Burying Macpherson

Burying Macpherson


Written by: CARF

It took 50 or so years of struggle against racism in Britain to get the fact of institutional racism accepted.

In that sense the Macpherson Report into the death of Stephen Lawrence was a milestone – for it vindicated the repeated claims of racism that black people had made against the police and the criminal justice system. The days of explaining that racism was not about personal attitudes or cultural disadvantage were over. Racism was established as a systematic pattern of injustice woven into the very culture and institutions of society and the state. Or so we thought. But even while the struggle is still on to get the government to implement Macpherson’s recommendations, the ideological backlash to the Inquiry has gathered pace.

Attack from the Right

Two reports hailing from the Institute for the Study of Civil Society (ISCS), a successor to the right-wing Institute of Economic Affairs, are quite overt about undermining the Macpherson Report and, especially, the concept of institutional racism. Institutional Racism and the Police: Fact or Fiction is a small book which gathers together previously published opinions. That some of these, like those of John Grieve (of the Met’s Racial and Violent Crimes Task Force) and Mike O’Brien (Home Office Secretary of State), are embarrassingly keen to embrace the concept of institutional racism can be no coincidence or matter of balance; they are there as foils for the remaining contributors. For Tory ex-shadow minister Robert Skidelsky (of the Social Market Foundation) the definition of institutional racism (particularly ‘unwitting racism’ which is ‘unprovable’) has been so expanded that it has nothing to do with ‘truth’ and ‘everything to do with politics’. In David Green’s hands Macpherson’s call to ditch colour-blind policing (because it gives no weightage to the differential customs, lifestyles etc of different ethnic groups) becomes interpreted as a call to colour-conscious policing which equals preferential policing. And Michael Ignatieff (whose understanding of racism begins and ends in the Balkans) sides with Green in his equal-not-differential treatment gambit – on the basis apparently that we all start off equal and should therefore be treated equally! It is Green, though, who sums up the whole Right position on Macpherson: the Lawrences were exploited and Macpherson was misled by pressure groups which sought to establish black people as victims of a white society that cared little about the death of a black man. Which of course is manifest nonsense in Green’s view as the couple who helped Stephen as he lay dying were both white!

Selective reading

In Racist Murder and Pressure Group Politics, a larger work by Norman Dennis, George Erdos and Ahmed Al-Shahi, the same spurious arguments and methods are employed to discredit Macpherson – alleging, for instance, that because the Inquiry could not find either overt or covert racism, it moved the goalposts to ‘unwitting racism’. And by selective readings of parts of the evidence submitted to the Inquiry, the authors are not just able to exonerate individual police officers but also succeed in arguing in the process that it was Doreen Lawrence who incited the public, and Imran Khan, an uppity lawyer, who made it so hard for the police to do their job. (Note, this interpretation was handed to the Right on a platter by journalist Brian Cathcart in his book The Case of Stephen Lawrence.) All of which, say the authors, has made the police so sensitive to accusations of racism that they fail to police black areas effectively.

Much of this mischievous ISCS book (which is being promoted by sections of the police) utilises the sleaziest of tactics: words from the Lawrence parents are pulled out of context to oppose those from Macpherson, the religious beliefs and family values of the Lawrences are, without the slightest evidence, posited as anathema to their supporters, anti-racists are derided as Stalinists or Trotskyists, and Stokely Carmichael (credited with coining the term institutional racism) as an anti-Semite, and anti-racism itself is depicted as a totalitarian creed.

Misrepresenting anti-racism

The book relies on the same canard that the New Right (à la Anthony Flew, John Marks, David Dale, Ray Honeyford et al) used in the 1980s and 1990s to attack the Inner London Education Authority, the Institute of Race Relations and the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work, namely that anti-racists conflate equality of opportunity with equality of outcome. In other words that anti-racism demands ethnic quotas in all fields to correspond with ethnic proportions in the overall population. And they still wheel out Afro-American Thomas Sowell, their one solitary academic, to give their arguments ‘substance’.

It would not be worth bothering at all with such shoddy and clearly politically-inspired reports except that their supporters in the press give their specious arguments popular airing and further add to muddle-headed thinking under guise of common sense. Sunday Times columnist Melanie Phillips, for example, begins by drawing on the ISCS reports to exonerate the police of racism and then goes on to add her own ha’p’orth of originality by alleging that institutional racism for Macpherson is something which ‘mysteriously floats about in structures, not persons, you can be racist without knowing it. Thus what isn’t there is really there.’

But it is Phillips who is not all there. It is she and her cohorts of the Right who wilfully refuse to grasp a) that prejudice is not synonymous with racism, b) that it is the effect of an action not its intent that constitutes the problem, c) that sensitive policing does not militate against equality of treatment but enhances its possibility, d) that institutional racism describes the policies, procedures, operations and culture of institutions and e) that the Macpherson Inquiry’s finding of institutional racism was based, not just on the conduct of officers in one case, but on a whole body of evidence of black people’s experience over 50 years.

