Imposing ‘parallel lives’

How the concept of 'institutionalised racism' leads to estrangement, division and confusion.

Bruno Waterfield

Topics Politics

Following the violent disturbances in northern English towns in the summer of 2001, a Home Office report found that many communities ‘operate on the basis of a series of parallel lives’.

‘These lives often do not seem to touch at any point, let alone overlap and promote any meaningful interchanges,’ stated the Cantle report, published in December 2001.

Against a background of feverish national debate as to the causes of the violence, quickly branded as ‘race riots’ in the media, the top-level probe – with ministerial backing – concluded that community divisions were compounded by a failure to talk. ‘The failure to communicate is compounded by the lack of honest and robust debate as people tiptoe around the sensitive issues of race, religion and culture’, the Cantle report claimed.

Most commentators regarded events in Oldham and Bradford as a failure of multicultural policy in the UK. In reality, these kinds of divisions are a product of multiculturalism working. When society is viewed through the prism of culture, in terms of race and diversity, ‘robust and honest’ debate is impossible, and the possibility of finding social solidarities based on shared experience is weakened.

A key concept in the multiculturalist lexicon is ‘institutional racism’. UK home secretary David Blunkett may have used a broadside against the concept of ‘institutional racism’, claiming that it ‘missed the point’; but if he meant this, he missed the boat. Institutional racism is a definition that now underpins official thinking almost across the board.

The idea took shape during Sir William Macpherson’s inquiry into the murder of black London teenager Stepehen Lawrence, who was stabbed to death in 1993. His report, published in 1999, concluded, rightly in many ways, that the Metropolitan Police investigation into Lawrence’s murder had been bungled. But serious problems exist with the definition of racism that emerged during the inquiry.

Macpherson described racism as a ‘corrosive disease’, transforming an issue previously regarded as a political question into a cultural matter. According to the former judge Macpherson: ‘[Racism] 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.’

This view represents a predominantly cultural view of human beings and social relations. By locating racism in ‘processes, attitudes and behaviour’, Macpherson removed the conscious element to a racist outlook. If discrimination is an autonomous cultural force rather than something that is believed and practised by individuals, in the police or elsewhere, then it is possible to have racism without racists.

Macpherson shifted the focus from politics, where racism was seen as a broader problem of society, to a definition that relies on the unconsciousness of individuals infected by a ‘corrosive disease’.

After the Lawrence inquiry, if police officers discriminate in the exercise of extensive powers such as stop and search it is not seen to be a question of individual fault. Nor is it down to a society that has, over decades, linked young black people to crime and given draconian powers to police officers to ‘crack down’ on Britain’s streets. For Macpherson, it is merely a matter of ‘thoughtless’ behaviour.

Furthermore, by regarding racist attitudes and activity as determined by external forces outside an individual’s control, the ‘Macpherson effect’ is to question the notion that people can do anything about their behaviour. Many instances of ‘institutional racism’ discovered by the Macpherson inquiry capture the dehumanising effect of this outlook.

DC Holden and DS Bevan were family liaison police officers in the Stephen Lawrence murder case. They were accused of ‘unwitting racism’, despite their efforts to be ‘helpful’. ‘We accept, as did Counsel for Mr and Mrs Lawrence, that the officers’ intentions were good’, finds the report. ‘Mrs Lawrence herself accepted… that DC Holden on 20 April took the trouble to deliver a birthday card to her daughter who was away on an outward bound course. Mrs Lawrence said that this was done because DC Holden “wanted to be helpful”. Regrettably the liaison as a whole failed, despite the good intentions of the officers involved.’

Despite the ‘good intentions’, investigators concluded there had been a ‘plain but unintentional failure to treat [the Lawrences] appropriately and professionally within their own culture and as a black grieving family’. And denial by the officers notwithstanding, Macpherson’s judgement of racism was ‘inescapable’.

‘DS Bevan and DC Holden will forever deny that they are racist or that the colour, culture and ethnic origin of the Lawrence family played any part in the failure of family liaison. We are bound to say that the conclusion which we reach is inescapable. Inappropriate behaviour and patronising attitudes towards this black family were the product and a manifestation of unwitting racism at work. ‘

There is no evidence that Bevan or Holden intended to act in any way except well-intentionally. From the multicultural perspective, a strong sense of mutual alienation and unexpressed conflict necessarily pervades this human encounter – regardless of the will of those branded racists.

