For more than two decades, anti-racists have struggled to put the issue of institutional racism on the agenda.
In the period from the Scarman inquiry of the early 1980s through to the last few months, the accepted wisdom was that police racism existed but it was a case of ‘a few rotten apples’. To root out racism, all that was needed was a combination of better training and more black coppers. Those who argued that racism was endemic to the very institutions of the police, courts and prisons were branded as rabble rousers. In the wake of the Lawrence inquiry, the rabble rousers have been vindicated. Institutional racism is now flavour of the month. The signs are that the inquiry chair, Sir William Macpherson, is preparing to take a serious look at the ‘collective racism’ (sic) of the police force.
The response from the police has been a carefully managed exercise in public relations which aims at giving the impression of change while doing nothing new. Met chief Paul Condon tries his best to reassure the public that he is committed to ending police racism. He rejects the term ‘institutional racism’ because it stands to reason (he claims) that the whole police force to a man or woman cannot be racist. Institutional racism, however, is not the sum total of individual racisms but the practice and culture of institutions.
Meanwhile, some chief constables have followed a strategy of admitting the existence of institutional racism, in the hope that by admitting it nobody would notice if they didn’t do anything about it. Whilst the ‘rotten apples’ analysis of the Scarman inquiry may have been implicitly rejected, its proposed solutions are all the more popular. More racial awareness training. More black police officers. So desperate is the Met to boost its ‘ethnic’ quotas that it is even offering to pay black students to go through university if they agree to work for the police after graduating. But these measures do little to change the basic culture of the police force, a culture which, at the end of 20 years of ‘law and order’ politics, has lost all notion of public accountability. Changing the colour of the police does not change police culture; changing police culture, however, may help to change the colour of policing.
It is vital at this time that anti-racists do not lose sight of the real issues in the midst of this public relations maelstrom. There is no excuse for police racism. Condon continues to offer the hoary old chestnut that the police are drawn from society and society is racist, and therefore one would expect the police to be racist. So, therefore, you cannot blame the police. QED. But the police are at the sharp end of law and order they have a special role in society and special powers and with those powers goes a responsibility to serve and be accountable to all sections of the community. In that sense the police, like teachers and social workers, should be in advance of society, not its rearguard.