Sorry, Sir Paul, an apology is not enough

Not until police fear the black man they're searching might be a detective will racism be eradicated
Click to follow
SO. THE Metropolitan Police are sorry. Sorry that Stephen Lawrence was murdered; sorry that his murder was not investigated properly; sorry that the killers are not behind bars; sorry they have "lost the confidence" of black people. So what?

The only person likely to gain from this apology is Sir Paul Condon, the Metropolitan police commissioner: He might avoid further humiliation. He does not relish the prospect of being dragged through cross examination at the grim building above the Elephant & Castle shopping centre in south London, where the sorry saga of how a racist gang got away with murder is being played out. So this week he sent his emissary, assistant commissioner Ian Johnstone to atone in his place.

Every copper in London must hope the dead teenager's parents will be assuaged and go away and stop saying things that are "not helpful". They hope black people will accept that Stephen's dead, and that the police have said sorry. But they hope in vain.

The Lawrences aren't satisfied - almost nothing the police can do will satisfy them. They want their son's killers brought to justice, a prospect that streaks towards the horizon with its tail on fire. They want the officers who "could have and should have done better" to be disciplined.

I am not satisfied either, nor are most of the black people I know. The inquiry has done little to dispel our worst suspicions. Each revelation about each mistake made by the murder squad detectives who drew the short straw of investigating Stephen's murder has had a weary predictability about it.

Worse is the feeling that Mr Johnstone's assertion - "we are determined to learn lessons from this ... a great deal has changed" - has a hollow ring. If a black teenager was left lying in a pool of blood in London tomorrow would the police investigation be any better?

I stress black teenager because it is hard to imagine such a sloppy investigation into the murder of a teenager from any other ethnic group. Would police wait two weeks before arresting the prime suspects in the murder of a Jewish youth? Would they ignore tip-offs pointing to the killers of an English victim?

But why did they do so in the Lawrence case? To answer that you have to delve into the tortured and tortuous relationship between the police and black people in Britain.

The history of antipathy between Black and Blue threads through the riots of the Seventies and Eighties, past the controversial deaths in custody - like that of Joy Gardner, a Jamaican mother who died during a struggle with a police deportation squad - and now stumbling over the abject apology offered to the Lawrences this week.

You have to look at the culture of a police force where of 26,585 Metropolitan Police employees, 857 are ethnic minorities. Two out of five black and Asian police officers have complained about racism from their colleagues. Not surprisingly, a series of Home Office reports have warned that police attitudes threaten to spark some new conflict. You can see why - the most recent unpublished investigation into stop-and-search revealed black men were four times more likely than whites to be harrassed by police.

So it was hardly surprising when Linford Christie, one of Britain's most successful athletes, found himself being harassed by the police because he was driving a new car. Nigel Benn, the internationally known boxer, found his image staring back at him from wanted posters issued by police looking for a mugger. The victim to the attack had pointed to a picture of him in a magazine. A police artist was then asked to simply draw a bobble hat onto the picture and it was distributed - can you imagine the same thing being done with a picture of Barry McGuigan?

My personal experiences are now the stuff of dinner party fables. My first few years as a motorist were punctuated by repeated "pulls" from the police. There was a set pattern: "Is this your car sir?" It is. "What's a black man doing driving a car like this then?" The precise words varied, sometimes there were curses and veiled threats, sometimes not. The theme remained the same.

There's little point questioning what is going between the police and black Britons. We know what's going on. But it might help to ask why?

Some of the answers lie in the way black people have failed to flex what economic and political muscle they have. We don't vote in sufficient numbers for any political party to woo us; our business and enterprise networks are virtually non-existent.

We have failed to learn lessons from successful immigrant populations, from the Huguenots to the Asians. Even Tiger Woods couldn't wait to run away from us, describing himself as a "Cablinasian", not black. We have failed to gain a toehold on the ladder to the commanding heights. There are exceptions, obviously, but they are notable and few.

So where does this leave us? Put brutally, nothing of any significance is going to change until black people change it. Not until the police fear the black man they are subjecting to an illegal search might well be a detective superintendent himself - or the victim of a race attack be related to the Home Secretary - will the culpable negligence revealed by the Lawrence inquiry finally be eradicated from the Force.

But surely, the very existence of the Lawrence inquiry is a sign of progress. After all, the police have been forced to atone in public for their failings. Maybe. But cynics might well say that the only reason the Lawrence issue has come so far is because the Daily Mail, a paper Jack Straw is keen to have on his side, weighed in, and named the five prime suspects.

Only when that paper- not known for campaigning on race issues - threw its weight behind Stephen's father Neville, a humble but hardworking plasterer from south London, did the search for the truth about Stephen's murder begin to yield fruit. The reason may be as simple as the fact that Mr Lawrence did some work in the past on the home of a senior Mail executive. Not a lofty connection, but it makes the point that being part of society - at all levels - is the only remedy for being treated with contempt.

But for me the most heartwrenching, searingly sad thing about Stephen Lawrence's murder is that he was a bright young man on his way to university, one of the few young blacks with prospects for a successful future. He might have gone on to get that toehold on the ladder to the commanding heights.

Maybe he could have changed the world. I guess we'll never find out.