The significance of Stephen

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.

Amid the torrent of words spoken and written after the convictions of two men for the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, there has perhaps
been too little emphasis on the Macpherson report into the initial investigation of the case and on the 46 words above. These were the heart of the report, a definition of the then little-known concept of institutional racism.

The first reaction to the trial process has been to contemplate the appalling and naked racism not only implicit in the murder, but seen in the surveillance video of the suspects fantasising about torturing and killing black men. Most people will conclude that, thankfully, the lunatic fringes of the English Defence League aside, that era has passed.

But to keep one's gaze there is to underestimate the significance of Stephen Lawrence's death and the contribution to British life of Doreen and Neville Lawrence and their family and supporters. This requires us to understand that there are two types of racism - the overt and obvious and the chronic, long-term and often individually unintended. The Lawrences forced upon Scotland Yard an acceptance of that definition of institutional racism, a definition that the then home secretary, Jack Straw, described as making clear the reality of being a minority citizen of the United Kingdom. And in doing that - because the definition extended far beyond the police - the Lawrences forced Britain to confront not just the horror of overt racism, but the overall discrimination inflicted casually on black and minority citizens by the state in many of its processes, public and private.

Mood change

The Met had expected the Macpherson report to be highly critical; after all it had seen some of its own witnesses perform lamentably on the witness stand. It was braced for condemnation. Subsequently its homicide investigation and intelligence systems were transformed. The most important idea the Met had, however, was to create a series of independent advisory groups (IAGs), comprised of many of the force's fiercest critics, to provide feedback on policy as well as individual cases and incidents.

Much merriment has been had at the expense of the Met for its fostering of staff associations based on ethnicity and faith after the Lawrence case. Yet it was the Black Police Association which suggested that it send its Yoruba-speaking members down to Peckham to help solve the murder of Damilola Taylor in 2000. What the IAGs demanded was just that sort of approach: emotional intelligence, an understanding that racial hatred, like misogyny, underlay much serious violence and that only by undertaking investigations with communities rather than doing investigations to them would the Met succeed.

I have no doubt the changes that flowed from Lawrence underpinned the rise in minority recruitment at the Met, which has quadrupled in the past decade. I also have no doubt that if, as is widely agreed, the inner-city riots of last summer were not racially based, that is due to ten years of change in London's policing.Sir Robert Mark, commissioner of the Met in the 1970s, suggested that "the police are the anvil on which society beats out the problems and abrasions of social inequality, racial prejudice, weak laws and ineffective legislation". Thanks to the energy and passion of the Lawrences, the deserved beating of the police over the inadequate original investigation into their son's death gave the whole country its single greatest opportunity for change in relation to matters of race.

Yet there is far to go. The Mark Duggan case, which precipitated the riots in August, seems to indicate that the Yard has forgotten at least some of its training. The Metropolitan Police Authority, which championed equality, will be abolished in 16 January and emphasis on the crucial nature of diversity in the Met is to be left in the hands of the Mayor of London.

The Independent on Sunday reports that ethnic-minority citizens are twice as likely as their white peers to die under the age of one, three times as likely to be excluded from school and four times as likely to be murdered.

There is little appetite in the coalition for talking about race. Some right-wing commentators even wonder what all the Lawrence fuss was about. It was about declaring that racism springs from not just thuggery, but the denial of equal opportunity and fair treatment. It would be a betrayal indeed of the progress that has been made since 1993 if we lost sight of the significance of Stephen's legacy.

Ian Blair was commissioner of the Metropolitan Police (2005-2008). He now sits as a cross-bench peer

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Britain

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.