Macpherson and after

February 19, 2000 — Comment

Written by A. Sivanandan

‘We taught Macpherson and Macpherson taught the world’ was how a black activist, who had given evidence to the Commission Inquiry, greeted its findings.

For her, it was not just the Report’s conclusions that mattered – ordinary black people, who had borne the brunt of institutional racism in the police force and other public bodies, knew all about it – but the fact that, due to the unrelenting campaign of the Lawrence family, they were able at last, to get their voices heard in a public forum which had the eyes and ears of the world focused on it. And even a recalcitrant press could scarce forbear to cheer.

Little by little, as the Inquiry went on and the evidence piled up, the public became aware of the level of racial violence in society; of a police force that by virtue of its own racism, compounded the problem; of the routine miscarriages of justice that working-class black people were subjected to; of the increasing confidence, consequently, of white racists that they could do anything to black people and get away with it. If illustration were needed, it was provided by the graphic display of self-righteous arrogance shown by the alleged murderers of Stephen Lawrence as, escorted out of the Inquiry by police, they thumbed their noses at the crowds outside.

Macpherson, in that sense, was not just a result but a learning process for the country at large and, in the course of it, the gravitational centre of race relations discourse was shifted from individual prejudice and ethnic need to systemic, institutional racial inequality and injustice.

Personal prejudice is not a matter of central concern to black people. They are not bothered whether white people like them or not – that is their problem. But when such prejudice is acted out in socially discriminatory ways to become racial discrimination, it does concern them that they cannot get their child into the school of their choice, that they cannot buy the house they can afford, that they cannot walk the streets in safety. And it is when such discrimination comes to inhere in the structures of society and the apparatuses of the state that racism becomes institutionalised.

Institutional racism had never before been acknowledged by government or by official inquiry. In fact, Lord Scarman, appointed by the Thatcher government to inquire into the causes of the Brixton anti-police riots of 1981, had declared that there was no such thing as institutional racism, only personal prejudice which ‘does manifest itself occasionally in the behaviour of a few police officers on the street’. What poor black communities suffered from was ethnic disadvantage arising from their ‘special problems and needs’. Reports of police misconduct stemmed not from direct black experience, but from common black folklore fashioned out of archetypal myth and street-corner gossip.

Macpherson was unequivocal: the Metropolitan police force was institutionally racist as were other institutions in society. The whole criminal justice system had to look to its institutional racism; ways had to be found to police racist crimes more effectively. The restoration of the black community’s confidence in the police depended on real commitment arising from new strategies accompanied by performance indicators.

Here was a significant new codification of racism, even a significant new tone of (muted) outrage – and a call to the government to bring the ‘full force of the Race Relations legislation’ to bear on ‘all police officers’ and make ‘Chief Officers of Police … vicariously liable for the acts and omissions of their officers relevant to that legislation’.

Quite clearly, what Macpherson had intended was that the provisions of the Race Relations Act of 1976, which related to both direct (overt) discrimination as well as indirect (institutional) discrimination and from which the police had been exempted, should now be extended to cover them. And, in the first flush of acclaim for setting up the Inquiry, the Home Secretary agreed to extend the Race Relations Act not just to the police force but to all public bodies too. The Prime Minister declared his commitment to ‘drive home a programme of change’. Institutional racism, it appeared, was an issue that the government was determined to pursue.

But in the Queen’s speech in November, the government announced that the Race Relations Act would be extended to the police and other public bodies only in relation to direct discrimination and not indirect discrimination – thereby leaving untouched institutional racism in these areas of government altogether. The Race Relations (Amendment) Bill that followed in January confirmed the government’s intentions, but the public outcry that ensued has forced the Home Secretary to go back on his earlier decision and accept that indirect discrimination should apply to government bodies as well.

The auguries, however, are that any such legislation would, on the one hand, be made ineffectual by operational conceits and caveats and, on the other, be undermined by the way the government is indirectly bringing in indirect discrimination into other areas of public life – through the bills on freedom of information, jury trial and terrorism.

But that is New Labour for you. It faces both ways at once. Inevitably, because it has no principles, only policies, no ideology, only programmes. Everything it does is ad hoc, majoritarian, opportunist. To even shift something as ingrained as racism is in British society requires commitment, passion, a visceral hatred of social injustice.

