Race relations in Britain: How far have we really come?

There has been progress in attitudes toward race since the murder of Stephen Lawrence, but change is still needed.

    Stephen Lawrence's racially motivated murder dispelled the illusion that racism no longer existed in the UK [EPA]

    London, United Kingdom - There are some days that will stain our collective conscience for generations to come.

    April 22, 1993, was one of these. This was the day that black teenager Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death by a group of young white men in an act of racist abuse in Eltham, south London. The victim was 18.

    January 3, 2012, was another of these days. Almost two decades after Lawrence was killed, 35-year-old David Norris and 36-year-old Gary Dobson were convicted of perpetrating his racially motivated murder, and later sentenced to a minimum of 14 years and 15 years respectively.

    The verdicts may have been cathartic in the minds of some, a sense of relief that Britain and its attitudes toward race have come a long way since 1993. Stephen's race-related murder, London's Metropolitan Police Service's (MPS) abysmal investigation of it and two failed prosecutions forced the country to take a long, hard look at itself. And we didn't like what we saw. For when Stephen's future was stolen from him, the UK was also robbed of the comfort blanket that it had cocooned itself in.

    Living with illusions

    We had been under an illusion that the days of widespread racism, of the National Front marches in the 1970s and Brixton race riots of 1981 had been consigned to history. This was a fact that many non-white people had long known: that certain elements within British society were still racist. And the myth that only white working-class youths were bigoted was exposed for what it was: a lie. Some in the middle classes and in our institutions - the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the judicial system - the very people we, as Britons, turned to for justice, were also racists.

    The publication of the Macpherson report in 1999 in the wake of Stephen's death was seminal in modern British culture. The official inquiry catalogued a series of failures in the criminal justice system and the Metropolitan Police handling of the murder investigation. It branded the force, and British police in general, as "institutionally racist". The findings shocked mainstream British society to the core.

    In the weeks after Stephen's murder, I recall my mother's fears for my teenage brother's safety. She urged him not to stay out late, for fear the next time she would see him would be in a hospital morgue. Many mothers, whose children were not white, also felt the same.

    These anxieties are nestled alongside of childhood memories of having friends of various races. At school in London, my classes included children of many ethnic backgrounds, a diversity that I took for granted. But this was a childhood that was also punctuated by flashes of racism - of growing up on a council estate where being south Asian wasn't acceptable to some.

    "Why are you riding a bike when you should be on a camel or an elephant?" Or: "Paki, go home." These would be among the insults my older brother and I would sometimes receive from white teenagers. When he was 11, I saw him take a beating from a much older white boy because of the colour of his skin. So when covert police surveillance footage of Dobson and Norris - in which they boasted of how they'd like to kill "coons" and "Pakis" - was made public, something hit home. Hard.


    Britain has come a long way since then. Stephen's death and the public outcry which followed forced a long period of introspection that led to procedural and institutional changes within law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

    The Macpherson report prompted the Metropolitan Police to initiate reforms that vastly improved the ways victims of race crime were treated by officers. The force also worked towards recruiting more black and Asian officers. Today, almost ten per cent of the MPS' approximately 32,000 officers are from ethnic minority backgrounds - almost three times the number a decade ago - though rising to a senior rank remains elusive to many.

    Legislative reform also formed the backbone of Macpherson's recommendations. England and Wales' double jeopardy law - which meant a person could not be re-tried for an offence they had already been acquitted of - was amended in 2005. This meant that suspects could be re-tried if new evidence was discovered - a change that was instrumental in securing Dobson's conviction, after he was acquitted of Stephen's murder in 1996.

    Courts also came under greater pressure to impose heavier sentences on racially motivated and faith-based crimes, and political pressure led to the extension of the Race Relations Act to legally require all public institutions to promote race equality.

    Today, we can also see many more MPs of different ethnic backgrounds in parliament. This inclusive participation in the democratic process is a marked change that should be acknowledged. Recent official figures point to this heterogeneity - around 12 per cent of the 55 million people in England and Wales are not white.

    Not enough

    But though societal attitudes are changing, progress in addressing systematic institutional discrimination has been far too slow. Legislation is only as fair if it is correctly implemented. Nowhere is this more evident than in police stop and search figures, conviction rates and the sentencing of black and Asian people. These are controversial litmus tests against which the police, courts and broader criminal justice system continue to fall short.

    Convicted blacks and Asians are more likely to be imprisoned than white people - around 27 per cent of all prisoners in Britain are non-white. Black people are also 27 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police under laws designed to tackle gun, drug and gang crime. This is an ugly reality that 19-year-old student Marc faces every day. The Computer Science undergraduate, from Brixton in south London, said the police often follow him.

    "I would become a lawyer, but the police? You can't the trust the police - especially when you are black - for the same reason, they always target you," he said. "It's not just the police, it's everyone. If I'm standing at a bus stop, there will be an older woman and she will have a bag on the floor. She will see me and grab her bag. They either move away, or take their bag and hold it very tightly. They think you're a thief."

    None of this helps to instil a greater sense of trust in the police, courts or judicial system in the minds of many young black and Asian people, making it increasingly difficult for police forces to recruit officers from diverse ethnic backgrounds. Though the discrepancy in sentencing rates between ethnic groups may the result of a variety of factors, it is hard to see how discrimination does not play a significant role.

