Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Race and Justice

Today the killers of Stephen Lawrence were finally brought to justice. Tomorrow they will be sentenced. It is widely agreed that this verdict was far too slow to arrive, and with the racially motivated murder of Anuj Bidve still fresh in the headlines, it can hardly be seen as the end of the road. The question is, has anything really changed since Stephen's death? Is racism still every bit as endemic as once it was? It is my contention that, whilst deep problems remain, some things have improved and that is in no small part thanks to the efforts of the Lawrence family themselves.

I'm a year older than Stephen would be if he were still alive. I'd recently finished my A-levels at the time of his murder; he was in the middle of his. Four years before, I'd started working with an anti-racist campaigning group, SOS Racism. It had been a natural progression for me. When I was a child my mother volunteered for a charity called SAFTA which provided tutors to immigrant women who wanted to learn English in their homes. I helped out and quickly grew familiar with some of the prejudice they and their families faced. Coincidentally my primary school boyfriend was Arabic and the first time I ever encountered direct racism was from our headmistress – hardly a shining example of authority.

I know there are some people who raise their eyebrows at the thought of white people being involved in race politics at all, but there are ways to work outside the ugly colonial structures of the past. SOS Racism was a partnership between local people of various races determined to bring about social change. My white skin meant I was able to do certain things that would have been much more difficult or dangerous for a darker skinned person – namely research with other white people, sometimes including members of far right groups. I was young, slightly shy, wide-eyed; they opened up to me. They told me things that made me want to punch them and I kept smiling. I collected data that could be used to lobby for support.

In relation to that, I tend to agree with others who have summed up the change over the last twenty years as a shift from overt to covert racism. Though I no longer do the same type of research (I have moved on to work, at least primarily, on other equality issues), I still encounter racism. The difference is that I see far fewer direct expressions of hatred, far more excuse-making and attempts to justify discrimination as rooted in something more rational (belief systems, economic concerns or - ironically – a supposed threat to other social minority groups). This is not to say that incidences of direct aggression don't happen or, indeed, that covert racism is any more acceptable. But it's an interesting change nonetheless, in that it tells us the rational case against racial hatred has been successfully made. This is an achievement campaigners should be proud of. It's a step along the way; and it is now necessary to reframe some aspects of the debate.

As I noted, I now work on other minority issues, and over the last few years this has included research work with the police. Attitudes to the police in some minority communities are so polarised that it's hard to do any such work without being perceived as some sort of collaborator, so let me explain that I sympathise with the feelings behind that and I took on this work partially in order to challenge that in myself, to try and shed my own preconceptions and prejudices and see what was real. As a young queer person and an activist, I knew what it was to be afraid of the police, but I felt that research in that area ought not to be left solely as the domain of people who had no such hesitations – who might be too willing to accept that everything was rosy.

Everything is most assuredly not rosy. Of course there is still prejudice (and I continue to hear distressing stories from those on the receiving end). But just as wider society has changed, so has the police force, and in this case the change has more pronounced effects. The existence of police diversity officers and so forth may sometimes be mocked, but in practice it does mean there are safe ports of call for those who fear prejudice. It has also contributed to a much greater awareness of diversity issues among individual police officers. Forces vary, but in many the old macho culture has been substantially eroded, and with it the notion that prejudiced attitudes are the mark of the hard man. Admitting to prejudice is something officers are much more reluctant to do, whilst others like their work environment precisely because they consider it free of prejudices that have always disturbed them, including racism.

One of the difficulties in making change is that examples of successful communication and progress don't tend to get talked about, whereas a single bad experience may resonate for an individual for decades, and resonate socially too. This is often raised as a reason why ethnic minority officers are still under-represented in the police. It's tough to ask individuals to take risks for the sake of long term social improvement. More effective is change through modifying structures and rules, and where this has improved things within the police force, it can more often than not be traced back directly to the original Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. I would venture to say that (alongside rapid growth in the number of women serving) this has changed the police force more than anything else in the last sixty years.

Of course there is a long way to go. Nevertheless, we should celebrate these changes which are a credit to the bravery of a family who became important campaigners at a time of tremendous personal grief. Changing institutions must be part of wider cultural change (with society and the police force reflecting back on one another), but this change was no small thing.

It's just a pity Stephen couldn't have been here to see it. And it remains a great injustice that, though the world has changed dramatically in ways he could never have imagined, one thing he might have guessed with accuracy at the time of his death is that, in 2012, young men in the UK are still being attacked because others hate the colour of their skin.

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