November 11, 2002 —
Written by Jenny Bourne
Every day on the streets of the UK, in playgrounds, classrooms, shops, at work, minority ethnic people are racially harassed.
This can take any form, from a racist remark to a physical attack. For some people, particularly those who move to a new area and are isolated from friends and family, persistent harassment can be both intimidating and psychologically damaging. They dare not step outside their homes to do the simplest things like putting out the rubbish, they dare not let their children play in the garden, their cars cannot be parked safely outside and, even in their homes, families do not feel safe. They may receive threatening phone calls, their houses can be daubed with racist messages, windows can be broken and firebombs have even been pushed through letterboxes in the dead of night.
It is estimated that half of all such attacks are carried out by school children or young people, 20% involve neighbours, half of all victims know their attackers.
Racial violence is not new; in the race riots of 1919, Charles Wootton was killed in Liverpool. And Jewish refugees to Britain put up with constant harassment at the beginning of the 20th century. Black people, particularly those who arrived in the 1950s and 1960s, when politicians were whipping up racial hatred, had to try to organise within their communities for protection against such violence. For the additional problem was that the authorities – the police, the courts and judiciary – did not understand the nature and severity of the racial violence that minorities had to undergo. This meant that the police did not take reports of attacks seriously, they were not properly investigated, culprits were not found. And, when they were, serious charges were not brought and magistrates and judges were often too lenient in their sentencing. The result was that minority communities lost faith in the criminal justice system and, of course, that perpetrators of violence went free.
But, since the murder of schoolboy Stephen Lawrence in 1993 and the subsequent report by Macpherson (1999) into the incompetence and racism shown by the police who were investigating this racial violence death, attempts have been made to remedy the situation. A new definition of a racial incident was suggested: ‘A racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.’ A national Racial and Violent crimes Task Force was set up to investigate serious racial, sexual and homophobic attacks. Racist chanting at football grounds has been made a specific offence. And in the Crime and Disorder Act, a number of new ‘racially aggravated offences’ were created. This stated that for certain crimes such as assault, harassment, wounding, if there was an additional racial element to the offence, the sentences should be increased. In 2000-2001, police recorded 25100 racially aggravated offences of which 12455 incidents were of racially aggravated harassment, 4711 incidents of racially aggravated common assault and 3176 incidents of racially aggravated wounding in England and Wales.
All types of racial violence in the UK remains high and the Macpherson report has had an impact – either in forcing the police to take racial violence seriously, or on prompting victims to report more cases. In the years from 1994-8 reported racist incidents in the Metropolitan police area were around 5000 year-on-year. But in the year 1998/99 the number of reported incidents rose to 11050 (an increase of 89%) and in the year 1999/00 the figure has more than doubled again to 23346 (an increase of 111%). In 2000/01 all racist incidents recorded by the police in England and Wales was 53090.
Of course the number of racial attacks reported to the police may still only be a fraction of the actual attacks that take place. Another way of counting such attacks is to interview victims. According to the British Crime Survey there were 280000 racially motivated incidents in 1999. 98000 of these (ie 35%) were against Black, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi people (who comprise 7%of the population). Those at greatest risk to racial attack are Pakistani and Bangladeshis at 4.2%, followed by Indians at 3.6% and Black people at 2.2%. This compared with 0.3% for white people.
The most serious of racial attacks occur when, like Stephen Lawrence, a victim is murdered. Although such attacks are far rarer than everyday attacks of harassment, the figures are still chilling. Our research shows that in the last ten years there have been over 50 people killed in racial attacks.
Counting the cost – an IRR report on how institutions have responded to incidents of racial violence (pdf file, 120kb, March 2001).
We can’t all be white: racist victimisation in the UK – Joesph Rowntree Foundation, 1999.
Sources: Metropolitan Police Statistics; British Crime Survey, 2000; ESRC Violence Research Programme
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.