Wasting the Macpherson opportunity

Wasting the Macpherson opportunity


Written by: CARF

The Macpherson report seemed to be a break with old ways of looking at racism and a break with old remedies. And it also signalled the acceptance by ‘the establishment’ of what ‘the community’ had been saying for years: racial violence was endemic and a serious problem, the police were part of the problem of racism (not its solution); miscarriages of justice were routinely being carried out against black people.

Government reluctance to tackle racism

But in many ways the opportunity afforded by Macpherson is being squandered. As Sir Herman Ouseley, outgoing chair of the Commission for Racial Equality warned at an important fringe meeting at the Labour party conference, part of the problem lay in the reluctance of government to put its stated commitment to racial justice into tangible, practical ways of tackling institutional racism. Everyone had expected that a minimum the government would do, in the light of Macpherson, would be to extend race legislation, in its full force, to cover the police and other government organisations. ‘An insult to all anti-racist campaigners’ is how, after the publication of the Queen’s speech in November, Sir Herman characterised the failure of the government to extend the 1976 Act so that institutional racism could be addressed.

Racism and education

But in education policy too, the chances to fundamentally tackle institutional racism are being passed over. Why did the government not incorporate a strong commitment to anti-racist education (as recommended by Macpherson) in the changes to the National Curriculum announced this summer? Instead, there are vague statements about respecting cultural difference slipped in to the non-mandatory sections of new citizenship studies. Where are the programmes for reducing black exclusions from our schools? If black children are five times more likely to be excluded, ie, thrown out of education, very often on to society’s scrap-heap and into a life of crime, should not a government so concerned to be socially inclusive begin with a strategy for them? And are black children suffering disproportionately when ‘failing’ schools (usually inner-city schools with large black populations), instead of being given more teachers, more resources and support services, are being placed outside of normal educational conventions with the suspension of the National Curriculum and the intrusion of private capital?

Racism and criminal justice

Ironically in the light of the Macpherson report’s condemnation of institutional racism in policing, it is in the field of law and order that the government appears most obviously to be facing two ways at once. On the one hand it is trying to restore the black community’s confidence in the police via racial training programmes and setting targets for ethnic recruitment and retention. On the other, it has done nothing to dismantle the most resented and most blatantly discriminatory policing practice stop and search. What use extending the Race Relations Act to cover direct discrimination by a police officer, if he can justify any action, however racist or provocative, as necessary ‘for the prevention and detection of crime’?

And given that research shows a clear pattern of black people being discriminated against on arrest and over-charged by the police, it is amazing that the government is now considering taking away the last protection that black people had against racism in the criminal justice system the right (in some cases) to opt for jury trial.

Unfreedom of information

Such protection would not assume such importance for black people if it were not for the lack of accountability of the police and the secrecy within which they work. The Macpherson report acknowledged all the problems the Lawrence family had experienced in trying to find out about the investigation into Stephen’s murder and, later, the police’s internal examination of that investigation. The openness and disclosure that Macpherson recommended would certainly have benefited the family of Ricky Reel and all those black families who try to establish each year exactly how their loved one died in custody. But the government, despite vaunting freedom of information as a key issue in its election platform, is insisting on a blanket ban on releasing information in cases involving criminal proceedings, a blanket ban on all advice and factual information given to ministers, and a wide degree of discretion over disclosure in other areas, if thought to be harmful, given to the new information commissioner. In other words, anything which looks too sensitive or too damaging would be kept secret.

Losing the spirit

If sections of government are countering the spirit of Macpherson and entrenching institutional racism, other agencies are entrenching it through a mechanistic rendering of anti-racism. The treatment of racial harassment and violence in the criminal justice system is a case in point. Because Macpherson received such overwhelming evidence that racial violence was not taken seriously enough or acted upon by the police, it was obviously important to relieve them of the assessment of when racial crimes had taken place. Hence the definition within Macpherson that ‘a racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’.

But this, coupled with the coming into force of the ‘racially aggravated’ aspect to charging and sentencing in the Crime and Disorder Act and the duty on police authorities to report on racial attacks, has opened the door to a kind of racialised free-for-all. On the one hand you have police authorities which find that white people are in fact the majority of racial victims (see the statements from Oldham’s police chief reported in CARF 50). On the other hand you find the bandying about of any racial epithet as constituting a racially aggravated offence. Hence the charging and fining of a black man, who felt he was being picked on, for shouting ‘white trash’ at the police in July. All the good intentions are being undermined. Racism is being yanked out of context; anti-racism is being reduced to a set of procedures. But if we look closely we find that this is the rule rather than the exception when it comes to combating institutional racism today.

Formulaic anti-racism

First, institutionalised racism has become a new buzzword. Wherever the term discrimination or racism would previously have been used, people now say ‘institutional racism’. It is as though they think of it as some new politically-correct term that has now to be utilised, rather than a specific aspect of racism.

Second, those agencies which assert that they are concerned about tackling institutional racism are not examining racism in new ways to find radical cures but merely resorting to old-style palliatives (reminiscent of 20 years of equal opportunities programmes) increasing ethnic recruitment of staff and providing more culturally-appropriate service delivery.

Thus the Crown Prosecution Service, one of the most contentious institutions in the whole Lawrence Inquiry and notorious for its non-prosecutions of those responsible for black deaths in custody, tried in October to head off an investigation into its institutional racism ‘as defined by the Stephen Lawrence inquiry’ by approving plans to appoint more ethnic minority prosecutors. And a special guide was created for the judiciary so as to prevent judges from making racial gaffes.

The idea of institutional racism is not being seen as a challenge to organisations to examine their particular role, the context in which they work and the way in which racism has developed in their field. Instead a definition of institutional racism is being used as a kind of universal blueprint. What we should be examining is not what institutional racism is but what institutional racism does.

Related links

National Civil Rights Movement

Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust

The Monitoring Group

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

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