You’re Still Here? | Media’s focus on ethnicity belies the facts

One question posed in the Danish Institute for Human Rights’ schools pack is: “What effect does repeatedly hearing the background of a criminal have on a reader?” A local bar may have answered that question when they decided to refuse entry to all African people.


Tracing the bar’s logic is an exercise in frustration. A wallet was stolen. The victim said it was taken in the bar and by a black person, neither of which were true. Police are now investigating the bar for discrimination.


Last year, a play area tried to ban anyone with a Somali-appearance. The reasoning? A group of Somalis caused trouble one time, but the police did not even get involved.


Perhaps it is not surprising that many think that foreigners are inherently criminal. That is what we are told on a regular basis. When 1 percent of Somalis fiddled their taxes, the newspapers gave the impression it was a problem with their community. But tax fiddling in the general population is also around 1 percent.


The newspapers are most certainly in part to blame for this generalised racism. Many have run headlines with racial slurs. For instance, ‘Neger’, which translates roughly as when an idiot says ‘negro’ or when a racist says ‘n****r’, has been used four times in local newspaper headlines about crimes in the last 12 months.


The newspapers have their excuses, claiming that had the suspect been redheaded, it would have been in the headline. ‘Redheaded’ was used once in a headline about a suspect in the last year.


Another excuse is that journalists were merely copying the wording of a police report. Either police reports are selectively descriptive or their wording, in most cases, is ignored. Neither ‘white man’ nor ‘blonde’ were used in headlines taken from police reports in the past year.


So who is really committing crime in Denmark? Let’s take theft, a crime that usually includes a description of a suspect or perpetrator in news stories. In 2010, 11,000 of the 12,000 convicted had a ‘Danish background’. Those numbers are similar across the criminal board: 120,000 convictions of people with Danish backgrounds compared with 17,500 immigrants and 5,000 ‘descendants of immigrants’.


And yet, when the newspapers give a description of a perpetrator from the police reports, they are ten times less likely to reference his background if he is Danish.


My town, Fredericia, recently ran a news story about a “suspicious woman” taking photos of houses at around 4pm. When she was confronted, she stopped taking photos and left. The police said: “Maybe she’s an architecture student or maybe she is a burglar.”


Why should this behaviour have been suspicious in the tourist high season, you ask? It was probably due to her physical description: “Other ethnic origin than Danish, late teens/early 20s, long black hair, wearing ear phones.” Frederician cops must have their minds blown every time they catch a burglar and it turns out to be a 40-year-old Danish man, so convinced are they that young photography enthusiasts are the cause of the domestic crimewave.


Exposed to this media onslaught, it is no wonder that many see crime as a foreign problem and foreigners are seen as trouble. No wonder all it takes is an allegation for all people from one group to be treated like criminals. No wonder non-Danish résumés are placed in the ‘round file’. No wonder black-haired young women cannot take photos in the middle of the day during their summer holidays without being suspected of criminal intent.


The good news is that these situations are starting to be dealt with. The play area backed off, the bar is being investigated and some ‘neger’ headlines were changed. I would like to see more efforts taken in this direction. If the police feel describing a suspect’s appearance will help bring justice, then they should describe even what they consider the ‘default’. If the media think a reference to family background is newsworthy, then they should make sure they reference ‘obvious’ Danish backgrounds.


This is the only way that a true picture of crime in Denmark can be built up and stereotypes about crime can be destroyed. The alternative is that businesses and individuals continue to act on their prejudices, giving Danes a reputation for intolerance and ignorance.


The author’s blog can be found here.

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