A quarter of a century has passed since the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence led to greater recognition of institutional racism. But how much has really changed since, asks Brian Richardson.
"What, what nigger?” Those were probably the very last words that 18 year old black student Stephen Lawrence heard as he waited for a bus with his friend Duwayne Brooks in Well Hall Road, Eltham, on 22 April 1993. Seconds later he was attacked by a knife wielding gang of racists. He tried to escape and managed to run some distance before collapsing in a pool of his own blood.
Stephen was not the only person to die such a violent death in that era. Among others in south London alone were Rolan Adams, Rohit Duggal and Ruhullah Aramesh. In fact such attacks were so frequent in the early 1990s that the Royal Borough of Greenwich was dubbed the racist murder capital of Britain. Anti-racists argued that it was no coincidence that the Nazi British National Party (BNP) had a heavy presence in the area. We insisted that what purported to be a bookshop in the neighbouring borough of Bexley was in fact the headquarters out of which they organised a campaign of hatred and violence that fomented a 270 percent increase in racist attacks in the vicinity.
This activity was not confined to street thuggery. It was combined with an electoral strategy that saw the BNP capture a seat on Tower Hamlets council within five months of Stephen’s murder. In the aftermath of this, east London experienced a 300 percent increase in racist attacks.
The Nazi menace was eventually beaten back by the determined efforts of anti-fascists including the revived Anti Nazi League. Today, however, the activities of groups such as the English Defence League (EDL), Britain First and, more significantly, the electoral success of fascists abroad including the Freedom Party in Austria, Front National in France and Golden Dawn in Greece, are a reminder that there can be no room for complacency. In a world where racism is so deeply embedded, Nazis are always lurking in the wings, seeking to exploit people’s discontent and offering a “final solution”.
Racist violence is undoubtedly deeply traumatic for those subjected to it. Thankfully, however, it is not an everyday experience for most of us from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.
Stephen Lawrence’s murder became notorious, not because it was the only one of its kind that occurred in the 1990s. Nor was it the only one that sparked a family campaign and community response. Among others, Rolan Adams’s father Richard was as dogged, dignified and determined a campaigner as Stephen’s parents Doreen and Neville Lawrence. It is the Lawrence Family Campaign, however, that has had the most widespread and lasting impact as it was this struggle that truly exposed the deeply rooted racism that infects British society.
The Lawrences’ starting point was the police. They realised immediately that the investigation into Stephen’s murder was a disgrace. It is widely recognised that there is a “golden hour” after the commission of a crime when the swift gathering of evidence is crucial. In this case, the Metropolitan Police claimed that they were confronted by a “wall of silence” when they approached the local community. As Doreen details at length in her memoir And Still I Rise, this was quite simply a lie. Within hours, and repeatedly in the following days, they were inundated with information and provided with the same list of suspects. Nineteen years would pass before two of those named, Gary Dobson and David Norris, were finally convicted. The others remain at liberty.
The family were determined to show that the police’s failure wasn’t simply incompetence or sloppiness but rather racism and corruption. Doreen suggests that she couldn’t help but think that the police regarded her son as “some no account black boy who was probably up to no good anyway”. That suspicion was undoubtedly correct.
The investigation was exposed in all its ignominy by the public inquiry into Stephen’s murder that was initiated by the recently elected Labour government in 1998. Again however, the wider significance of the inquiry was much greater.
There have been inquiries into the relationship between the police and black communities before, most notably Lord Scarman’s examination of the 1981 Brixton riots. That report was not quite the whitewash that some have suggested. Scarman recognised the existence of “racial disadvantage and discrimination” and called for “urgent action” to address it. However he “totally and unequivocally” rejected the idea that the policies of the Met Police were racist and dismissed attacks upon the “integrity and impartiality of the senior direction of the force”. Instead he concluded that “Racial prejudice does manifest itself occasionally in the behaviour of a few officers in the streets.” This came to be known as the “bad apples” thesis.
The significance of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry is that despite his own reputation as an unsympathetic and conservative judge, its chair Sir William Macpherson did recognise the existence of institutional racism which he characterised as:
“The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping that disadvantage minority ethnic people.”
In truth, this definition was a fudge intended to provide senior police officers, in particular, the Met’s beleaguered commissioner Paul Condon, with some room for manoeuvre. Arguably what mattered, however, was not the tortured language of a retired establishment judge. Rather it was the belated acknowledgement of something that grassroots activists had argued for decades.
Institutional racism was no longer something that was only discussed by community activists, in academic seminars or at small political meetings. Instead it was placed at the centre of the debate about the workings of the British state. Macpherson himself was forced to concede that it was “the weight of opinion” expressed at the inquiry by those very same campaigners that led to his landmark ruling. Moreover, his conclusions and recommendations were not limited to the police. He called for action to eradicate the “disease” across the whole of society.