Other well-intentioned actors also came unstuck. An experienced senior officer, Inspector Ian Little, was involved in the case from the beginning. But his protestations that he treated people equally cut no mustard with Macpherson.

‘[Little] did say that “everybody should be treated the same”, and that he tried to be as sensitive as he could be with everybody irrespective of who they were’, it is noted. ‘Although he had worked in multicultural societies and areas throughout his service and believed that he treated everybody in the same way, his lack of sensitivity… betrayed conduct which demonstrates inability to deal properly with bereaved people, and particularly those bereaved as a result of a terrible racist attack. He failed to deal with the family appropriately and professionally. This was unwitting racism at work.’

Such is the estranging and dominating power of Metropolitan Police culture, Macpherson insists elsewhere in the report, that even racially aware black officers are unwitting racists.

Evidence given to investigators by the Metropolitan Police Service Black Police Officers Association declared that even those who ‘may think we rise above’ the force’s ‘occupational culture’ are in denial. ‘We should not underestimate the occupational culture within the police service as being a primary source of institutional racism in the way that we differentially treat black people’, said Inspector Paul Wilson.

‘Interestingly I say we because there is no marked difference between black and white in the force essentially. We are all consumed by this occupational culture. Some of us may think we rise above it on some occasions, but, generally speaking, we tend to conform to the norms of this occupational culture, which we say is all powerful in shaping our views and perceptions of a particular community.’

Following the ‘Macpherson effect’, self-knowledge, or indeed any objective knowledge or judgement of human affairs, is denied. Instead, even those with accepted ‘good intentions’ and a vested interest in treating black and white people equally can fall prey to an ‘all-consuming’ racist culture.

‘Parallel lives’ doesn’t begin to describe an ideology that regards people as so different that even the best intentioned of us are incapable of interaction without unwittingly feeding suspicion and hostility. Only further estrangement can result from such a divisive view of people.

If our relationships are unwitting, unconscious and damaging to others, defined not so much by what we say and do but rather by our susceptibility to ‘the culture’, freedom itself is thrown into question. And in this world view nothing can be shared. We have nothing in common, it seems; we need the guidance of former judges like Sir William Macpherson, who are somehow able seem to stand above the cultural pressures that transform mere mortals into unwitting racists.

Estrangement and division is the product of multiculturalism – not, as some would have, its denial. The climate engendered by such a vision positively encourages mutual incomprehension.

The cultural limits to consciousness are also set out by the academic and Labour peer, Bhikhu Parekh. ‘For the multiculturalist’, he writes, ‘we are human beings but also cultural beings, born and raised within and shaped by a thick culture, which we can no doubt revise and even reject but only by embracing some other culture’. He continues: ‘Every culture grasps only a limited range of human capacities and emotions, and sacrifices much that is valuable in attaining its characteristic form of excellence.’

Lord Parekh argues that by ‘sympathetic dialogue’ with other cultures we can come to appreciate our strengths and limitations. ‘The dialogue is not just verbal, but also behavioural, articulated not only in arguments but also in the unconscious fusion of sensibilities, and occurs not only in philosophers and creative writers but also in daily encounters between ordinary men and women’, he says.

Like Macpherson, Parekh finds in the daily interactions of everyday life the key to a multicultural society. Unlike the former judge, investigating police wrongdoing, the ‘people’s peer’ seeks to paint a rosier picture of the possibility – though culturally limited – of dialogue. But even so, Parekh, with more than an echo of Macpherson’s accusations regarding DC Holden, DS Bevan and Inspector Little, focuses on one example of cultural difference and bereavement.

‘When a white colleague died, an Afro-Caribbean asked their mutual white friend to join him in calling on the widow. His friend reluctantly agreed and was pleasantly surprised by her welcome and warmth, appreciating that the common and largely unquestioned practice of leaving the bereaved alone could do with a change’, he relates. ‘Individuals and communities educate and “civilise” each other in subtle ways, provided of course, that none is too self-righteous to approach others with an open mind.’

The emphasis on the non-verbal, and cultural aspects of interpersonal behaviour mean that, for the multiculturalist, everyday life becomes the object of policy. ‘Multiculturalists cherish these kinds of intercultural exchanges and fusions, and explore policies and institutions conducive to them’, concludes Parekh.

Yet there are real dangers to the strong emphasis on ‘daily encounters between ordinary men and women’. As state policy it sets public institutions up as policemen for all in all that we do. Authority becomes the arbitrary management of the ‘unwitting’, while legislation, such as the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000, creates a duty to promote ‘good relations between persons of different racial groups’.

