What insights can definition of institutional racism?

Published 15 Mar 2017

In recent memory, the Stephen Lawrence murder episode is considered one of the most embarrassing incidents for the Metropolitan Police of London due to their general apathy towards the victim’s family, and alleged racist approach in handling the case. Back then, the case made headlines all over for the shocking impunity with which events unfolded in favour of those allegedly responsible for the gruesome killing. In April 1993, while waiting at a bus stop in Eltham, near London, black teen Stephen, 18, and his friend Duwayne Brooks were accosted by six white youth who set upon him with racist abuse and in a disastrous turnout of events, Stephen was brutally stabbed which eventually led to his death; an episode that severely damaged race relations between the Police and members of the Afro-Caribbean community and provoked intense debate on an issue that was long buried in the hatchet: the case for institutionalised racism in the Police department. This case was a turning point in the history of the manner in which race crimes were tackled in Britain.

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Appealing to mass sentiment and public demonstrations against racism, Sir William Macpherson prepared a report on the alleged culpability of the Police department in the botched-up investigation scenario following the murder which eventually exonerated the accused from their crime in court, due to a lack of evidence. Macpherson therefore, was clear and unambiguous in his pronouncement that racism was ‘institutionalised’ in the department and laid out a series of recommendations (70 in all) which he felt, would address the issue at its core. Indeed, drawn from public outpouring of support for Lawrence’s case, the Macpherson report succeeded in establishing itself as a precedent in addressing the grievances of minorities against a system, although fair but yet not incorruptible by any means.

The aim of this essay is to weigh in, and analyse the impact of the Macpherson report and its description of institutionalised racism in the Police (and to a greater extent, public bodies such as schools) and to determine the degree to which improvements have been made in the years following the murder, mainly assessing the true extent to which the Macpherson recommendations were adopted in the department’s daily interactions with Blacks and other minorities. While it can be mentioned in no uncertain terms that ever since the passage of the Race Relations act (1976), minorities have had better shield against manifestation of racial abuse, it would be naïve to assume that racism is no longer a part and parcel of their daily lives. In fact, it was acting on this precise assumption that the Met Police could not save the life of Stephen Lawrence and many others before him.

In evaluating the main themes in the report, an attempt would be made to illustrate the efficacy of the Police and judicial system in working out incidents of crime with a racist angle; since the Macpherson report alleges that the Stephen Lawrence case was bad rap for never being treated as racist crime by the Metropolitan police, due to certain number of factors, there was a hint of institutional racism pervading the department. One of the key points made was that the Police force was in infrequent contact with members of the Black community, less social interactions outside of policing work – so there was a general lack of sensitivity towards confidence building; hence institutional racism was but an inevitable fall-out of the events leading to Lawrence’s murder. Once the crux of the matter is laid out, the paper would look into different aspects of institutionalised racism, e.g. racial profiling. Also, it would present a critique of the Macpherson report which does identify the problem and the symptoms, but does not go into the root cause of the it. The remaining paper will concentrate on the effective steps that can be taken to create understanding and warmth between the Police force and the Black community. What steps have already been taken? What more can be learnt from experiences of police departments elsewhere in the world?

The salient feature of the Macpherson report was that it got inspired from allied themes of “institutional racism” based on an earlier Lord Scarman report (1981) which had followed the Brixton riots in 1981. In the report, it was empathetically suggested that Britain was on the brink of becoming an intolerant society in which, as a matter of public policy the Government and private institutions, overtly or covertly discriminated against members of the black community. The term in context used was “racial disadvantage” and “racial discrimination” instead of “institutionalised racism” (BBC News, 2004). Scarman’s report called for quick and immediate measures to tackle the inequities gripping Blacks and other disadvantaged groups, before the problem could would manifest in an undesirable manner, to be considered a national epidemic. Two important recommendations made in the report were: a) gradual increment in number of policemen from minority communities and b) special programmes for White policemen to become culturally sensitive to non-White community needs (BBC News, 2004).

The Macpherson report, therefore, took a pioneering step in defining institutionalised racism as evident in Police actions/negligence, based on a holistic assessment of conditions precluding the prejudice that surfaced in the Lawrence murder event; and three categories of racism were identified spelling out the precise impact caused due to racism evident in the events unfolding the tragedy. To make the definition compatible with future policy actions to be taken, Macpherson for the first time in British legal history, enhanced the scope of the definition of “institutionalised racism” to cover not only racism at direction and policy level, but also various forms of “indirect racism” that are more subtle, and insidious in the severity of their impact. In Macpherson’s terminology, this brand of racism was subtle, more innocuous and far more widespread in British public institutions (e.g. the public schools), and therefore, required a much closer examination in order to foster

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