The trouble with sociology is that it isn't a science. Sodium nitrate, surface tension, the velocity of light: these have precise definitions which mean the same thing to everybody, worldwide. Sociology isn't like that. Sir William Macpherson, the chairman of the Lawrence inquiry, may now be wishing that he hadn't borrowed the phrase "institutional racism" as the Wagnerian leitmotiv of his Polizeidammerung report. A trio of sociologists helped him with the definition, but many ambiguities remain, allowing the phrase to mean all things to all accusers. Ofsted has denounced the teaching trade for institutional racism. The NHS has been criticised not only for institutional racism but also for institutional homophobia. One nursing union has raised the question of racism among patients. Do you refuse to treat a patient on these grounds? Is everything justified in this good fight?
The murder of Stephen Lawrence was terrible and the behaviour of the police unjustifiable. But to see the phrase "institutional racism" being so glibly, if penitently, clutched to the bosom of British bureaucrats, ministers and all-purpose liberal opinion formers is doubly ironic when you realise where it all began. It was invented by the American Black Power leader, Stokely Carmichael. The 1967 Penguin edition of his Black Power: the politics of liberation is listed first among "publications seen by the inquiry" in appendix 18 of the Macpherson report. It takes you back to the Maoist era of "the long march through the institutions". (The Sussex University version of this led to the Labour Party entryist politics of Militant.) This is not the only reason for wariness. Britain has a long record of importing American ideas and institutions 30 years late, and usually at the point where the flaws are becoming widely known back in their home territory.
Stokely Carmichael was no sociologist. He only wanted political results. But the phrase was taken across into sociology. Tariq Modood, editor of the authoritative study, Ethnic Minorities in Britain, and a sociology professor at Bristol University, says he has tried to think of alternative wordings because of the ambiguities. (I can find no mention of the term in the index to his own study, published only two years ago.) Macpherson himself complained that "you ask a dozen people what it means and they give you a dozen answers". After talking it all through with Modood and other specialists, I boil it down to four.
Meaning no 1
At the first, simplest level, institutional racism means much the same as "unintentional racism". In particular, it means the imposition of rules and regulations which are discriminatory in effect, if not in intention.
When I visited the city of Atlanta, shortly after its first black mayor was voted into office in the early 1980s, the new administration was aiming to reform such rules. For example, the refuse collectors were all white, because they were recruited by word of mouth from among relatives and friends. Black applicants faced an extra barrier in elaborate aptitude tests which required far more knowledge than you needed for such a job. The new black administration advertised all jobs publicly and changed the admission tests. Result: black dustmen.
We have examples in Britain of this kind of racism, and not only in the Metropolitan Police. Ford at Dagenham has had a similar difficulty with recruiting black car-delivery truckers. In the days of tight-knit docker and printer unions, you got the same pattern. Sometimes, as with printing, economic change breaks the old pattern. You can also take direct action, as they did in Atlanta. The Met has now announced that it will change the rules that make entry difficult for ethnic minority officers.
But no change happens in a social vacuum. In black-run Atlanta, the "hidden injuries" of race have not faded. They are central to Tom Wolfe's latest novel, A Man in Full. The expanding suburbs of Atlanta have become ever-whiter; they are under separate councils. In Britain, white flight is a subject seldom discussed.
Meaning no 2
This is a near-synonym for the so-called "canteen culture" (in the police force and its equivalent in other institutions). Jokes and jibes about race are tolerated as part of the job. A police officer who makes racist jokes doesn't necessarily take racist actions. But the all-pervading atmosphere downgrades the concerns and sensitivities of ethnic minorities.
Macpherson's DIY definition comes closest to this second meaning, though he also teeters towards meaning no 1: "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 amounts to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantages minority ethnic people." The Chief Constable of Manchester seems to have been pleading guilty to this during Macpherson's regional tour.
To overcome institutional racism on this second definition would require local police chiefs to lead from the front, with the backing of a concerted national campaign. You could compare it to the argument and semi-coercion (finally followed by legislation) which eventually drove the corporal punishment culture out of schools. Staff-room culture - as in a tough King's Cross boys' school I briefly taught in - assumed that regular beatings were the only way to run the place. (And caricatures of the teacher fondly clutching his cane go back hundreds of years.) The police canteen culture in, let's say, Stoke Newington, may assume that from young black men you can only expect trouble.
To change such things is a long hard slog. Even a close monitoring of the canteen culture, backed up by a better quotient of black police officers, may not always do the trick. Take Los Angeles, where the police have been forced to bring in measures like these. The Rodney King case, the ensuing riots, the O J Simpson trial - not forgetting the novels of James Ellroy - all show that racism is still part of the air Los Angeles police officers breathe.
Meaning no 3
As Met Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon has accepted the Macpherson definition. But at the inquiry itself, he denied institutional racism. This takes you on to definition no 3, which Lord Scarman put forward after the riots of the early 1980s. It gives the accusation of institutional racism its fiercest rhetorical charge.
