Law: Our Learned Friend - Racists are made, not born

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The Independent Culture
STANDING ON the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, where Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated 30 years ago, concentrates the mind of anyone intending to make submissions to the Lawrence inquiry. The site has been transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum and stands as a testament to hope not only for the US but for the rest of the world. You will see images of Stephen Lawrence on the walls and some answers to our future from the words of the children, both black and white, as they file through.

Racists are not born but have been produced by a society which has for too long been ready to acknowledge the stereotype of the Asian shopkeeper or black athlete while rejecting their Britishness in the first whiff of election fever or the desire for a news headline. The murder of Stephen Lawrence has provided British society with an opportunity to achieve a higher moral ground.

The racist killers of Stephen Lawrence were a product of this society, as English as football hooliganism. Education is a powerful tool in the right hands, and can be a force for good or evil. The Jesuits say, if you give me a child until seven, I will give you the man. There is therefore something sadly lacking in a society which believes that one can test a seven-year-old for spelling but cannot prepare that child for life in a multiracial society. It is time for the National Curriculum to address the fundamental respect for diversity which should be one of our core values. This does not simply mean pencilling in Diwali in the school calendar, but providing mainstream education of diversity throughout primary and secondary school.

And it should not stop there. Education for adults in the whole of the criminal justice system is essential if one is to reduce the endemic levels of racial discrimination. The Society of Black Lawyers, in its submissions to the Lawrence inquiry in both London and Manchester recently, advocated an overhaul for the whole criminal justice system. The training of barristers and solicitors still fails to deal with any form of anti-racism. The search for a training contract or a tenancy is still four times as difficult for African, Asian and Caribbean applicants.

Nor should judges escape the requirement for continued training. The race-training seminars completed in 1995 yielded some shift in the culture of the judiciary. Memories fade, however, and there are still recidivist discriminators on the bench who have silently rejected attempts to address the issues.

The admission of institutional racism by some police forces is a starting point from which to identify policies and practices that allow racist stereotypes to abound. The promotional reward for good practice must be mirrored by sanctions as the price for condoning racism. It should no longer be safe for the racist to operate in the police force or any other service in the criminal justice system. The Home Secretary's announcement of targets to recruit more African, Caribbean and Asian police officers is welcomed but cannot be seen as a solution for all ills.

The Millennium Commission and the National Lotteries Board should provide a forum where our children can learn the enormous contribution that people from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean have made and continue to make to the prosperity and the moral soul of this country.

Peter Herbert is chairman of the Society of Black Lawyers. The Society is holding a one-day conference on Race Hate Crimes on 12 December at the London Hilton, Park Lane, with Mr and Mrs Lawrence, the Deputy US Attorney General, Johnnie Cochran, Ian Johnstone, the Assistant Metropolitan Police Commissioner. Details from SBL, tel 0171 735 6592

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