01 March 1999
An attack on us all
Law lecturer John Fitzpatrick thinks there are many dangers in the Lawrence
The report of the inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence is an
indictment of the Metropolitan Police, and a welcome blow to the racist
treatment of ethnic minorities by the police and the criminal justice
system. But the report is also one of the most disturbing and dangerous
official statements for many years. This is clear from the chapter on
racism and the report's final recommendations.
Much of the report refers to 'institutional racism'. This was a term
developed by anti-racists to draw attention away from individual instances
of racist behaviour and on to the racism of the authorities, like the
police, the criminal justice system and government. For all its talk of
'institutional' the report actually refocuses on racism as a problem of
individual behaviour. What is much worse is the general opinion of
individuals which it exudes.
The report proposes the indoctrination in 'valuing cultural diversity' of
police officers and schoolchildren alike, through compulsory training and
an amended National Curriculum. It also suggests that racist language
should be criminalised, even when spoken in private, and commands that a
'racist incident' be defined as 'any incident which is perceived to be
racist by the victim or any other person'. It should be said that both the
tone and terms of these proposals are an affront to any free-thinking human
The implication is clear: racism is a problem of how individual people
behave, which must be educated or engineered out of them. The report
defines institutional racism 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,
which disadvantage minority ethnic people'.
So the failure of the Metropolitan Police has been a failure to control the
behaviour of the ignorant, thoughtless individuals in its ranks. There is
barely a word about the professional forces giving rise to racism in the
outside world - about 'great' Britain and 'inferior' aliens, about the
immigration and other laws the police have to enforce, about minority
ethnic communities at the bottom of the heap. Of course individuals should
be held to account for their actions, racist and otherwise. But this report
sees nothing beyond individuals but a failure of authority to contain them,
and beyond this particular authority nothing at all.
The murder of Stephen Lawrence and the events which followed have given New
Labour the opportunity to stamp its authority right across society. On this
issue, they feel sure, no decent person will be able to resist. The fact
that a powerful but insufficiently 'modernised' organisation like the
Metropolitan Police can be reprimanded in the process is a bonus. The
report duly reproduces the authoritarian approach of its sponsors. It
implies that none of us can be relied upon, that we are all guilty - or in
This is the dangerous heart of the report. By finding ONLY 'unwitting
racism' in individual officers and by relentlessly emphasising the 'subtle'
and 'unconscious' character of the problem, it lays the ground for the
measures - here and in the future - by which the authorities will protect
us from ourselves. Individuals today cannot be allowed to take
responsibility, because the report does not for a moment concede that we
are capable of exercising it. Police officers, and by implication the rest
of us, are 'infected' or 'infested' by a 'corrosive disease'.
Thus we begin with a host of recommendations which treat police officers as
children, minutely regulating their professional conduct and any
interpersonal matters with a racial dimension - how to define, report,
record, investigate and prosecute racist crime, how to liase with families,
victims and witnesses, how to develop 'racism awareness' and how to write
down 'the self-defined ethnic identity' of a person stopped and searched.
From there some wider recommendations for the rest of us are developed,
such as those concerning the abolition of the rule against 'double
jeopardy', the amendment of the National Curriculum and the criminalisation
of racist language. George Orwell would be jealous of such anti-human and
It should be noted that this was not an inquiry into the police generally,
let alone into race relations. In fact race relations are much better than
they have been, and increasing numbers from minority ethnic communities are
successfully refusing to accept a subordinate position in this society.
This is not complacency, but to notice this should make us reflect on the
motives behind the launch of such a crusade at this particular time. There
is only one short chapter (out of 47) on the broader issue of 'the
investigation and prosecution of racially motivated crimes'. For the rest
the report is a punctilious demolition of the investigation into one single
crime. As such it could not possibly provide an adequate basis for the
scope of its final recommendations.
The full report shows that raising the question of police racism has come
at a heavy price, a price which will be paid by all members of society,
white and black. The relationship between the individual and society has
been redrawn, and the message from the authorities is clear: we don't trust
you, and if you don't conform and defer, you're in trouble.
John Fitzpatrick is a lecturer in law at the University of Kent and
director of the Kent Law Clinic
To read more about the Lawrence report see Institutional anti-racism is the one to fear by veteran anti-racist campaigner Mark Butler.
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