To Scarman, it implied an organisation that is racist as a deliberate act of policy - like the Gestapo or the South African police in the apartheid years. He exonerated the Met of this kind of neo-Nazism. The only trouble, he said, was a few "bad apples". Condon was seizing on the Scarman definition when he denied institutional racism in the Met. It is the easiest definition to deny.
Last week, Sinn Fein got in on the rhetorical act. After the loyalist car-bomb murder of the solicitor, Rosemary Nelson, it accused the RUC of "institutionalised sectarianism". Presumably this is a variant of meaning no 3.
Meaning no 4
This is the most problematic. It is the definition that derives most directly from Stokely Carmichael. On this unforgiving reading, racism is the keystone of British society. The police are infected by it, like any other institution. But the police are so integral to the functioning of the state that racism here is doubly symbolic. If this deep-rooted racism - both conscious and unconscious - could be eradicated from the police, the racism that supposedly underlies the whole structure of British society would unravel. A brave new world would open up.
This definition produces a task beyond anyone to achieve this side of a revolution. (And anyone who saw what Han Chinese police said about Muslims from the central Asian province of Xingjiang in the television documentary series, Shanghai Vice, will doubt whether even revolution would do the job.) Its biggest drawback is that, because it caricatures and demonises British society, it is so vulnerable to dismissal. This, usually, is the definition hostile critics have in mind when they write off the Macpherson recommendations completely.
There is racism and racism. In the US, you could argue that race really is central to the social structure - as class is in Britain. The trauma of black Americans (one in eight of the population), most of them trapped, like a caste, at the bottom of American society, and always sliding below any new migrant group, is beyond anything we know in Britain. Even migrants from the Caribbean, including the families of Malcolm X and General Colin Powell, prosper more than the average black American. In a public reversal, the neo-conservative sociologist Nathan Glazer now argues that positive discrimination (for black Americans, but not for others) must be welcomed.
In all debates about "institutional racism", it is important to remember that Britain is not a multicultural society; certainly not a multi-ethnic one. Because so many national commentators live and work in London, where between a fifth and a quarter of the population is ethnic minority, they have a skewed perception of the country. Britain is 95 per cent white. Much of it, outside London and a dozen English inner cities, is almost 100 per cent white. Among a cluster of highly sensible and practical recommendations, the Macpherson report suggests the widespread monitoring by schools of racial troubles in (say) deepest Norfolk or County Durham. Is there any point in this? Is this where the argument about institutional racism leads you? Concern must go hand in hand with common sense.
Nothing is absolutely simple. Responding to Macpherson's analysis, Jack Straw has said that all police forces should now make sure they have ethnic-minority recruits up to the level in the general population. According to the last census, that means about 5 per cent. But within that national percentage, by far the largest proportion is South Asian (Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, in that order of numbers). Should that pattern also be reflected? What about London? And where does that leave the vast tracts of suburban, small-town and rural Britain? In other words, white Britain.
In schools - whatever Ofsted says about institutional racism - the toughest task is to raise the performance of under-achieving white children. It is right to do everything possible to raise the performance, also, of other under-achievers, especially black boys. But the proportion of such children, nationwide, is tiny. In almost every school, there are far more under-achievers who are white. In the days of Ken Livingstone and Frances Morrell's Inner London Education Authority, they were largely ignored - or were thought best helped by anti-racist propaganda. This worked about as well as trying to propagandise teenage girls into not smoking.
In Britain, the non-white population is far from homogeneous. All studies confirm that people of Indian background - the largest ethnic minority - are, on average, better off and better educated than whites. In a short sharp letter to the Guardian, an Asian reader, Vani Borooah, asked: "If institutional racism is responsible for Pakistani, Bangladeshi and black Caribbean children doing worse than their white equivalents, what is responsible for Indian and Chinese children doing so much better?" And in a courageous analysis of ethnic patterns of crime, David Smith, a professor of criminology at Edinburgh, has noted that all the usual explanations of black crime (police racism, poverty, unemployment, youthful rebelliousness) are undercut by the fact that even Asians who are much worse off than black families (the Pakistanis and the Bangladeshis) hardly cause a ripple in the crime statistics. Family structure, and communal patterns of ambition, play their part. To quote Tariq Modood: "Minorities cannot simply be understood in terms of racism."
Racism is an easy accusation to make. "Racist" - and, even more fuzzily, "institutionally racist" - has this in common with Marxist or Freudian accusations. You are damned if you do, and damned if you don't. If you confess, you are racist. If you don't, you are in denial, or guilty of false consciousness. I have never met anyone, whatever his ethnic background, who is without traces of racism and/or xenophobia. The point, as with the Met, must be to stop it showing up in action. Most of all, we must stop the disgraceful succession of racial attacks. But the reform of minds will take longer.
The Metropolitan Police is in a very special, very symbolic position, being responsible for protecting so many of Britain's ethnic-minority population. The Macpherson report will, I hope, help to push reform forward. We do not want a racist police force. But I suspect that appending "institutional" to "racism" on the charge sheet has added confusion to an already difficult argument.
The writer is a senior fellow, Institute of Community Studies