s.
I started off this study by being really interested in the kind of nature of multi-culture in prison social relations between prisoners, and there was very much the kind of convivial multi-culture, to use Gilroy’s work, which was straightforward, kind of banal and it was very much like that experienced in other multicultural spaces and educational spaces, those places outside prison. But at the same time, there was a really visceral, strained animosity from some white prisoners who felt really usurped in prison hierarchies. They resented what they saw as a cultural dominance of Black prisoners. They were unsettled by their loss of implicit superiority, and they were really angry about race equality. And now we’re kind of quite familiar I think with talking about the so-called white, working class that have been the left behind; but at that time, it wasn’t that it was new, but it was interesting that that was a real feature of prison social relations. And for a lot of white prisoners, it was really straightforward. It was a kind of zero-sum game; if you had equality for Black and Asian prisoners, that meant inequality for them.
Those kinds of tensions were really raw in the prison and it underlined how valuable it is to have a racially mixed, ethnically mixed research team, to be able to pick up on some of that stuff. But that real kind of palpable sense of grievance where they saw minority prisoners as culturally threatening but also sometimes culturally exciting; but there was that really strong view that race was being used to claim privileges in the prison and the race card was always being played by particularly Black and Muslim prisoners, and it was unfairly stacked against white prisoners.
So, I think in that research, it was a really valuable lesson into looking at some of the specificities of everyday life. In prison, it’s often all about the food, and the sharing of food and disputes over kitchen space was a really good way of trying to understand a lot of these complicated dynamics that were going on in the prison.
Clive: Even listening to you now, describing the methodologies for that work, what I find is a consistent thread in your work and also in your co-written research with people like Ben Bowling and many others, is this idea of the Black criminology as a kind of paradigm for exploring the generally unexamined context of what we’ve now been conditioned to attribute as Black crime and the representation of Black people in the criminal justice system.
It’s something I certainly saw in your paper, Dear British criminology: Where has all the race and racism gone?, and what is described as the institutional whiteness of discipline. Can you talk a little about what you feel are the central tenets of that criminology, or I guess the more racially sensitive and exploratory criminology approaches?
Coretta: I don’t know if I would necessarily locate myself as working entirely within that paradigm. So, the idea of a Black criminology was first coined 30 years ago by Katheryn Russell in the US. It was really intriguing to me at the time because I’d got my first academic job working in the US and it was really interesting because for many of the students - I was teaching at a university in downtown Newark in New Jersey - and a lot of the students there were really unhappy about there not being any Black faculty, and then there was this slight discombobulation that they managed to find somebody who was Black or brown but not from the US. So, I kind of was exposed to some of the quite interesting dynamics of race in the university, but within the discipline, what Russell was really doing was calling out the whiteness of criminological theory in the US and the whiteness of scholars. She was particularly critical of the kind of statement of this fact that one of the arguments at least in the US context is we see elevated rates of offending amongst African Americans and those patterns have been long-standing, but there’s been very little thoughtful theoretical attention paid to why those patterns exist.
So, she felt really strongly writing then that the US needed a Black criminology and so she thought it was important to incorporate the voices of Black people into criminological research, advocating a move away from the more epistemologically distant, positivist research which is really dominant, very dominant in US criminology. Her position at least was that in the beginning, a Black criminology had to be the preserve of Black criminologists only, that we’d be able to draw on much more holistic understandings of racialised conditions in society and that we wouldn’t operate with some of the kind of unfounded myths and biases that other criminologists might do.
But what I think over the years has been more important to me than necessarily a focus on a Black criminology is the need to operationalise racism and racialisation, and I mean that in its really broadest kind of economic, political and historical sense, and really beginning long before people come into contact with the criminal justice system. I think we have to still confront how what’s sometimes referred to as racial inequality - say in education or in the labour market, we understand that they’re likely to have an impact, they’re going to increase peoples’ pressure and the temptations of crime - but we shouldn’t lose sight of a really simple fact, that if you sent in a job application with your surname, Nwonka, there’s a really good chance that it would be less favourably reviewed by an employer than if you’d put in an application form and pretended your name was Smith. So, for me, I’m really frustrated and tired of the kind of arguments that the disproportionality we see in the criminal justice system is just about social class, that Black people are there because they are of a lower social class position and that that social class position is, I think the important point is, in a sense, in many ways it’s kind of preordained if you have Black or brown skin. So, it doesn’t make sense to think, when you’re looking at prison populations, say, or you’re looking at patterns of Stop and Search, that socioeconomic deprivation is the only explanation.
