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Twenty years after Macpherson report – racism is still at the heart of the system

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Twenty years a report into racism and corruption around the murder of Stephen Lawrence returned a verdict of insititutional racism. What’s changed?
Issue 2642
Demonstrating outside the Macpherson hearings in Birmingham
Demonstrating outside the Macpherson hearings in Birmingham (Pic: S O’Neil)

New and very powerful examples of the racism that afflicts British society arrive every few days now.

Recently many of us were haunted by mental images of 28 shackled and frightened black men and one black woman being rounded up for deportation to Jamaica.

Meanwhile reports of the discrimination against black workers in the NHS were backed by a ­hard-hitting report. It showed these workers are also more likely to suffer bullying and harassment.

What drives this? Does it stem from a few “bad apples”—a relatively small number of flawed individuals who now find themselves in positions of power and influence? Or is there something more systematic at work?

These are some of the vital questions that the inquiry into the racist murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence tried to answer when it published its report 20 years ago.

Retired high court judge William Macpherson was tasked by Tony Blair’s Labour government with investigating why police in south east London had so botched the initial investigations.

He also had to say whether racism and corruption had played a part.

The inquiry itself was the result of huge public pressure. Campaigners for justice for the Lawrence family had won supporters in every town and city in Britain.

Packed public meetings seethed with anger at the racist killers and the police who had protected them.

People queued to sign petitions demanding that the head of the Metropolitan Police resign, but many wanted to do more to help the campaign.

Thousands marched in 1993 against the headquarters of the fascist British National Party in Welling, near to where Stephen and other black men had been murdered or attacked.

Shamefully, the police assaulted the march, deepening the anger at them still further.

The campaign also spread to the unions, with Stephen’s father Neville winning the backing of the national TUC federation as well of hundreds of local branches.

The pressure was so great that Labour committed itself to a public inquiry. It was partly a bid to recapture the initiative from the family and the campaign.

But after a year of hearing witnesses, including many who had suffered contact with the police, Macpherson began to draw shocking conclusions. His report concluded that the force was “institutionally racist”.

Put simply, that meant that the virus of racism in the police was so powerful and persistent that it could not be explained by pointing to a handful of prejudiced officers.


It thrived in the policies of the organisation, in its ­recruiting and training, and in its daily practice—in was to be found in the very DNA of policing. For the many thousands of people who had been outraged by the Stephen Lawrence case, “institutional racism” best described why the police failed his family, and why it continued to fail black people.

The state, the police and government ministers were enraged.

Police now stop and search black people at 8.4 times the rate of whites

Police now stop and search black people at 8.4 times the rate of whites (Pic: Guy Smallman)

After all, if it were true that the police were intrinsically racist the whole concept of crime and justice would have to be re-thought. Macpherson’s verdict could be interpreted as saying the police were one of the main drivers of racism in society, and therefore could not play a role in fighting it.

Macpherson certainly never went anywhere near that far himself. But he did insist on systemic change in the police and other public services.

One area he particularly highlighted was police stop and search, which he said was seen as disproportionately aimed at black people, and a major cause of resentment.

Urgent reform was needed, he said, and despite much resistance, the number of searches did fall dramatically in the years following his report. But all the while the police fought a rearguard action to demand a return to the “good old days”.

The police are determined to keep stop and search for two key reasons.

First, by targeting black young people in particular they are create a racist fantasy.

In it crimes such as drug dealing and robbery are seen as products of “particular cultures”, rather than being born of poverty and racism. In this way, police racist profiling helps protect the status quo.

Secondly, stop and search is highly visible policing that creates an impression that officers play a crucial role in preventing crime—it therefore bolsters the demand for ever more resources.

Today, it is clear that the police have used the recent rise in the level of recorded knife crime as an excuse to again ramp up the stop and search figures. It is also clear that police racial bias is getting worse, not better.

Overall, police now stop and search black people for any reason at 8.4 times the rate of whites—a figure that has more than doubled since 1998-99 when Macpherson’s inquiry was sitting.

In London, so-called Section 60 searches saw an astronomical 400 percent rise last year. These draconian orders allow senior officers to declare a whole area a danger zone in which police can stop and search without any reason.

The orders can even cover a whole London borough—which means in some cases over a third of a million people are potentially affected.

As if to ram home Macpherson’s diagnosis of institutional racism, the existence of the Metropolitan Police’s “gang matrix” was confirmed last year.

Supposedly an intelligence-based system for identifying gang members and potential members, the database was set up in the wake of the 2011 London riots.

In fact, it is a racially ­discriminatory tool.

It categorises young black boys and men in particular for the music that they listen to, what they look at on social media, where they live and who they might be friends with. The matrix is shared by a variety of organisations, with people given an automated “green”, “amber” or “red” violence rating.

But the people who are named on it might never know. And, more than three quarters of them are black.


Being on the matrix makes a person a potential target for police action and can ruin their lives, even if they’ve never had any involvement with violent crime.

Macpherson was also particularly anxious that education should be put under the microscope.

The Inquiry report specifically called for figures on school exclusions to be broken down into ethnic categories on a school by school basis so any prejudice could be investigated.

In today’s competitive school environment there has been a 40 percent increase in the number of school exclusions in the past three years.

Many parents and teachers cite schools’ increasing need to pass inspections and do well in exam league tables as a key driver of the increase.

Children from a “Black-Caribbean” background are three times more likely to be excluded from school, while around half of those removed are categorised as having “Special Educational Needs”.

So, in the two key areas that the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry identified, policing and education, institutional racism is getting worse not better.

Looking back over the decades since the report, Lawrence family lawyer Imran Khan, said, “I want to reignite that anger and say we’ve got to hold the Met, the police and the government to account over this whole process of institutional racism.”

And, in those years more areas of public life have been opened up to scrutiny—from the health service to housing to the “hostile environment”. Each has a particular story of racism to tell.

The pattern and persistence of prejudice in powerful institutions should tell us that racism is a vital part of capitalist society, deeply lodged in all its sacred spaces.

Racism is not an unfortunate but reformable aspect of ­capitalism today. It has become part of how the system operates.

Institutional racism is a key means by which prejudice is spread and reproduced, giving official sanction to ideas that black people and ethnic minorities are a “problem” to be managed.

It is a systematic process because our rulers need their ideas to percolate down to the those they see as the lower orders.

Institutional racism exists both to create and justify division—primarily among working class people who, it is hoped, will see each other as competitors and enemies, rather than friends and allies.

We are not simply fighting individuals with biases, we are fighting a whole system of biases.

And to win we need a fighting, radical and collective response.

Read more:

  • Socialist Worker’s contemporary reports from the 1998 Macpherson inquiry
  • What’s wrong with privilege theory? by Esme Choonara and Yuri Prasad
  • Say It Loud—Marxism and the Fight Against Racism, edited by Brian Richardson, £9.99

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