Remembering Stephen Lawrence

On the first Stephen Lawrence Day it's time to tackle the institutional racism that still pervades British society.

On 22 April 1993, Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death at a bus stop in South London in an unprovoked racist attack. The police were heavily criticised for their investigation and, after years of campaigning by Stephen’s parents, a judicial inquiry was initiated in July 1997 and led by Sir William Macpherson. 

This work culminated in The Macpherson Report, published on 24 February 1999, which found that the police investigation into Stephen Lawrence’s murder was “marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership by senior officers.” Sir William Macpherson made 70 recommendations aimed at the elimination of racist prejudice and disadvantage.

While the report focused on policing, it had profound consequences for anti-discrimination laws and helped to popularise a concept of racism that was not driven by personal attitudes or behaviour but produced through systematic patterns of injustice across the state and wider society.

The report defined institutional racism as “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 which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

It went on to call for an “unequivocal acceptance” of this problem and for it to be addressed “in full partnership with minority ethnic communities,” saying it was “incumbent on every institution to examine their policies and the outcome of their policies and practices to guard against disadvantaging any section of our communities.”

But the acceptance was far from unequivocal. David Blunkett, then Labour Home Secretary, described the notion of institutional racism as “missing the point,” arguing instead the vacuous line that “it was people who made the difference.” Predictably, many right-wing journalists followed, seeing this as an opportunity to attack ‘political correctness.’ 

For others, the concept of institutional racism was stripped away from the Stephen Lawrence story. With papers like the Daily Mail (‘Historic Race Relations Revolution’) and The Sun (‘Racists Won’t Win’) embracing the cause, but continuing to incite racism in their columns, his murder came to define a certain kind of overt racism – violent, visceral and indefensible. The hatred it symbolised was easy to mobilise against.

Tackling institutional racism was always going to be a more complicated task. It requires us to see past obvious displays of injustice and explore more disguised systems that perpetuate racist disadvantage. It necessitates a re-examination of social policies in light of racism that is rooted in the systematic discrimination of ethnic minorities in the labour market, in housing, in accessing health services, in education and across our society. 

Manifestations of racial violence aren’t limited to acts such as the murder of Stephen Lawrence, but exist also in state actors that reproduce statistical disparity in crime, school exclusion or unemployment rates among black teens. These facets of discrimination are different, but they function as two heads of the same beast. 

Stephen Lawrence’s murder had wide-reaching consequences for how we perceive racism, both legally and socially. Perhaps the most quoted aspect of the report is the principle that “a racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim.” The aim of this was to place onus on organisations to investigate all allegations of racism, to shift the burden of proof to make cases harder to dismiss.

This has often been misunderstood to equate allegation with conclusion. The implication, its critics say, is to posit that if something feels racist it must be racist. Undoubtedly, the power of institutional racism has been diluted by these kinds of individualisation, which have in turn been facilitated by a shift towards personal identities as the locus of political analysis rather than the need to address social structures of power and exploitation.

But this is not the approach we are called to take from Stephen Lawrence’s murder — or the brave report which followed it. The demand should be nothing less than the transformation of state, economy and society. First, to eradicate all barriers to opportunity and security for minority communities, and then to provide the material basis for their full human flourishing.

Today marks the inaugural Stephen Lawrence Day, paying tribute to Stephen, Dame Doreen Lawrence, Neville Lawrence and their wider family. We should remember their campaigning over many years, and the lessons it taught us about justice. It is also the 20th anniversary of the Macpherson Report. In a Britain where the Windrush scandal is still possible, its call for “radical thinking and sustained action” to combat institutional racism is as relevant today as it has ever been.