I think the other thing, for me, is making the connections between the kind of historical features of race in the past but also in the present. So, the kind of approach that I mentioned where you send in an application for a job, those studies that were conducted initially in the early seventies show that for some groups, those patterns just haven’t changed, even though I think the last study was done in the mid-2010s or something. I think for me, that has always got to be really central to understanding, whenever we’re looking at any kind of policy domains, whether that’s the education system or the labour market or the criminal justice system, is the idea that racism can’t be just bracketed away as a kind of contemporary experience. It seems far more important to me that we’re able to engage with the complexity of racism and not look at it in a kind of simply binary fashion.
Clive: I’m fascinated by these ideas and how these ideas have become present in your 2020 article, The pains of racism and economic adversity in young Londoners’ lives: sketching the contours, and how you establish these really extreme metaphorical metrics - depth, width, breadth, looseness, tightness - all to try and define the dynamics of race and racialisation as experienced by young men in London. Can you explain a bit more about how these organising frameworks capture the everyday encounters with racism as a subjective experience for young men within these spaces of multicultural London?
Coretta: I think that’s a kind of continuation on from this way of thinking about how we operationalise racism and as a way of the importance of capturing the nuances of those processes and different forms of racism. I’ve just been so frustrated by mainstream social science research which has mostly, not exclusively, but mostly been conducted by white scholars who think about racism as it’s present or it’s absent. I think for those of us who always are vulnerable to its tentacles, in a sense, I suppose we just, in a really obvious way, recognise it’s much more complex than that.
In that paper, I really wanted to try and reflect the range, both in terms of breadth and depth, but to also think about the emotional register, so to think about how it’s felt and embodied, to recognise it just where you see it in mundane spaces and places, but also just recognising how profound it is. So, I wanted to try and find a way to think about the multitude of subjective reactions to racial microaggressions and violent racism and really everything in between. I wanted to try and articulate how these processes of racialisation are also intersected by economic adversity. So, I thought about this and I talked about the pains of racism in prison but this paper was kind of extending that, to recognise those intersections, those pains and how they’re amplified by being economically and politically marginal when you’re facing the everyday grind but facing what are often insurmountable obstacles.

So, I like the idea of depth. These metrics, if you like, they’re descriptive so they help us to think about it. The depth is thinking about the systemic nature of oppressive racial conditions in society, blocked opportunities and what the material burden is of constant negative perception and being read as inferior by potential employers, by teachers, police officers or whatever; and I think certainly my sense is that that’s particularly also intersected by negative racialised masculinities as well. So, in that study at least, the focus was on men. But what I also liked and feel is a kind of tricky area or a tricky thing to think about, but breadth denotes how this goes easily beyond a white / Black binary and speaks to the internal racialising processes that occur within and between minority ethnic communities, including those who’ve faced majority white racism.
Then I think the looseness is a way of articulating what are the blurred boundaries of that sometimes internally subjective process that we go through when we’ve been on the receiving end and you’re wondering, you’re trying to unpack something, an interaction that’s happened or an experience that you’ve had, and you’re having that kind of conversation with yourself. Was what just happened to me racist or not? That kind of lack of clarity sometimes about what’s going on in those kinds of interactions. And then tightness I liked particularly as a way of really visually and emotionally reflecting the kind of grip that negative racialisation and economic marginalisation has on individuals and it’s a descriptor of a real essence of powerlessness and constraint, of being really kind of hemmed in when there are limited options for you to manoeuvre towards any kind of positive outcomes. So, that felt like a way of being able to get some of the granularity of racism, to be able to move away from that sometimes-simplistic binary.
Clive: One of the points that I wanted to explore was also your most recent research which is, of course, titled Realities Checked: Interpreting Stories of Crime in Gypsy and Traveller Communities, which is the first systematic and comprehensive and historical-grounded account of the crime and criminal justice experiences of Gypsies and Traveller communities in England since 1960. Why was it important to approach the study in the particular context of victimisation, rather than simply a quantitative study of Gypsy and Traveller communities within the criminal justice system?
