Admit it: we may all be racist at times

Myths have been created over the past five months that, through repetition, risk general acceptance
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The Independent Culture
WHEN JACK Straw, the Home Secretary, unveiled the Macpherson report last February he remarked that the inquiry into the Lawrence affair had uncovered some uncomfortable truths about our society that had to be confronted. Just how uncomfortable some people find those truths, we are beginning to learn.

Some Conservative MPs, much of the right-wing press and parts of the police service are so uncomfortable that they are squirming. Their response has been to shoot the messenger. Thus, for example, Gerald Howarth MP, Tory member of the Commons home affairs committee, routinely refers to the "flawed Macpherson report".

To support this view, myths have been created over the past five months that, by dint of constant repetition, risk a general acceptance as fact. The hearings, we are told, were a bear pit where no reasonable voice could be heard above the clamour from agitators in the public gallery. The chairman was a cat's-paw for the Lawrence family, who in turn were manipulated by left-wing activists. The report branded all police officers as racist and blamed racism for the Lawrence fiasco, even though there was no evidence. The recommendations for change were eccentric and wrongheaded, and they required the police to make huge efforts, but the black community to make none.

Now, to cap it all, this week Macpherson has been accused of causing a rise in street crime because his extreme verdict has caused police officers drastically to reduce their "stop-and-search" activities, thus leaving the streets free for muggers.

This is all nonsense. It is worth reminding ourselves why the inquiry was set up: because of a proper concern that the experience of the Lawrence family was symptomatic of a desperate failure of relations between the police and the black community.

The inquiry itself was a bruising affair, but necessarily so. The police had not only failed to mount a competent investigation into the murder in the first instance, they had also consistently misrepresented their own actions for several years after that. If the evidence of officers in the witness box could not be taken at face value, the Met had only itself to blame.

As for the noise from the public gallery, certainly there was sometimes noise, although it was by no means routine and only occasionally oppressive. There were times, in fact, when you had little choice but to laugh. (It emerged, for example, that the senior investigating officer had taken time off during the early weeks of the case because of a family bereavement. Nothing wrong with that, but who took over, his boss or his deputy? The boss was asked and he said the deputy. Then the deputy was asked, and he said it was the boss. In that moment, somehow, silence was not an option for the observer.)

There were a few high-profile occasions when the public gallery got out of hand. It never lasted long and it did not amount to mayhem, but it was clear that Sir William Macpherson could not impose silence without adopting extreme measures, which he refused to do. This may be seen as weak, or as wise. He often said that he recognised the depth of the emotions stirred by the case; in the long run what mattered was that he, as the author of the final report, should not be carried away by them.

And who was he? An elderly white Scottish aristocrat, a member of the Queen's ceremonial guard north of the Border, a former SAS colonel and former captain of London Scottish rugby club, a retired High Court judge of 13 years' standing. He is, or rather was, the Establishment personified.

As for his report, it was by no means extreme. It did not brand all police officers as racist; in fact it stated quite clearly that "no such sweeping suggestion can be or should be made". Nor did it fly in the face of the evidence by stating that racism had been responsible for the failure to catch Stephen Lawrence's killers. It stated clearly: "We do not accept that."

Nor, for that matter, were the recommendations wacky. In fact the 70 recommendations are overwhelmingly practical and unglamorous attempts to reform police training and procedures, to sharpen and redirect police policies in a wide range of areas, to improve the handling of racial crime and to change the way in which victims of crime are treated.

What is so hard for conservatives to swallow is not Macpherson's conduct of the inquiry, or his alleged unfairness towards police witnesses, or his bread-and-butter recommendations. It is his central message, which is that Britain has a problem of institutional racism. This is what Jack Straw described, rightly, as "uncomfortable".

How much easier it would be to believe in the old, "bad apple" theory, which held that we have a few racists among us who give everybody else a bad name, than to confront the idea that we may all make racist assumptions at times, often unconsciously, and that those assumptions can cause disadvantage to others, particularly when they go unchecked inside "long-established, white-dominated organisations" (Straw's words).

That is what the Lawrence report is trying to tackle. Is it flawed? Of course it is; how could it be perfect? This was a difficult, bad-tempered and often tragic inquiry. What matters is that Sir William Macpherson saw it through honourably and thoughtfully, and at the end produced a document that gives Britain a chance to rectify a chronic wrong in its midst.

The writer is author of `The Case of Stephen Lawrence' (Viking, pounds 16.99)

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