By Talat Ahmed
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Racism: a very British institution

This article is over 9 years, 11 months old
The conviction of Gary Dobson and David Norris for the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence was a moment to celebrate for all anti-racists. But, argues Talat Ahmed, institutional racism still lurks at the heart of the British state
Issue 366

The guilty verdict in the Stephen Lawrence case for two of his murderers has reopened a debate about racism in Britain. The conviction and life sentences handed down to Gary Dobson and David Norris for the murder of Stephen Lawrence was a moment of celebration and vindication for anti-racists throughout the country. Yet one fact conspicuous by its absence has been any serious consideration of institutionalised racism. This was the defining feature of the 1998 Macpherson inquiry into the police’s handling of the investigation into Stephen’s murder.

Macpherson’s report characterised 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”, and went on to conclude, “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.” The inquiry targeted the Metropolitan Police, but applied equally to police forces elsewhere. It is not hard to see why.

In 1999, when Macpherson was published, black people were six times more likely to be stopped and searched compared with white people. By 2006/7 this had risen to seven times more likely. The number of stops and searches then increased for all ethnicities between 2006/7 and 2009/10. The largest increase was for the Asian group (62 percent), followed by the mixed and Chinese/other ethnic groups (up 54 percent) and the black group (50 percent).


According to a Ministry of Justice publication in 2010, the percentage of individuals commencing court order supervisions from a black and minority ethnic background was 15 percent. On 30 June 2010 the total prison population in England and Wales was 85,002. Of these, 21,878 prisoners (just under 26 percent) were from black and minority ethnic groups.

As if this was not enough, new research by the London School of Economics and the Open Society Justice Initiative shows that during the past 12 months a black person was 29.7 times more likely to be stopped and searched than a white person. The LSE research, based on government statistics, demonstrates that Britain has the worst international record of discrimination involving stop and search and proves that “racial profiling” is alive and well.

Many readers will be all too familiar with these depressing facts but what is most striking is how contemptuous and dismissive official commentary has been about institutional racism. A report by the Institute for the Study of Civil Society from 2000 entitled “Institutional Racism and the Police: Fact or Fiction?” criticised Macpherson for inserting the slippery concepts of “institutional” and “unwitting” racism into public discourse. And they favourably quote the report of the Police Complaints Authority that there was “no evidence to support the finding of racist conduct by any Metropolitan Police officer involved in the investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence.”

The only slippery thing about this is that the authors included John Grieve, then Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, and Michael Ignatieff, a liberal commentator who has made a career out of vilifying opponents of the establishment. Paul Condon, Metropolitan Police Commissioner at the time of Stephen’s murder, still denies the charge of institutional racism.

Reverse racism?

The derision which greeted Diane Abbott’s tweet that “white people love playing divide and rule” underlies this tendency. The tabloids accused Abbott of playing reverse racism but this reveals a wanton disregard for the specificities of racism and its pernicious impact on victims. The common thread running through this is the desperate attempt to characterise racism as individual prejudice and isolate it from any analysis of wider social forces.

Individual attitudes and actions do not exist in a vacuum. The way racism operates is not a question of individual behaviour, much less individual psychology. Racism is structured into the very heart of the world we live in. It is a world that is organised on the basis of vast social and economic inequalities which are designed to pit groups of people against each other, while our rulers remain parasitic on our labour and suffering. Karl Marx described how “capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”. He was scathing about “the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins”, as the pivotal point which “signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production”. Slavery may have been abolished but as wage labour becomes the dominant form of exploitation old ideas are adapted to fit new situations.

So black people and other ethnic minorities become the focus of blame for the social ills of society and all pillars of the capitalist state from the tabloid press to judges and politicians fall over each other to denigrate and scapegoat black people. This is the real divide and rule: not a tactic of white people but a process rooted in the mechanics of capitalism itself. The 1960s US Black Power activists Stokely Carmichael and Charles V Hamilton identified institutional racism as covert and “far more subtle, less identifiable in terms of specific individuals committing the acts. But it is no less destructive of human life.”

This type of racism “originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society, and thus receives far less public condemnation”. They contrasted the white racists who bombed black churches in Birmingham, Alabama, to the 500 black babies who died each year at the same time in the same city due to the lack of proper food, shelter and medical facilities, and thousands more destroyed and maimed physically, emotionally and intellectually because of the conditions of poverty and discrimination in the black community. This, they concluded, is the “function of institutional racism”.

Stephen’s murderers are racist to the core but so too are the police force. They are riddled with stereotypes, fear and contempt for ordinary people, and black people particularly. The police cock-up was not the result of individual bad apples but the consequence of how they operate as an integral part of the state machine. Their treatment of the Lawrence family and of Dwayne Brooks, Stephen’s friend who was with him the night he was killed, was the product of precisely what Macpherson damned as institutional racism – racist stereotyping, seeing black people as a problem and the careless disregard for racial violence as the prime factor for Stephen’s death.

The notion of “unwitting”, implying unconscious behaviour, is used by some to almost excuse police actions with the claim that we are all susceptible to unwitting racist behaviour. But this overlooks a fundamental role of the police as an institution – they are an arm of the state whose purpose is to preserve the prevailing order in society.

They are not benign bobbies on the beat but an armed body of men and women who protect the interests of the rich and powerful. Ignoring and covering up racist murders goes side by side with deaths in police custody of black and white ordinary working class people. The force responsible for cocking up Stephen’s murder inquiry is the same force responsible for over 300 deaths in police custody. This is what makes the police different from other parts of the public sector such as health and social services.

Police and the state

The regrettable aspect of Diane Abbott’s tweet is not what she said but her equation that racism equals power plus prejudice. This may sound radical and is the dominant premise among variants of black nationalist ideas. But far from all white people possessing a shared power over all black people, racism is something that white workers have no interest in sustaining. Racism rests upon a whole set of structures and social institutions that uphold bourgeois society, including the capitalist state. One wing of this is the body of armed men (and some women), and the police are a key component of this.

This is the real reason why talk of institutionalised racism is marginalised. To admit that the police are steeped in racist practices is to concede there is something deeply rotten about the type of society we live in, and therefore that it needs a root and branch change.

Only an analysis that identifies class as a key component of capitalism can explain the role of the police. Racism cannot be understood without examining the dynamic of class and the role the police play in maintaining capitalism. The police are an arm of the state and therefore institutionally racist. It cannot be reformed but has to be challenged head on in a genuine battle to transform society that consigns racist murders to the dustbin of history.

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