Coretta: I think for me, the situation with Gypsies and Travellers, like with other groups, isn’t just about the representation. It’s not just about a kind of statistical discussion about why there is disproportionality or over-representation. And for these groups, typically they’re positioned in political debates and they’re represented in particular ways in the media and in public discourse as just simply inherently criminal. So, criminality is just seen as a mark of their cultural practices. There’s absolutely no empirical evidence to support that view. But I’m familiar with the data that the State's collected, looking at self-report offending but also importantly looking at victimisation, so we have a crime survey of England and Wales and every year, it varies a bit between 30,000 and 40,000 people are approached to talk about their experiences of crime. So, this survey is really valuable because it picks up a lot of what doesn’t get reported to the police, which is most crime. But that household survey has provided us with some patterns of victimisation and offending amongst white, Black and Asian groups but we don’t have anything that addresses Gypsies and Travellers experience. So, we simply don’t know if they experience higher rates of victimisation than we would expect based on their representation in the general population.
I think given that there are just extreme socioeconomic, educational and health inequalities that they face, makes them one of, or if not on some indicators at least, the most disadvantaged minority ethnic group in Britain, and also a group that it seems to be acceptable to be openly racist towards. It felt like this was a real major gap in our understanding and in our knowledge. So, this mixed methods study that I’m involved in with my colleague, Zoe James, at the University of Plymouth and Becky Taylor at UEA, the study there is really recognising, on the one hand, policy makers, politicians and even some social scientists are much more persuaded by quantitative data and attempts at broadly representative sampling; but I think given my epistemological position, we need perhaps that quantitative data but alongside understanding also subjective experiences, and understanding treatment by the criminal justice agencies. So, to get that more detailed and that deeper analysis of what’s going on, you need to hear the stories behind and those trajectories into the criminal justice system.
So, for me I think it’s a way of trying to connect peoples’ individual biographies with the much broader socio-political histories in which those groups have been, historically and then in the contemporary period, positioned. The study’s really I think reflecting those elements of what I think is really valuable in coming to understand more about where a group is in its relationship with particular institutions.
Clive: Indeed, because what I find particularly significant about the research is, as you mentioned, its mixed methodology, notably the collection of oral histories from both Gypsy and Traveller communities and individuals in prison as well. So, do you see this as a kind of subversiveness even in terms of methodology, in that it allows the Gypsy and Traveller communities to narrate and, therefore, define their own experience of crime and discrimination within both criminological and sociological research as well?
Coretta: I think strictly speaking, if I was going to claim disciplinary subversiveness, this would be a project of co-production or, indeed, it would be one entirely spearheaded by Gypsies and Travellers, and that’s not what we’re doing in this study. So, I think it would be disingenuous of me to try and claim that. I think in the conception of the project, the crime survey and the specialist expertise that’s needed in running a crime survey I think means that it’s much harder for that to be fully situated within a project that might be run entirely by Gypsies and Travellers.
But in the study what we are doing is trying to recruit Gypsy and Traveller research assistants and they in turn will recruit contract interviewers from Gypsy and Traveller communities, who will do the crime survey in the field, and be very much part of the kind of interpretation of the research findings and then, really importantly, how they’re disseminated because, of course, this is really tricky terrain for groups that are vilified, essentially, and who are seen as criminally threatening. So, we need to be really careful and really ethical in the way in which we talk about those research findings.
I think the other thing is to recognise for those groups that are deeply suspicious of the state and particularly the criminal justice agencies, they’re often really anxious about any kind of government surveys. So, we need to exercise caution in recognising that deep suspicion about the survey and the risks that it entails for communities who rarely get an opportunity to present their narrative of what’s going on about their lives.
Clive: One of the memories that I have when I was working obviously with you at LSE was the two occasions where we shared a public platform, talking around race and racial research. The first one was a very public event that marked the 20 years since the 1999 Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and the subsequent police investigation and the reforms that were promised within the police force, our legal systems and other spheres of public life. And the un-realisation of some of those promises were addressed by David Lammy on that same day in a speech on the current state of policing and the criminal justice system in relation to race and the representation of Black people within it.
What for you has been the primary enablers of a continuation of racism and racialisation in the criminal justice system? Have you identified any new or modified practices of racism across these two decades?