To take the matter of police operations first. Although ‘performance indicators’ – of specialist training and targets on ethnic recruitment to the force – may be in place, the performance on the ground for the black community is racism as usual. Nothing has been done to dismantle one of the most resented and blatantly discriminatory police practices – stop and search – in which young black men are six times more likely than their white counterparts to be picked up. Except that, if the recent ‘stops’ of Neville Lawrence, Bishop Sentamu and Lord Taylor are anything to go by, the practice has been extended to cover middle-aged, middle-class blacks as well. (To the copper on the street, colour is classless.) And legislation is not going to change any of that so long as such practices, however provocative or racist, continue to receive official justification as ‘necessary for the prevention and detection of crime’ – on the authoritarian premise that suspecting people beforehand is the best way of stopping them committing a crime.

Nor does the policing of racial violence – to which almost half of the seventy recommendations in the Macpherson Report is devoted – show much change in the areas that matter. The families of Michael Menson, Ricky Reel and Kofi Hodasi have all had to go through the same travail of police prevarications, fobbings-off and outright denial, and bring their cause before the public, as the Lawrences had, before the police would even acknowledge the possibility of racially motivated murder and investigate it as such. And in the case of the McGowans’ ‘suicides’, it would appear that, when it comes to black deaths, the most obvious connections elude the police – and commonsense takes a holiday.

Even on those rare occasions when the police are quick to acknowledge racial motivation, the failure to pursue an investigation speedily and efficiently has prevented successful prosecutions – as in the case of Farhan Mire who was kicked to death in Harrow just as the Macpherson Inquiry was drawing to a close. Immediately after the crime, the police pronounced it a racially motivated attack and apprehended a suspect. But, sixteen months later, with media interest in Macpherson waning, and just days before the trial date, the family was told that the trial could not go ahead: no forensic evidence had been gathered, the witness and suspect had both disappeared.

Here again, little seems to have changed in practice when it comes to the quick response and thorough investigation required to follow up racial attacks. Instead, the Racial and Violent Crimes Task Force, which was really set up (in August 1998) to advise the Met on training, investigation and intelligence-gathering, is called up, like the cavalry, to save a bungled local case. But even that only after the local commander has decided he has a ‘race case’ on his hands, by when the trail’s grown cold. Besides, the very existence of such a specialist force on call does nothing to encourage local police forces to invigilate their own racist culture and practices.

And the Freedom of Information Bill institutionalises such indifference by exempting the police from having to make full disclosure of their action in all areas of policing, ‘both operational and administrative, subject only to the “substantial harm” test’ – as recommended by Macpherson. Worse, it has shut the door once more on police accountability. If the Lawrences’ long struggle indicated anything, it was the way the police withheld vital information from them, covered up for one another, closed ranks against them and their legal representatives, took no responsibility for their mistakes, did not acknowledge them, even, and erected a wall of silence. But still it continues – with the Mensons, Reels, McGowans, Chhokars having to go through the same humiliating, unyielding confrontations with the police and the criminal justice system generally, just to get the necessary information in their fight for justice.

The withholding of information, however, does not stop at deaths involving racial violence; it extends to deaths in the custody of the police themselves. At least five black people have lost their lives in suspicious circumstances in the custody of the police in the last year. But for the families of those who die in police or prison custody, the quest to find out simply how someone died has become a near impossible undertaking. In the first place, they are not shown the pathologist’s report prior to the inquest, which is the only public investigation. Nor are they allowed access to evidence collected or findings arrived at by the Police Complaints Authority’s investigation into the death. Even if they manage to get legal representation at the inquest (for which they receive no legal aid), their counsel does not have the basic information to prepare his or her presentation. Macpherson’s recommendation that ‘there should be advance disclosure of evidence and documents as of right’ to the parties appearing at an inquest, has only been observed in the breach – and there continues to be even less accountability in the matter of the deaths of black people in the custody of our custodians than on the streets.

The lesson is clear. Without freedom of information, there is no accountability; without accountability there is no justice.

Similarly, the Bill (thrown out by the Lords but due to be reintroduced) to abolish the right of defendants to elect to be tried by a jury for offences such as minor theft, assault, criminal damage, will have a greater impact on black people since they are over represented in these areas – due in no small part to their being stopped and searched, arrested and charged much more often than white people. To remove their right to demand trial by jury, therefore, and put them up for summary trial before magistrates, who are perceived to be on the side of the police, is to deny them one of the few remaining legal safeguards against unfair treatment. It is, in effect, to further institutionalise racism in the criminal justice system.

