Bad laws won't make blacks safer

What are the most heinous crimes that anybody can imagine? The murder or abuse of children, the betrayal of one's country, the planting of bombs that kill and maim the innocent - these would come high up most people's lists. Now, after the Stephen Lawrence case, many would add the category of racist murder. In one sense, motive is of no importance to the victim; a man stabbed for supporting the wrong football team bleeds as much as one stabbed for being the wrong colour. Yet in another sense, it matters enormously because, from skin colour, there is no escape. People may deny their football teams or change allegiance; mugging victims may try to appease their attackers by handing over valuables. Most of us can organise our lives to so minimise the possibility of a murderous attack as to make it hardly worth thinking about. Black people have no such option; their very existence is an offence to the racist mind. Since such minds are all too plentiful, every black man or woman walks the streets or locks the door with just a little more fear than a white person. Similar arguments applied to apartheid. Because South African blacks, whatever they did, were condemned to an eternity as second-class citizens, the regime was regarded with peculiar revulsion, even though it was infinitely less vicious and murderous than a dozen or so other regimes that ruled at the same time.

Any recognition that racism is a peculiar evil - whether from the Macpherson report, the Metropolitan Police or the Daily Mail - must be welcomed. The central criticism of the police is that they apparently took more lightly than usual what they should have taken less lightly. But as Brian Cathcart argues on page 8, we must ask ourselves whether, in this respect, the police did not simply echo wider social priorities. After all, for at least a year after Stephen's murder, newspaper references to "the Lawrence case" concerned the death of a London head (also from stab wounds, also appalling) at his school gate. The issue of the moment was teachers' safety, not black safety, and Stephen's parents and friends were bitterly aggrieved that his fate was widely ignored. It is all very well for the Mail now to put itself in the vanguard of anti-racism. But were its journalists any quicker than the police to see the importance of the case? And how often has the Mail joined the right-wing chorus that mocks campaigns against racist language and racist school textbooks as "political correctness"? Would it now care to deny that "racism awareness" courses may actually be of some value, notably to the police in south-east London?

But now that we have promoted racist murder up the hierarchy of crime, it is important that we keep our sense of proportion. The law should promote fairness, equity, liberty and justice, protecting the innocent as well as punishing the guilty; instead, it is increasingly used as a device to still public panic and clamour over any newly discovered outrage. Let Arab fanatics bomb American embassies in Africa and we must further extend our deeply illiberal conspiracy laws. Let terrorists explode bombs in Omagh and we must permit what amounts to internment on uncorroborated police evidence. Let children's homes be found riddled with abuse and we must record, and bar from further employment with children, anybody even suspected of paedophiliac tendencies. Let a psychopath commit murder and we must lock up anybody thought to be a psychopath, even if they haven't harmed a kitten. And now, let one set of racist murderers escape justice through the failure of a misconceived private prosecution and we must (according to Macpherson) abolish the ancient protection against double jeopardy, which prevents people being tried twice for the same crime. Anybody who then tries to make the civil liberties argument risks being branded, if not themselves as child abusers, terrorists, racists, etc, at least as sympathisers and fellow-travellers.

It was not the law that failed the Lawrence family; it was the police investigation and, by extension, the attitudes that we all hold to racist crime and racist behaviour. The danger is that we categorise the Lawrence murder as an act committed by the criminal classes against respectable folk, in which the usual skin colours happened to be reversed, thus confusing the rather inflexible people who enter the police force. That, in truth, is what underlies the Mail's stance and it leads to the very Mail-like conclusion that we simply need stronger laws, cutting all those tiresome liberal corners, against the criminal underclass. But the issue is a quite different one, not confined solely to the police, and only when that is understood can black Britons hope to walk the streets in safety.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The police force we deserve?