Keeping our wits about us
Stephen Lawrence was not the first black teenager to be murdered by racists in Britain, or to have the investigation of his murder mishandled by the police. His tragic death in April 1993 cannot explain why, in 1999, almost the entire political, legal and media establishment seems suddenly to have converted to the anti-racist cause.
Those who have campaigned against racist violence and discrimination for years, usually in the face of official contempt, can be forgiven for wondering what is really going on. When reactionary newspapers like the Sun and the Daily Mail, along with the old farts of the judiciary and the young farts on the Tory front bench, all start issuing emotional denunciations of the evils of racism, it is time to take a cool look at what's behind this accelerating bandwagon.
Of course there is racism in Britain, emanating most powerfully from the police and other state institutions; and no, ours is not the uniquely tolerant society which some have tried to paint it as. But none of that is new. So why have so many at the top of British society suddenly become deeply concerned with the problem of racism now?
Perhaps it is because racist violence is getting worse in Britain. But there is no evidence of that. On the day that the Macpherson report was published, the Guardian filled its front page with a catalogue of racist killings since 1991. For the six years since Stephen Lawrence's murder, it listed a total of 12 deaths. Even if all of them were indeed racially motivated murders (and the actual circumstances of several of these dozen deaths remain open to question), that averages two deaths a year with no discernible upwards trend.
The official figures for less serious racial incidents may well show an increase. But such a rise in recorded racism is not the same thing as a real increase. It is more likely to be accounted for by other factors - like the impact of racial awareness training within the police, and police PR within ethnic minority communities. The experience of living in a racially diverse city like London suggests that, if anything, there is less everyday racist violence and abuse now than there was 20 or even 10 years ago.
Nor can the establishment's overnight conversion to the cause of anti-racism be explained by any newfound commitment to ending inequality. In the same week that MPs were loudly lining up to endorse Macpherson's condemnation of 'institutional racism', they were quietly lining up to vote through the New Labour government's Asylum and Immigration Bill, which will institutionalise various discriminatory measures against those seeking asylum in Britain (see this issue for details). Of course, this bill has nothing to do with race; it is just a coincidence that asylum seekers tend to be black Africans and Arabs rather than white Americans.
Behind the positive response to the Lawrence inquiry from politicians and the press lurks something far less wholesome than those involved would like us to believe. To understand it, we need to come to terms with the Macpherson report's redefinition of racism - a redefinition which has made anti-racism far more attractive and useful to those in authority today.
The concept of 'institutional racism' is at the heart of the report's criticisms of the police and British society more generally. In his definition of institutional racism, Macpherson declares that it 'can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people'.
The key word here, which crops up throughout the report and the subsequent discussion, is 'unwitting'. The problem it seems is unwitting prejudice, unwitting racism. Put that together with 'ignorance' and 'thoughtlessness', and you have a concept of racism without racists. Individual policemen discriminate, yes, but without meaning to. We should forgive them, for they know not what they do. And we should all examine our own consciences. For if racism in society really is 'unwitting', if racist behaviour has nothing to do with intentions, then which of us can truly say that we might not unknowingly be (in Macpherson's word) 'infected' by the disease? The conclusion must be that we all need more education and awareness training to deal with our thoughtless ignorance.
When it was first put forward by Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers, the notion of institutional racism implied the deliberate wielding of power by a racist state apparatus. Macpherson is having none of that. For him, 'it is vital to stress' that the policies of an institution like the Metropolitan Police are not racist; 'Indeed the contrary is true'. Instead it is in the unwitting 'words and actions of officers acting together that racism may become apparent'.
The problem of racism is here divorced from questions of politics and power. It has nothing in particular to do with the government ministers, judges or police chiefs who hold the levers of power in society. Nor is it connected to social and economic discrimination. It is simply about the words and actions of unwitting PCs - and, by implication, of anybody else - which may in some way 'disadvantage minority ethnic people'.
Macpherson's concept of 'institutional racism' effectively says that it is rooted not, as the term previously suggested, within the structures of the state and society, but within every individual's soul. So, as home secretary Jack Straw told parliament, 'This report does not place a responsibility on someone else, it places a responsibility on each of us'. Or as Guardian columnist Hugo Young had it, 'Somewhere deep down, unless I watch it, unhealthy racial awareness is my condition too'.
