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Corporate racism - words and reality

A year after the Macpherson Report, Don Flynn asks, are government campaigns against institutional racism enough?

The headlines on the state of race relations in Britain over the past few weeks have been confused. One day we are being advised of Guardian/ICM opinion polls that suggest acceptance on the part of the majority of multiculturalist principles: on the next that unemployment amongst young black males is seven times higher than the equivalent groups of whites. Home Secretary Jack Straw announces to the world on a Wednesday that he is committed to a crusade against racism; and on the Thursday that his department is stepping up actions to ensure the deportation of usually black or Asian foreigners who are deemed to be outside Britain's draconian immigration regulations.

This paradoxical situation - of tolerance for the abstract idea of a multiracial Britain, but aversion to its practical reality - was confronted at its most brutal level by the south London teenager, Stephen Lawrence, in the now well known events which led to his murder in April 1993. Judge Lord Macpherson tackled the issue in his report on the inquiry into Stephen's death by considering the concept of 'institutional racism' and its contribution to the myriad and complex processes that make life for black people in modern Britain uncomfortable and frequently dangerous.

We should be clear about the meaning of the Macpherson report: Stephen Lawrence was not killed by 'institutional racism'. His life was taken by brutal racism of the most callous and direct kind. But what came after his death - official disregard for the suffering and pain of his family, contempt and incompetence on the part of police officers for whom the murder of a black teenager was not a significant event - provide perhaps the fullest and most complete commentary on what it means to be black in Britain today. The kicks, the blows and the stabbing tell their own story of violence and shame; the bureaucratic indifference, the duplicity of politicians, and the bitter cynicism of the press and media are just as eloquent in their testimony on the prevalence of racist values and attitudes throughout most of British society.

Programme of action

But what to do about it? Has Macpherson provided us with a programme of action for the elimination of racism from British society? His definition of the form of racism that must now be within the sights of anti-racist campaigns is worth repeating: 'unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.' This in itself is an advance on the definition of racist actions provided by Lord Scarman in his famous report into relations between the police and the local black community which led to the Brixton riots in 1981. For Scarman, racism found its expression in the activities of a 'few rotten apples'. The implication was that, though with the proverbial potential to spoil the whole barrel, such racism was the work of individuals and did not relate in and of itself to the activities of the rest of the metropolitan police force.

Macpherson moves beyond that point, recognising that racism has the character of a culture in which the thoughts and actions of a network of individuals become the mutually reinforcing standard of basic behaviour. The seventy recommendations annexed to the report set out a radical programme which requires the public authorities toaddress the basic elements of institutional racism when they become present, and to devise strategies to tackle them.

The report's recommendations, accepted in their entirety by Jack Straw, deserve to be followed through with energy and commitment in the months and years ahead. But still there remains amongst anti-racist activists a feeling that something has been left out: a gap in the reasoning wide enough to allow racism and discrimination to crawl back in and reproduce its negative and destructive effects on yet another generation.

The government's early response to Macpherson, though expressed in robust terms, was actually far milder in its practical vigour. The long-campaigned for amendment to the Race Relations Act was initially intended to limit action against institutional racism to education and local government services, leaving largely untouched the police and national services such as those provided by the Home Office. Opposition to these limitations was mounted by the out-going chair of the Commission for Racial Equality Sir Herman Ousley and brought about a partial retraction of these plans. The Act however still excludes from the remit of institutional racism actions carried out by government officials in accordance with regulations or policies directly prescribed by the Secretary of State.

Corporate racism

It is from this point that action against racism is expected to flounder. Already, looming on the horizon, there is felt to be a need for an addition to the terminology of anti-racism to describe actions which do not have their origins in the words, deeds or thoughts of individuals, whether motivated by conscious, fascist, malicious or unthinking, ignorant, prejudice. The term 'corporate racism' concerns actions pursued as a matter of policy by public or private bodies that have as their outcome disadvantage for minority ethnic people. Corporate racism would even apply in situations where, as we have at the moment, a network of some 800 black and Asian staff members exists in the immigration service and other Home Office departments, who believe themselves to be pursuing policies designed to eliminate racism and discrimination. If the net effect of their actions is the opposite - the reinforcement and strengthening of disadvantage - then we are dealing with racism just as much as if it was arising from the activities of committed BNP members.

That ostensibly anti-racist measures can lead, directly or indirectly to racism, is a hard idea for many people on the wishy-washy centre of politics, such as Jack Straw, to swallow. Yet others, closer to grassroots, community-based activism have too much experience of badly planned and executed so-called anti-racist measures to doubt that the situation arises not infrequently.

Indeed, it should be remembered that official, government sponsored anti-racism, has its origin in measures to placate the angry street level racism of the 1960s. The original Community Relations Acts of the 1960s were offered as a quid pro quo to settled black communities as compensation for the devastating effects on Caribbean and Asian migration to the UK which came about through the racist 1962 and 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Acts. From this standpoint it seems hardly surprising to note that the sincere and heart-rendering statements of opposition to racism are coming from Home Office ministers at exactly the same moment as their pursuit of measures designed to virtually elimnate the rights of immigrants and refugees in the UK.

The Macpherson report recommendations plus attacks on the rights of immigrants do not make a well-formed and balanced anti-racist policy. The seeds of discrimination are being sown today in the headlines of newspapers that report the situation of Afghan refugees and asylum-seeking families receiving help from social services in Dover as though they were dealing with an organised conspiracy to cheat the British taxpayer. Deals done, in the classic tradition of the official race relations industry, with local black business elites to procure statements of support for government policies designed to reduce the rights of black workers, provide no basis for the legitimacy of a real and thorough-going anti-racism.

It took the best of 20 years for the inadequacies of the Scarman report to be unpicked by time and experience and for a Macpherson report to be required to overcome its limitations. It seems unlikely that the latter's perspective on institutional racism will be adequate for anything like so long a period if the current corporate racism of the government and its big business allies remains so determined to reduce the rights of black and ethnic minority people.


March/April 2000