The legacy of Macpherson

The British elite has twisted the Stephen Lawrence tragedy into a morality play for our times.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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Today, 22 April, is the tenth anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence – the black teenager who was stabbed to death near his home in Eltham, south London.

The anniversary has been marked by a memorial service in central London, addressed by a UK government minister. It has also prompted a flood of articles, commentaries and TV news items about racism in Britain, how much has changed, and what we have learned from the circumstances following his death. The question preoccupying me, however, is: why does the case of Stephen Lawrence assume greater significance, the more it recedes into history?

As Brian Cathcart, author of The Case of Stephen Lawrence, notes in the UK Independent: ‘When it actually happened, the murder of a black 18-year-old at a bus stop by white boys who called him “nigger” was not much more than a one-day news story.’ (1) Stephen Lawrence was not the first black teenager to have been murdered by racists in Britain, or to have the investigation of his murder manhandled by police.

What was unique about the Lawrence case was not the circumstances surrounding his tragic death, but the reaction to it among the political establishment. Over the past decade, the Stephen Lawrence story has been transformed from a murder case into a symbol of all that is rotten within this society. The key name associated with this process is not so much Stephen Lawrence, as Sir William Macpherson.

‘Years would pass before the British public and political classes registered the true enormity of the events in Eltham’, says Brian Cathcart. ‘The tipping point, the moment when awareness began to dawn, probably did not come until 1997, the year New Labour came to power.’ (2) In fact, New Labour actively politicised the Lawrence case.

It brought the Lawrence family into the spotlight, playing off their emotive status as victims to launch a public inquiry into the police investigation of Stephen’s murder. And it was the report of the notorious ‘Stephen Lawrence Inquiry’, by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny in 1999, which accounts for the retrospective ‘enormity’ of the events in Eltham in 1993.

‘The Macpherson Inquiry became one of the most important moments in the modern history of criminal justice in Britain’, explains the BBC’s handy online guide to the Lawrence case. ‘It concluded that Stephen Lawrence had been failed by a police force infected with “institutional racism”.’ (4) The BBC guide goes on to say: ‘Supporters of the Lawrences saw the inquiry as confirming what they already suspected – that justice worked differently depending on the colour of your skin.’ In fact, the inquiry turned traditional views about racism and justice on their head: with profoundly disturbing consequences.

The Macpherson report was a landmark, not because it attacked the Metropolitan police for being a racist institution, but because its concept of ‘institutional racism’ redefined the meaning of racism. The Macpherson definition divorced racism from questions of politics and power, and redefined it in terms of individual behaviour and attitudes. It turned the question of what allowed the killers of one black teenager to escape justice into a moral fable about how we are all racists now, in need of awareness-raising and attitude-management.

Institutional racism, according to Macpherson, ‘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’ (5). In other words, racism in the police was not about the police force as an institution and the role that it played in society, but about the attitudes and behaviour of individual police officers.

Furthermore, the problem was not even of individuals intentionally behaving in a racist manner – racism, in Macpherson’s view, was largely ‘unwitting’. Like a disease, it is seen to spread through institutions and across society, regardless of what attitudes individuals actually thought that they held.

This was reinforced by Macpherson’s demand that ‘the police categorise a crime as racist where the incident “is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person, rather than their own conclusion”’ (6). Racism is seen not as a social problem that exists, but as an act that can be perceived as racist or not according to the person on the receiving end. It is separated from any notion of individual will or agency. The logical conclusion of this is that there can be racist acts without racist intentions – there can be racism without racists.

As Frank Furedi has argued, the redefintion of racism formalised by the Macpherson report presents racism ‘as a secular original sin that afflicts almost everybody’. Not only does this trivialise real cases of injustice, it normalises racism, as ‘everyday human interaction becomes recast in racial terms’ (7). From playground teasing to off-hand jokes, today’s culture of self-conscious anti-racism encourages the scrutiny of individuals’ every comment or action for signs of unwitting racism – even, it was proposed, when those comments are made in the privacy of one’s own home (8).

This presentation of a society in which racism is everywhere and in everybody is a million miles away from the traditional understanding of racism and anti-racism. It also seems a far cry from the hopes of many of those who originally demanded justice for Stephen Lawrence. To dwell on the notion that racism is everywhere, in all of us, and that there is no solution to it, seems a peculiarly negative anti-racist strategy. But the reason that this view has resonance today seems to have very little to do with racism at all.

By any objective standards, there is less racism today than there was 10 years ago. It is not the case that, since 1993, there have been many more cases like Stephen Lawrence’s. If anything, there is a continuous search for comparisons, as with the murder of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor in November 2000 (9), and a tendency to talk up the number of racist crimes and the problem of racism in today’s society.

What there is, however, is a widespread sense of mistrust and self-loathing within our society. This predisposes us to believe the worst of ourselves and others, and to seek, not a resolution to problems, but an absolution from sin.

So Cressida Dick, the Commander of Scotland Yard’s anti-racist unit, chose to mark the tenth anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s death through a public confession that the Metropolitan Police remains ‘institutionally racist’. No matter that the Macpherson report brought about the reorganisation of police work around the fight against institutional racism -‘the point about racism is it’s about the structure of society and power differential and how institutions operate’, she said, and she did not believe that there was an institution that could say ‘we are not racist’ (10). In other words – it’s not our fault, and we are not alone.

Deputy Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair described the fight against racism within the Met as ‘a journey’, without any real ending. Racism is no longer seen as an objective problem to be solved, but as a personal disorder requiring therapy. Anti-racism has become the process through which society is engaged in a programme of self-awareness and confession, facing up to the evil that apparently lurks within us all.

The message that racism is everywhere, in everybody, chimes with the downbeat mood of our times, and the tendency to see the worst in society. The notion that there is no solution to it, only an ongoing attempt to correct suspect attitudes, fits well with the fashionable idea that the problems of society lie within the behaviour of individuals. And this allows the authorities to set themselves up as the high priests of the new moral anti-racism.

New Labour has persistently used the Lawrence family as a front for its own sanctimonious agenda. Stephen’s parents were awarded OBEs at the end of 2002 (11); government minister Barbara Roche preached at Stephen’s memorial service on 22 April. By canonising Stephen and his parents as victims, and using emotion instead of politics to make the arguments, the political elite has managed to turn notions about the causes of and solutions to racism upside down, with little criticism.

The elite has turned a 10-year-old tragedy into an ongoing justification for promoting an authoritarian etiquette, which demands that we suspect ourselves and each other of being ‘unwitting’ racists, who need constant guidance about how to think and behave. That is the legacy of Macpherson.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Race

(1) Stephen’s legacy, Independent, 22 April 2003

(2) Stephen’s legacy, Independent, 22 April 2003

(3) The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, The Stationery Office

(4) Q&A: Lawrence murder, ten years on, BBC News, 22 April 2003

(5) Macpherson report: keeping our wits about us, by Mick Hume

(6) Q&A: Lawrence murder, ten years on, BBC News, 22 April 2003

(7) British racism: a new original sin, by Frank Furedi

(8) Race: The Macpherson report, BBC News, 7 May 2001

(9) Trials and tribulations, by Jennie Bristow

(10) Met Police still ‘racist’, BBC News, 22 April 2003

(11) Fighting on: Neville and Doreen Lawrence, BBC News, 31 December 2002

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Topics Politics


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