So, too, the proposal in the new Prevention of Terrorism Bill to extend its remit to domestic groups which threaten violence to advance ‘a political, religious or ideological cause’ – coupled with the granting of sweeping new powers to the police, customs and MI5 to target suspects – will not only impact more heavily on refugees fighting the tyrannies they have fled (and those in solidarity with them) but also black groups vociferously fighting organised racism and fascism. And the Asylum and Immigration Act, with its ‘commonsense’ arguments for treating asylum-seekers as a species apart and enclosing them in a cordon sanitaire, dissolves racism in xenophobia and makes it appear reasonable.

In other areas, too, the government has shown no sign of moving against the further institutionalisation of racism. As regards education, for instance, Macpherson had recommended that the National Curriculum should be altered to show a firm commitment to valuing cultural diversity and preventing racism in schools. Yet all that the government has done is to set down a few vague statements about respecting cultural differences in the non-mandatory sections of the new Citizenship Studies course. On the other hand, it has been quick to renege on its commitment to reduce school exclusions – which inordinately affect black pupils – by relaxing the regulations which put a limit on temporary exclusions and make permanent exclusions more difficult.

If the government has shown little earnest about dismantling institutional racism, non-governmental agencies have seized the opportunity afforded by the Macpherson Report to try to tackle racism in their organisations. For twenty years, through Thatcher’s onslaught on left local authorities which were beginning to address issues of social justice, these organisations had been driven out of anti-racism and floundered in a morass of Scarmanite ethnic programmes, all too readily promoted by an emerging ethnic middle class. In the process, the fight against racism was transformed into a fight for culture, the fight against a system into a fight for the individual. Smash-and-grab ethnic politics came to replace community self-reliance, and inward looking preoccupations with the self became elevated to a politics of identtiy. Ethnic programmes, with the skin counts and internecine rivalries, debased equal opportunity into equal opportunism. While identity politics descended into the politics of victimisation – from ‘who you are is what you do’ to ‘who you are is what is done to you’ – and people pulled rank in a hierarchy of oppressions. and anti-racism dared not speak it name.

But now Macpherson had put anti-racism back on the agenda – and in the year since the Report there has been a flurry of activity on tackling racism, especially in the voluntary sector, with seminars, conferences and internal reviews. Sadly, though, most organisations keep falling back on old established palliatives such as increasing ethnic recruitment of staff and providing culturally-appropriate service delivery, using Macpherson’s recommendations for changing internal procedures (which were mostly directed at the police force) as an off-the-peg blue-print for every problem and every occasion.

In fact, Macpherson’s definition of institutional racism with its emphasis on ‘a collective failure’ which derived from ‘faulty processes, attitudes and behaviour’ certainly encouraged this preoccupation with formulaic anti-racist procedures. The point, however, is not to look to Macpherson for a solution. It is enough that he has put institutional racism on the map and drawn attention to its prevalence in society generally.

The challenge for such organisations, then, is to examine their particular roles, the context in which they work and the way in which racism has developed in their fields. Racism has become sclerosed over a long period of time in different ways in different institutions – and has therefore to be fought specifically, in terms of specific policies, practices and procedures of a specific institution and its specific function in society. The ‘collective failure’ that Macpherson referred to derives from the make-up and workings, the structure of an organisation, which includes not only policies, practices, procedures, behaviour but also the organic relationship between them and the dynamics that that throws up. That is how racism becomes institutionalised, woven into the very fabric and culture of an organisation.

But the non-governmental sector does not operate in a vacuum. It is influenced and guided by the political culture around it. And it is the state that – through its pronouncements and declarations, its laws and its edicts, its administration of the public services, such as the police, prisons and courts sets the tone and tenor, the climate, of race relations in society. By refusing, therefore, to examine and outlaw the racism in its own structures, the state gives a fillip to popular racism and embeds it in popular culture. Since public officers like the police are drawn from that society and culture, the virus of racism is carried back into the body politic. State racism contaminates civil society.

Hence the fight against institutional racism is a fight against state racism – against asylum laws, against deportations, against stop and search, against deaths in custody, against school exclusions, against miscarriages of justice. Which, in turn, calls into question the larger issues of accountability, freedom of information and judicial impartiality that constitute the fundaments of democracy. In the final analysis, institutional racism is the litmus test of a society’s democracy.

Related links

Reclaiming the Struggle: the Lawrence Inquiry one year on

Speech given at the 'Reclaiming the struggle conference', London, 19 February 2000

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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