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