Attack from the Left?

It is ironic, indeed, that a report from a conservative, retired high court judge can push forward frontiers in the tackling of racism, while another report influenced by prominent black (and erstwhile radical) academics can set them back. But the Parekh Report on The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain (FMEB) has produced more problems for anti-racists than solutions.

Its authors, now reeling from the media brouhaha over the Parekh Report, complain that sentences were taken out of context and that serious practical recommendations have been overlooked. But the fact remains that, before any discussion of racism in the report come 55 pages which set the philosophical scene. And it is here, in sections entitled, ‘The Turning Point’, ‘Rethinking the National story’, ‘Identities in Transition’ and ‘Cohesion, Equality and Difference’ that the dragon’s teeth were sown. Strongly influenced by academic preoccupations with postmodernism and a ‘reading’ of racism more usually found on Cultural Studies courses, the report here weaves its way round ‘imagined communities’, ‘hybrid identities’, ‘cultural difference’ and the ‘multicultural post-nation’.

Postmodern gobbledygook

The term Britishness, like Englishness, is racially coded, says the report. Racial and cultural difference have been symbolically ‘written out of the national story’. Defining British in an exclusive manner alienates ‘a large number of people and fails to foster a common sense of belonging’. Britain should formally declare itself a multi-cultural society whose history needs to be ‘revised, rethought or jettisoned’. A state is not only a territory or political entity but also an ‘imagined community’. A genuinely multicultural Britain needs to reimagine itself. Such a reimagining would speak both to the increasing number of people who have ‘multiple identities’ and the ‘hybrid cultural forms’ emerging in music and the arts.

In one fell swoop, the Parekh Report not only undid Macpherson, but undid anti-racism too. Macpherson had put racism, and especially institutional racism, four-square on the nation’s agenda. Now the agenda was sliding back to the old preoccupations of multiculturalism (1970s), ethnicities (1980s), identities (1990s). Racism, we were being told, was really about identity, inclusion and rebranding. And the fight against racism had once again been degraded to a fight for culture and identity.

In the world of discourse, academics do not distinguish between metaphor, symbol, the word and the world. Representation is all. But, as A. Sivanandan commented, ‘changing the tag does not change the goods’. It was the fact that those first 55 pages, and particularly the section on Britishness, were couched in the private, elitist, postmodern gobbledygook beloved of the ivory tower intellectuals, that really did for the report.

Vindicating hostility to Macpherson

The result was that that section of the press which had already been hostile to Macpherson had found vindication and that section which was not, was now prone to cast anti-racists as unreasonable and un-British.

The Daily Telegraph, in particular, took the opportunity presented by the Parekh Report to vilify Macpherson. ‘The Conservatives now have an excellent chance to make good their past silence on Macpherson’, it editorialised on 12 October. In case the point was missed, it went on the next day to state that: ‘No more disgracefully unfair a document has ever been produced by a judge in modern British history.’

Home Secretary Straw himself was the first to defend Britishness from the alleged racist slur, attacking the political left as ‘unpatriotic’. Boris Johnson ran with it: ‘These people genuinely hate Britain…This is a war over culture’ (DT 12.12.00). And Hague was quick to get in on the act. ‘In 2000’, he wrote in the next day’s issue, ‘the threat from the Left…manifests itself in the tyranny of political correctness and the assault on British culture and history.’ ‘It can only stir up racial ill-feeling’, opined Andrew Alexander in the Daily Mail. ‘Political correctness gone mad’ was already the Daily Star‘s conclusion. ‘Commission for Racial Etiquette’, quipped the Times. ‘Children will be told lies about their history and encouraged to feel ashamed of their country’, warned Littlejohn in the Sun. ‘The brainwashing process has already begun.’

Another platform for the Right

As the terrain of debate moved from racism to national identity and patriotism, it provided the new-Right ‘ideologues’ (not the libertarian free-marketeer types of the ISCS, but their nationalist, traditionalist cousins) with a new lease of life. For not since the hey-day of the Greater London Council and the attacks on the ‘Loony Left’ have Norman Tebbit, Roger Scruton and even Ray Honeyford had so much coverage. Now we find their views being aired in columns, letters pages, profiles and Radio 4 debates.

But, say some of the Commissioners on the FMEB, we need just this kind of debate. All well and good in the safe confines of the university seminar room or the BBC studio. But it is a stabbing, not a debate, for an asylum seeker in Coventry.

Related links

Campaign Against Racism and Fascism

Commission for Racial Equality

Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers

National Assembly Against Racism

Runnymede Trust


The 1990 trust

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

2 thoughts on “Burying Macpherson

  1. This was a very interesting web page, it was a very detailed image of how people have to live in racial situations. It was a very touching article and very informal. It brought the things that we all take for granted into perspective. This article has made me think more about what I will say to people of different races. It w3as an amazing site!!!

  2. This was a very interesting article, portraying the difficult racial situations that people have to deal with. It has made me understand a way to talk to people, without making a racial comment towards them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.