Coretta: So, I look at it in a slightly different way, I think, and I see racism as just hugely versatile and pervasive. I think it’s easy for it to be kind of constantly re-established in some way in which, especially within institutions, that they maintain their kind of white dominance as a mechanism of power. So, in a very obvious way, and this is one of the features of a fairly central tenet of critical race theory, that whose interest is it to reform in any kind of deep and fundamental way? Certainly not the white majority, who have power within the political system and most of the other State institutions and certainly within the criminal justice system.
So, I think it’s always a tiny number that are really willing to relinquish that power on a permanent basis and what you tend to see is that there will be efforts at various political moments when they might appear to be more willing to relinquish that power on a permanent basis, but I think that’s really quite rare and often that’s only done when the spotlight is on them, so when you have your George Floyd moments or your Stephen Lawrence moments. Whereas, so often one of the reforms that is suggested as a way of changing some of the dynamics in the criminal justice system is to have more Black police officers, more Black people working with those under probation supervision, working in the courts and the prison system, but I don’t see that as a way of fundamentally changing any of those institutional structures, processes and practices that are really ordered in such ways that they will work against the interests of vulnerable groups.

The practices of racism I think have always been fairly, sometimes blatant, blunt practices, but always I think much more subtle and difficult to pin down in a way. So, I think to see any substantive change is dependent on white people and that they need to be invested in thinking about racism as something that is more than just about social class inequalities. I think one of the things that I always find really unsettling is when you see almost a glee amongst some scholars when you have any kind of research findings which purport to show that racism is a thing of the past, rather than it’s something that has been modified and continues to be practiced in sometimes very complex ways. It’s obscured in statements of political intentions to act in ways that uphold equality but, of course, in reality there are multiple means by which racism can continue; and I think the danger is working in any one of those single domains, like just in the criminal justice system, obscures what’s going on in other parts of society.
Clive: The other occasion that I recall very well was the more intimate gathering of academics and staff at LSE discussing the everyday racisms and forms of policing experienced on university campuses around the UK. But, of course, this extends to so many educational spaces where Black children have been subjected to forms of criminalising, adultification and violation – the most recent example I can think of is Child Q, the 15-year-old Black schoolgirl who was strip-searched by police after being taken out of an exam, where racism was deemed to be an influential factor in the police’s actions that day.
Thinking about your research on how some ethnic groups become entangled within the criminal justice system, how do you assess how the supposedly safe and innocent spaces of the playground and lecture halls are now simple extensions of the scope for the racialised policing of Black and brown people?
Coretta: I’m not sure I would see them as extensions, I would see them as perhaps just historically spaces in which policing has occurred. So, I think education has always been about policing, policing of supposed inferiority or as a means to pacify. What’s interesting about university education is that it has the façade of operating quite differently. It shields itself from racism, the universities do I think in my mind because they see racism as something that goes on out there, not in here. So, racism is obviously in the actions of the police or the white working class, 'but it’s not in the hallowed spaces of the academy'.
For me that makes the racism in universities all the more terrifying. The complacency and the complicity in racist practices in higher education is something that I just find overwhelming. It makes me sad and it makes me angry and it can also make me feel pretty hopeless because it operates so subtly, but at the same time, so pervasively, in a space, in a climate where university education is seen as superior. It’s not vulnerable to the lack of analytical insights that occur outside the university. That kind of racism is seen as the preserve of people that are intellectually ignorant, whereas I just see it as a way that the university provides a way to hide behind a sort of intellectualism. So, the police can’t avoid having their racism called out but universities have in the past and they still can now. These supposedly safe and innocent spaces, they operate in ways not always of active policing, but they work in ways that circumscribe the potential for success in the lives of Black and brown people.

One of the things that I’ve found profoundly depressing actually is that, having spent 30-odd years looking at racism within criminal justice institutions and looking at how they’ve responded to various crises over the years, that I feel that there is more thoughtful engagement with what race equality might mean in the criminal justice agencies than in higher education institutions. I see the police and the prison service ahead of the university sector when it comes to thinking about race equality and that feels obviously quite profound and shocking, but I think that’s the kind of view that I’ve reached in 30 years engaged in both of those different kinds of spaces.
Clive: Coretta, thanks so much for your time today, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you on the podcast.
Coretta: Thank you.