When he presented the report to parliament, the then home secretary Jack Straw promised that it would herald a “step change” in society’s attitude to race relations. Legislation was duly passed in 2000 which placed a statutory duty on public bodies to “eliminate unlawful racial discrimination” and “promote equality of opportunity and good relations between persons of different racial groups”.
A generation later and a number of officially commissioned publications show how little has changed. In September 2017 a review by Labour MP David Lammy concluded that “BAME individuals still face bias, including overt discrimination in parts of the justice system.” The remit of that report did not include stop and searches and yet, as Macpherson himself admitted, these interactions had been the principal concern of those who had contributed to the Lawrence inquiry. Back then black people were six times more likely than their white counterparts to be stopped under section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. A month after Lammy’s review, the government’s Racial Disparity Audit reported exactly the same differential.
Three weeks later, home secretary Amber Rudd finally published a report by Dame Elish Angiolini QC into deaths in custody that had been completed ten months previously. That report acknowledged that there is a “disproportionately high number of deaths of black men in restraint related incidents”. Six out of 11 people who died following clashes with the police after April 2017 — in other words after Angiolini’s report was submitted — were from BAME backgrounds.
Given such grim statistics it is understandable that many people from BAME communities conclude that we live in a society dominated by white supremacy. At first glance it can appear that white people collude across class lines, distributing the best homes, jobs, educational opportunities, and the lion’s share of society’s wealth among themselves and excluding, incarcerating and even killing us with impunity. Having done so, they then have the temerity to blame us for all of society’s ills, from the scarcity in public resources, the crime that blights communities, to the terrorist attacks that create insecurity. In turn, this scapegoating stokes up the hostility that encourages the thugs responsible for the hate crimes that have rocketed in recent years.
The racism we experience comes from all levels. It comes from the rich and powerful, a prime minister who boasts of creating a hostile atmosphere for illegal migrants, a foreign secretary who speaks of “watermelon smiles” and “picaninies”, the manager who employs or promotes Mr Smith rather than the better qualified Ms Begum, as well as from jackbooted skinheads on marginalised estates.
Socialists cannot ignore or dismiss such concerns. We recognise that there is no automatic unity among the oppressed or exploited. Writing as long ago as 1870, Karl Marx observed the antagonism between Irish and English workers. However, far from racism being a conspiracy among white people, or something irrevocably wired into their DNA, it has material roots which lie in the birth of capitalism and it has evolved therefrom.
In a world where people’s lives are made miserable and insecure it is hardly surprising that some seek solace by attacking others. But the simple truth is that white workers do not benefit from racism. Numerous studies have shown that where racism is more prevalent, working people of all ethnicities suffer lower wages. The only beneficiaries of this are the bosses who reap the financial rewards at workers’ expense. All workers suffer as a result of the emasculation of public services. People from BAME backgrounds suffer disproportionately at the hands of the police and criminal justice system, but not exclusively so. The largest number of people who are illegally apprehended or killed in custody in Britain or for that matter the United States and other white majority countries, are white.
As we enter a second decade of austerity it is no coincidence that racism is so predominant. It is the principal means by which the ruling class seek to deflect the blame for a crisis that was created by their calamitous activities. That is why racism is constantly stoked up by politicians and their acolytes in the media.
At the beginning of 2018 for example, when a funding crisis led to the cancellation of all non-urgent hospital operations, the Daily Express declared that the problem was largely caused by the so called “health tourism” of opportunist foreigners who have not contributed to the public purse. Two days later the same newspaper suggested that the shortfall should be reduced by clawing money back from the international development budget.
Socialists reject such scapegoating. People from abroad are far more likely to be working alongside those born here as doctors, nurses, clerks or ancillary staff than occupying beds. From its inception, the NHS has combed the Commonwealth to recruit the people who have tended to the new born, the sick and the elderly. The real cause of its crisis is austerity and the privatisation of construction and service provision that have been so spectacularly exposed by the collapse of Carillion.
Moreover these are arguments that can gain an audience. In March 2017 and again this February there were huge turnouts in London for national demonstrations in support of the NHS. At both of those gatherings placards praising the contribution of migrant workers were enthusiastically received.
It is neither easy nor automatic, but it is possible to unite people against racism. Many readers of this journal from diverse backgrounds will have marched together, collected for refugees and opposed the fascists’ Islamophobic thuggery. Meanwhile, the Lawrence family’s long, hard struggle was financed by the trade union movement.
We must continue to stand up to racism but also take the struggle further. Racism will always exist in a world based on exploitation. Therefore we need to fight for a different kind of society hence the rallying cry of Marx and Friedrich Engels’s Communist Manifesto was “Workers of the world unite.”