    Brian Paddick, former MPS Deputy Assistant Commissioner, said: "You are more likely to be stopped and searched if you are black. You are more likely to be sent to court, rather than cautioned, if you are black. You are more likely to be given a custodial sentence if you are black … Nobody has been able to provide me with a convincing alternative explanation [of why this is other than] that these sections, the police, racially stereotype black people as criminals and that prejudice exists at every level of the criminal justice system."

    Robin Richardson, former director of the race equality think-tank the Runnymede Trust, goes further. He said: "I think certain elements of British society, the criminal justice system, the judiciary, are institutionally racist, in the technical sense of the term - the institution produces racist effects and racist inequalities."

    Politicians and government departments deny these allegations but have vowed to do more. Prime Minister David Cameron, in a recent TV interview, said he believed the UK is "a less racist country" than it was in 1993, but admitted "there's still a lot more to be done". The Home Office is soon due to publish its new Hate Crime strategy. But whether the political will exists to traverse the thorny issue of racism in ways that lead to effective changes on the ground still remains to be seen.

    On January 13, the MPS also announced it would reform part of its stop and search policy. But this change took place only after it became clear that the courts might rule that the police's use of the power was unlawful. Officers will now carry out fewer stop and search operations, and the threshold for evidence needed to authorise these procedures will be raised.

    A collective issue

    But this is a collective issue, not one where we can apportion blame on the police, judges, lawyers and politicians from the safety of the sidelines. Juries and police forces are made up of ordinary people, and politicians listen to the demands of the electorate that votes them into power.

    What about the subtler undercurrents of prejudice that fester unchecked on our streets and in our homes, which are harder to expose and fight? What about the fact that we may cross the street to avoid a group of black teenagers, eye with a suspicion a young Asian man with a beard carrying a rucksack on the Underground system, or fear a young white man with tattoos and a shaved head?

    For British society to tackle ignorance and prejudice, we must grasp how complex racism is. We must also recognise how racial hatred has diversified to find new groups of people to demonise. You don't have to look too far back in Britain's history to see instances of open anti-Semitism. From the 1940s, growing immigration to the UK of people from the former British colonies of the Caribbean, south Asia and Africa meant these communities became the targets of racism at both the institutional and street levels.

    Open racism predominantly against young Africans and Afro-Caribbeans followed. Now, after 9/11 and the 7/7 London bombings, people who may be Muslim - and often look or are south Asian or Arab - are also targeted disproportionately by police. Almost 20 per cent of those stopped and searched by police under anti-terror laws in Britain in 2010 and 2011 were Asian.

    But overt forms of racism are not always by white people against ethnic minorities - vitriol about people of different ethnicities and faiths comes also from Asians and blacks. And it is not solely the institutional racism that reports such as Macpherson unveiled, or the undisguised bigotry shamelessly celebrated by men like Norris and Dobson, which we must face head on.

    When you speak to police officers, lawyers and ordinary people, most would say they are not racist. And most probably they aren't - at least not consciously. But what about the subtler undercurrents of prejudice that fester unchecked on our streets and in our homes, which are harder to expose and fight? What about the fact that we may cross the street to avoid a group of black teenagers, eye with a suspicion a young Asian man with a beard carrying a rucksack on the Underground system, or fear a young white man with tattoos and a shaved head?

    These are mental calculations that take place all the time; they are an important part of the collective debate on race in Britain. Although this prejudice is markedly different from the "institutional racism" the MPS was charged with, the two are linked: Overt, violent racism and institutional racism can only thrive in a broader framework of covert forms of discrimination that are often overlooked.

    What next?

    None of us are naïve enough to think racism will ever disappear. Yet as migration and globalisation grow and Britain becomes increasingly diverse, these are challenges we will be forced to face as we continue to question ourselves, others, and society. If we fail to do so, public confidence in our institutions will be further undermined. Blacks, Asians and people of mixed backgrounds will continue to be jailed, attacked and killed because of their faith or ethnicity.

    The colour of Stephen Lawrence's skin cost him his life. His family's relentless pursuit of the men responsible is a testament to their strength and conviction that Britain can surmount racism. But this is not a time for us to rest easy. Some of the men who murdered Stephen remain free and racially motivated crimes still blight our society. Almost 40,000 hate crimes were reported in the country in 2010. In December, Indian student Anuj Bidve was murdered in what appears to be a racially motivated attack in Salford. These are the benchmarks we must judge ourselves against in a country that has, in many ways, nurtured a strong tradition of diversity.

    Perhaps, then, the final words here should be those of Stephen's mother, Doreen Lawrence, who, after this month's convictions, said: "The fact is that racism and racist attacks are still happening in this country and the police should not use my son's name to say we can move on."

    Rajeshree Sisodia is a freelance writer and researcher based in London. She specialises in development, conflict and human rights issues in south Asia and Burma.

    Follow her on Twitter: @Rajeshree3

    An earlier published version of this article incorrectly referred to the date of the conviction of David Norris and Gary Dobson as January 3, 2011. We apologise for the error.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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