Plus ça change: what the Lawrence convictions mean, and what they don’t mean

A happy New Year to all my readers, of course – but I’d caution against supposing that 2012 comes in with particularly happy associations because two of Stephen Lawrence’s killers have finally been convicted. Justice delayed 18 years, and then only partial justice at that, is not the cause for celebration that many seem to feel that it is. More of Stephen’s murderers remain free than have now been jailed; and the prolonged delay has not been accompanied by the wholesale reconstruction of the Metropolitan Police, and the sloughing off of Britain’s racist culture, that I am already tiring of hearing commentator after commentator glibly assert.

It may be better that some of those responsible have had their comeuppance rather than none of them, but that is like saying that a man who’s had one leg amputated is at an advantage compared with one who’s lost both. Whilst as an exemplar of justice served the Lawrence case fails abysmally, is there any more truth in the claims being made for the case’s significance for race relations in Britain generally?

The temptation to over-egg this latter is great indeed. It appears to provide some kind of sense that Stephen did not lose his life entirely in vain. It, more insidiously, also allows Britain to feel better about itself, to believe that it has turned some kind of corner. It especially enables the Met to wax eloquent about the hard lessons it’s learnt, and how nothing like this could ever happen again. If you’re tempted to believe that, then I suggest you do no more than keep an informal tally of the racial identity of every car driver in the capital that you’ve seen stopped by the police at the roadside. And then compare that percentage with the percentage of London’s black citizens.

Macpherson’s report into the killing is famously credited with the radical conclusion that the Metropolitan Police were “institutionally racist”, as if this were some concept invented specially for this case. Many of us had been talking about institutionalised racism for years before Macpherson lighted upon the term. But no matter: this official acceptance that racism is more about how institutions operate and less about individuals saying or even doing the wrong thing is the best and most significant outcome of this tragic case.

And yet there is still confusion about what institutionalised racism is really about. It is not simply the cumulative effect of individual acts or omissions. We remain fixated on the wrong things when we talk about race. We get all hot under the collar about “inappropriate language” whilst happily ignoring the routine, constant operation of prejudicial assumptions, mistaken ideas about cause and effect, or the embedded disadvantages that black citizens face. White policemen who would never dream of using the n word will still pull over black drivers more frequently than white; will still react to clothing and style as erroneous indicators of criminal intent; and deny the living experience of racism that every black citizen endures every day.

When one of our older tenants inadvertently talks about “coloured folk” we need to get out the smelling salts and waft them under the noses of our hyper-sensitised white anti-racism crusaders. But these are the same white staff who seem incapable of understanding that many black people communicate in different and unfamiliar ways, and who instead talk about chips on shoulders; or who get unnerved and start to imagine conspiracy and a refusal to integrate when 5 or 6 black staff talk together.

So the Lawrence convictions are good news up to a point. But they do not mean that British society has in some decisive way thrown off the scourge of racism. They do not indicate that when the current public sector cuts have run their course, black staff will not have been disproportionately displaced. They do not mean that in a shrinking job market, black workers will not find their applications less successful than those of their white peers. They do not mean that as a young black male driver you will suddenly no longer have to fear being pulled over.

I hope profoundly that perhaps they do mean that the next time a young black man is knifed to death on the streets of London, his family will not need to wait 18 years for justice. But in truth, I’m not even very sure of that.

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