Now it becomes possible to see why Macpherson's approach has scored such a big hit with establishment figures, newspapers and bodies not previously noted for their interest in these issues. Because it is not about tackling the real problems of racism - it is about using anti-racist rhetoric to legitimise a moral crusade.
At a time when they are obsessed with the problem of a moral vacuum in society, the new elites of Tony Blair's Britain have seized upon the Lawrence inquiry report in a self-conscious effort to draw that elusive line between right and wrong. When few clear values remain that can unite the nation, they want to turn Macpherson-style anti-racism into the bedrock of a new moral community. What the members of this moral community have in common is not only that they are all against racist murderers (which some might think is a pretty low standard of common morality), but that each of them is struggling with their own inner prejudices. We are good people, and we can prove it because we are happy to confess our unwitting racism.
'So, can you be a racist without knowing it?' asked David Aaronovitch in the Independent: 'Yes. Of course. It doesn't make you a member of the Ku Klux Klan, or even a bad person. But it does mean that, with a bit of thought, you might behave more admirably and more fairly.' And then maybe you can get to join Jack Straw's Decent Society.
As with everything else in New Labour's moral drive to teach us good citizenship, education is seen as the key. Macpherson's report notes research in Cardiff which showed 50 percent of recorded racial incidents involved young people under the age of 16, and 25 percent involved children aged between six and 10. A commonsense interpretation of those statistics might see them as relatively good news - a sign that racist practices are more prevalent among ignorant little children, always the most vociferous exponents of every cruel prejudice, most of whom grow out of such superficial nastiness as they mature. For Macpherson, however, the opposite is the case. The figures prove that racial prejudice is 'deeply ingrained' in us all from childhood, and must be countered by a kind of reprogramming, 'in particular in the fields of education and family life'.
The moral crusade is not really about Stephen Lawrence's murder, but his case is an ideal pretext for it. The suspects are an unusually unattractive bunch of white racists, while the Lawrence family make strikingly sympathetic black victims - decent, dignified, more 'British' than their persecutors. Press coverage of Eltham, the area of south-east London where Stephen Lawrence was murdered, emphasised this contrast. 'INTO HELL' declared the front page headline of the Mirror on the day the Lawrence report was published, as Brian Reade spent a whole afternoon walking around a largely white housing estate in Eltham and 'found racism seeping from every pore' of this 'E-reg Escort land' where race hate is 'a way of life passed down from father to son'. No doubt such coverage has done much to improve local race relations.
But does it matter what the motives are of those who have made a cause célèbre of the Lawrence murder inquiry? If anti-racism becomes obligatory, a kind of new national institution, isn't that for the best? It all depends what you mean by anti-racism.
In future, thanks to Macpherson's recommendations, not only will racism be characterised as 'unwitting', but the definition of a racial incident will be changed to 'any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or by any other person'. All white people can be racists, whether they know it or not; and anything which happens to a black person can be self-defined as racist. That might sound like a big step forward for racial equality. But is it? After all, if everybody is racist, then nobody is really responsible for racial violence or discrimination; if everything can be racist, then nothing is really a racist offence. By opening up the definition of racism in this way, you end up trivialising it. And who benefits from that?
Nor does the raising of anti-racism into something approaching a state doctrine mean the end of discrimination and violence. Take the German parallel. There, for obvious historical reasons, nobody is allowed to be anti-Semitic. Everybody has to pay their respects to the Jewish victims of past German racism. But that does not mean that the Germans love the many Kurdish or Turkish immigrants in their society, who have suffered terribly in recent years. It simply means that as the culture evolves and the old nationalism crumbles, the focus for racial politics has changed. A similar process is at work in Britain today, where black may now be considered cool, but Romanian gypsies seeking refuge in Kent can freely be treated like the scum of the Earth.
In an age when a nonsensical concept like 'unwitting racism' is widely accepted as good coin, it is imperative that we keep our wits about us and question everything. I like to think of myself as a democrat who hates all forms of discrimination and believes in liberty for all. But as the language of politics is rewritten, I only know that I am neither a racist nor an anti-racist, unwitting or otherwise.
Reproduced from LM issue 119, April 1999