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01 March 1999

An attack on us all

Law lecturer John Fitzpatrick thinks there are many dangers in the Lawrence report

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 being.

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 denial.

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 authoritarian measures.

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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