Wilma Smythe

Are a failing education and healthcare system to be blamed for London knife crime ? 

Although London was ranked in the top fifteen cities in the world for personal security, it has seen a dramatic rise in knife crime disproportionately affecting BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) teenagers and of increasing concern to the public, earning the attention of artists like British rapper and singer/songwriter Stormzy—who highlighted the issue by wearing a stab-proof vest when performing at the 2019 Glastonbury music festival.

In an attempt to move on from a decade of austerity policies and to persuade his party members to elect him as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson promised to increase numbers of police. Is this the solution to knife crime in the UK’s capital? 

While the opposition and in particular the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan have long complained about cuts to Metropolitan Police and their effect on security, Mr. Johnson’s  pledges are unlikely to make the capital safer unless the complex reasons underpinning knife crime are addressed.

A single explanation of what leads teenagers to carry knives on the capital’s streets can’t be provided. Nonetheless, some striking similarities emerge when looking worldwide at who is most affected by this kind of violence and what common factors they are experiencing. 

Can slavery, racism and trauma be linked to knife crime?

BAME and in particular young people of African heritage are disproportionately victims and perpetrators of knife crime and gun violence in large cities not just in the U.K. but in the USA, Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia

This could be a consequence of intergenerational and historic trauma resulting from the experience of institutional and systemic racism which led generations of black men to be confined to a life of poverty, economic disadvantage and poor mental health, factors disproportionately linked to crime and violence.  

Post-slavery Traumatic Syndrome (PSTS) might have led to several multigenerational maladaptive behaviours, including violence, being maintained through parenting and arising as a survival response to the historical experiences of slavery, structural oppression and mass incarceration. 

Is our schooling system to blame?

Our schooling system does not address complex needs.

To make things worse education and healthcare systems under strain have reinforced these inequalities. Regrettably the intersection between age, gender, race and class means that young black males are often victimised yet their voices go unheard in a context where they receive little or no institutional support. 

Despite the best efforts of some teachers, under-funded inner-city schools inevitably lead to lower academic expectations and to a focus on the immediacy of managing challenging behaviours, to the detriment of caring holistically for their pupils’ complex needs. 

This focus on behaviour management is not surprising when black people are stigmatised as violent, aggressive and in need of containment.  The consequence of this is that large numbers of young Afro-Caribbean leave school prematurely and are the ethnic and gender group most likely to underachieve academically

Mental Health Care

Children and Mental Health Services are failing the most deprived children in London, cash-strapped they are having to deal with unprecedentedly large case-loads.    Underfunding prevents these services catering to the city’s diverse population. Counsellors and clinical psychologists are respectively made up of a majority of white middle-class women and men while the provision of talking therapies is largely based on white and western cultural norms. This has alienated large groups of Afro-Carribean people in the country who do not take up counselling as much as their white counterparts and have higher drop-out rates than any other group. As adults they are more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act and to endure more severe mental health issues.

The lack of appropriate care for black children might mean that those most in need are not being cared for and we know that untreated mental health issues in adolescence  can lead some to  substance misuse which in turn is linked to higher levels of criminal activity. 

As suggested by Sadiq Khan the reasons underlying knife and gang crime are rooted in deep-seated societal problems, mental illness, poverty and social alienation and not the mere underfunding of police forces.    

In real terms cuts to spending in social services will be around forty per cent in 2020. Is Mr. Johnson’s aspiration to make the capital safer by increasing police numbers an empty promise? Will it deal with the underlying causes of this epidemic, one that could be argued has been triggered by austerity policies. 


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