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Should criminals be identified by their race?

One of the differences I’ve noticed in the way that crime is reported in South Africa and Australia is race. As in specifically identifying the race of the suspects.

South African reports tend to stay tactfully away from this awkward subject. Occasionally, if the criminal involved is white, the story will draw attention to this extraordinary fact (this was the approach of the Rosebank Killarney Gazette when reporting on a Parkhurst woman who was held up by a perfectly nice-looking pair of white men who ostensibly wanted to buy a computer).

There’s no such queasiness in Australian reports. Heck, there’s even a special unit here called the Middle Eastern crime squad. They tend to couch racial cues in descriptive rather than essentialist terms. Here’s a selection of descriptions of suspects in recent crimes:

His attacker, who fled the scene, is described as being of Middle Eastern/Mediterranean appearance, about 25 years old, 185cm tall with short light brown hair and last seen wearing a black jacket.

Then there’s this charmer, who shot a neighbour and hijacked a car before fleeing:

Melbon is described as white, 175cm tall, about 70kg in weight, with a medium build, brown hair and brown eyes.

These three invaded a house South African-style and attacked the victims’ fluffy Maltese terriers with a panga:

Police described the robbers as being of Pacific Islander appearance and about 185 centimetres tall with solid builds. One was wearing a black balaclava and the other two were wearing grey hooded jackets.

Compare this to South African references to “dark complexion” (dark in the generic sense? Or the you’re-too-black-to-be-a-South-African sense?) You’ll read a description of what an alleged attacker was wearing, his height and build, but no mention of the colour of his skin, not in a context that’s helpful any way.

Part of the discomfort around racial descriptions stems of course from a history of racial classification and racial hierarchies (which, ironically, continues today, though under a different guise and for different reasons). It leads to assumptions anyway, as in the case of this road rage incident where a motorist shot a taxi driver in Louis Botha Avenue. I remember following the discussions of this incident on the Mail & Guardian Forum and how the tenor of the discussion shifted subtly but distinctly once it became known that the shooter was not white, as had been assumed, but black. Just as the default assumption in any South African crime report is that the undescribed criminal was black, a habit which the refusal to bring race into descriptions paradoxically helps to entrench.

Descriptions of appearance should function as a means to help the public avoid or assist in the apprehension of criminals, nothing more, nothing less. The fact that the South African media are at such pains to avoid any reference to race is a reminder of how South Africans can’t quite bring themselves to deal with it.


  • Sarah Britten

    During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.