Socialist Worker

Stephen Lawrence: the shocking case that lifted the lid on racism

by Helen Shooter
Issue No. 1847

When Doreen Lawrence asserted that no police officer had tended her dying son because they didn't want to get 'black' blood on their hands, the reverberations shook British society. Stephen Lawrence's stabbing in April 1993 followed a series of other murders and racist attacks in south east London, where the Nazi British National Party (BNP) had opened its headquarters.

The authorities, local and national, had refused to act against the BNP. When Stephen Lawrence was murdered, people demanded action. The police failed to arrest the murder suspects – saying there was a 'wall of silence' in the area.

In fact tip-offs flooded in – but police seemed more interested in investigating Stephen, the principal witness Duwayne Brooks, and the Lawrence family itself. Those who demanded the BNP was shut down were branded 'troublemakers' by the right wing press. The Lawrence family and supporters launched a campaign for justice, and tens of thousands of people came together in a Unity March in October 1993. The police attacked the march.

The police couldn't get their act together to arrest the racists who killed Stephen, but could smash into those who wanted to end racism. But people would not let the issue drop and the campaign in support of the Lawrences grew. The trade unions were in the forefront.

Neville Lawrence later told the TUC congress, 'I thought, 'Who am I going to turn to? Where will I get support?' and I remember meeting a group of trade unionists who said they were going to help.'

The murder 'suspects' were walking free because police racism had in effect protected them from the law. Public anger forced New Labour in opposition to promise an inquiry if they came to power. They did so reluctantly – and appointed a retired judge with no idea of racism – Sir William Macpherson of Cluny – to chair it. Anger among millions of ordinary people at the treatment of the Lawrences transformed the inquiry from a bureaucratic exercise into a watershed in British politics.

As the inquiry progressed through the summer of 1998 millions watched and read about the terrible police racism uncovered during the public hearings. The inquiry started as an investigation into the conduct of individual officers, but quickly widened out to examine deep fault-lines in society – the workings of 'institutional racism'. This panicked the Metropolitan Police.

Its commander Paul Condon, and the wider British establishment, knew the Macpherson report was going to be politically explosive. A previous inquiry into police racism – the Scarman report into the 1981 Brixton Riots – had refused to consider that the police were institutionally racist. Instead it said there were just a few 'rotten apples'.

The public who followed the Lawrence inquiry were not going to settle for that. A poll at the time showed that one in four people now believed that most police officers were racist. Many people, including the Lawrences, argued that Condon should be sacked. Yet Jack Straw, who was home secretary at the time, stepped in to back Condon. New Labour was not going to allow mass pressure to topple a key member of the establishment.

No sooner had the Macpherson report been published than the right wing backlash began. Right wing papers called it 'Stalinist', 'Hitlerite', 'totalitarian', 'McCarthyite', 'Orwellian'. The report was, in fact, a very mild affair. But for the powers that be the charge of institutional racism had to be resisted.

The Met Police and the London Evening Standard put it about that the Lawrence Report meant that the police were now too scared to stop black men, leading to an epidemic of 'mugging'. Yet since the report the proportion of black people stopped and searched has steadily climbed. Most of the Lawrence report recommendations were soon lost in the Home Office.

And the attitude of the legal hierarchy became crystal clear during the trial of three Leeds footballers for the savage beating of Asian student Sarfraz Najeib. The Lawrence report had recommended that if a person said they were the victim of a racist attack then the police should take it seriously. But Judge Poole declared that the definition should be junked. Since then we have had a wholesale abandonment by the government over the issues at the heart of the Lawrence inquiry.
Hassan Ali who attended the Lawrence inquiry

So little has changed for black people in a decade

Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager, was stabbed to death at a south east London bus stop in April 1993. The police reaction was shocking. They refused to arrests suspects, well known local racist thugs, who had been identified within hours by local people. The police also allowed suspects to dispose of clothes and other items owned under their very noses.

And the disgraceful police treatment of people like Duwayne Brooks, who was with his friend Stephen when he was murdered, helped ensure legal proceedings against suspects were undermined. This was not just incompetent bungling.

As the Macpherson report concluded, it was driven by systematic and 'institutional racism' in the police. As a result, to this day no one has been convicted for Stephen's murder. Ten years on from Stephen Lawrence's murder the police force is still racist to the core.

And in many ways the racism people suffer at the hands of the police and legal system has grown worse. So the police today are eight times more likely to stop and search black people compared to white people.

The police in fact carried out more of these searches last year than they did before the 1999 Macpherson report which branded them institutionally racist. Racism runs right through the judicial system. Black people now make up 16 percent of all those in jail, yet they are only 2 percent of the population. The proportion of the jail population who are black is a shocking 54 percent increase since New Labour was elected in 1997. Those who fought back against the BNP-inspired riots in Bradford and Burnley last year received savage jail sentences. The punishments they received were far harsher than those meted out to white racists who had caused the riots. The police and legal system are not the only sources of institutional racism from the top of society.

Employers treat ethnic minorities worse in the workplace. The average weekly earnings for a Bangladeshi man can be up to 52 percent less than a white worker.

The government's Ethnic Minorities and the Labour Market report admits, 'Britain's ethnic minorities have consistently experienced unemployment rates twice those of whites.'

What is racism?

Millions who reject Blunkett's rubbish

The slogan 'about institutional racism missed the point', says home secretary David Blunkett. In fact, as Stephen Lawrence's mother Doreen rightly says, 'Almost ten years after the murder of my son I am saddened to say that not a lot has changed.' Stephen was a model of the kind of 'integration' that people like Blunkett preach.

He was a diligent student, with a bright future, from a respectable West Indian family. That didn't stop his skin colour making him a target for racists, and it didn't stop the police and legal system's racism allowing his killers to walk free.

That racism is every bit as bad today (see box below). Crude racism is only one aspect of the problem in institutions like the police and courts.

'Direct racism has been replaced by code,' says Frances Crook from the Howard League for Penal Reform. ''Young men with their hoods up' often means young black men and 'street crime' simply means black crime.' All the fundamental structures of the society we live in systematically discriminate against black people.

If you are black or Asian you are less likely to get a job, get promoted or get equal pay. Racism isn't solely directed against traditional targets. There are new victims. Refugees are referred to in the same terminology that racists used against previous immigrants.

Racism is not just about skin colour. It is about how a group of people are identified by a series of characteristics, deemed 'inferior' and systematically discriminated against. Bush and Blair's 'war on terrorism' has also unleashed another target for racism – Muslims. As a group they have been branded 'barbarous fanatics' who are against the 'civilised' West.

Politicians such as home secretary David Blunkett bear a particular responsibility for whipping up racism. He has the cheek to tell people suffering from racism that they are the problem. The millions of ethnic minority people in Britain who are bilingual ought to be a matter for celebration. Instead Blunkett tells these people they are to blame for racism if they don't speak English at home.

Racism is inherent in the system we live in, and a minority embrace racist ideas. But the majority of ordinary people are not racist, and millions positively celebrate our multicultural society. Opinion polls show a consistent increase in the numbers who reflect anti-racist ideas.

In many areas black, Asian and white people live and work alongside each other. Britain's largest city, London, is one of the most mixed cities in the world. And over the last year black, white and Asian people have united on the streets in unprecedented numbers in protests against the war and with a powerful feeling of international solidarity.


For more on racism and British society try 'Racism: Myths and Realities' in International Socialism issue 95, £3 from Bookmarks. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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Sat 19 Apr 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1847
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