The back of the Macpherson report has a photographed exhibit. It is a crumpled piece of paper with Doreen Lawrence’s handwriting on it. The exhibit is noted not for the information on it but for its battered appearance. During a meeting Mrs Lawrence handed a note to Detective superintendent William Ilsley that contained a list of suspects, information already known to the investigation.

Macpherson reports: ‘The question of the handing over of this note has always been a bone of contention. In more than one statement Mrs Lawrence said that Mr Ilsley had “rolled the piece of paper up in a ball in his hand”. Various versions of Mrs Lawrence’s statement were read before the Inquiry, and it is to be noted that she had also invariably said that Mr Ilsley folded the piece of paper up first. At the Inquiry Mrs Lawrence appears to have accepted that the paper was folded up tight, but was not rolled into a ball.

‘Either way it seems to us that what Mr Ilsley did was insensitive, discourteous and unwise. There was no reason even to fold the paper up into a small packet; and the perception of Mrs Lawrence quite plainly was that he was doing this in a dismissive way. We remain convinced that it was tactless at the least to fold the paper up so tight that Mrs Lawrence could conceivably form the impression, as she did, that the paper was of little consequence to Mr Ilsley.’

One might why the question of how police officer did or didn’t fold up a piece of paper was regarded as being of such consequence in a murder inquiry. The former judge continues: ‘What Mr Ilsley did was to put the paper in his pocket, without any expression of gratitude or interest to Mrs Lawrence. It is perfectly true that when he returned to the Incident Room he at once (at about 20:00) put the information contained on that piece of paper into the system. So that it is apparent that he did himself intend to transmit it to the SIO and the investigating team. But by then the damage had been done.’

How can a crumpled piece of paper become such a central exhibit in one of the most high-profile public inquiries in decades? Because, for the multiculturalist any interaction, no matter how innocuous or unconscious, can be an indicator of racism. So even though Ilsley documented the evidence handed to him by Doreen Lawrence, the fact that he had folded up (or did he roll up?) the piece of paper can become a focal point of the inquiry.

In such an atmosphere, no wonder the Home Office report into the riots of 2001 found that in some parts of Britain, ‘people tiptoe around the sensitive issues of race, religion and culture’. That’s because no matter our good intentions, no matter what we do or say our every action is potentially – when uncovered by the right investigator – problematic, destructive and racist.

The idea that we are unconscious and damaging in our relations with others poses a big problem for those who want to get to grips with social inequality or overcome the deep divisions in some British towns. There is no room for argument about how to go forward – no meeting of minds when ‘unwitting’ people cannot even know what they are doing. And what price an individual’s rights and freedoms, when even the ‘best intentioned’ are guilty of racism in ‘daily encounters between ordinary men and women’?

People do not live unwittingly, unconsciously; we do not, in our relationships, inevitably damage, alienate and estrange others. And it isn’t people who sow the seeds of division. Rather, it is the ideology of multiculturalism that is a barrier to forming new social solidarities and relationships, based on argument and appeals to reason rather than imposed ‘parallel lives’.

This is an edited version of a speech given at ‘Attention Seeking: multiculturalism and the politics of recognition’ organised by the Institute of Ideas and Institut Français on 16 November 2002.
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(1) Command Paper, CM 4262-I, February 1999

(2) The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, Report of an inquiry by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, CM4246-1, Chapter six, section 34

(3) The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, Report of an inquiry by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, CM4246-1, Chapter 26, sections 36 – 37

(4) The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, Report of an inquiry by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, CM4246-1, Chapter 12, section 60

(5) The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, Report of an inquiry by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, CM4246-1, Chapter six, section 28

(6) Bhikhu Parekh, ‘The dangers of liberalism’, in Multiculturalism Reconsidered, (ed) Paul Kelly, 2002, page 141

(7) Bhikhu Parekh, ‘The dangers of liberalism’, in Multiculturalism Reconsidered, (ed) Paul Kelly, 2002, page 140

(8) Bhikhu Parekh, ‘The dangers of liberalism’, in Multiculturalism Reconsidered, (ed) Paul Kelly, 2002, page 141

(9) Bhikhu Parekh, ‘The dangers of liberalism’, in Multiculturalism Reconsidered, (ed) Paul Kelly, 2002, page 141

(10) Macpherson, chapter 27, sections 16 – 18

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Topics Politics


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