he 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
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
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.
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
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.