The Big Question: Should the charge of 'institutional racism' in the police no longer apply?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this now?

Because in 1999 the Macpherson report into the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence adjudged that the failure to prosecute the killers was in part because the Metropolitan police force, which investigated the crime, was "institutionally racist". This week, in a speech to mark the 10th anniversary of the report, Trevor Phillips, chair of the government's Equality and Human Rights Commission, pronounced that the British police have change massively and that Britain is "by far the best place in Europe to live if you are not white".

What exactly did he mean 'institutional racism'?

Macpherson spoke of "the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which... through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people". That means more than that an organisation is riddled with racists. It means that the set of values or assumptions embodied in an institution can lead to black people being discriminated against without any particular individual having to act with racist intent.

What kind of assumptions?

The assumption, for example, that every police officer should wear the same uniform, including a helmet or cap, which could deter Sikhs from becoming policemen. But the assumptions can be more subtle, like the way a working week is timetabled, with Sunday working treated differently from the holy days of other faiths. Or the way that black people are often spoken to as though they needed things spelling out more than white citizens. Unwitting racism can arise from well-intentioned but patronising words or actions; Stephen Lawrence's mother had complained to Macpherson that she was patronised, and that officers dismissed the idea that her son might have been attacked for racist reasons alone.

Why are the police particularly a problem here?

They aren't. Muslims, whose religious traditions require that a funeral takes place within 24 hours of death have been told – when deaths occur at the weekend – that their relative's body would have to be retained until the Monday so that formalities could be completed when the post-mortem office opened.

In schools, parents from minority communities have objected to children being taught about Western explorers "discovering" foreign lands, ignoring the perspectives of the "discovered". Afro-Caribbean academics have questioned affirmation strategies that offer only rap musicians, athletes and boxers as role models to black kids. Many reckon that the British media is also institutionally racist.

So have things changed?

Trevor Phillips thinks so. The positive changes provoked in the police by the Macpherson report have been significant. "Would the police deal with Stephen Lawrence's murder differently today?" he asked and replied: "Evidence from the murder of Anthony Walker [a young black teenager murdered] in Merseyside in 2005 indicates they would." The police "have shown a much better understanding of how to deliver a public service that doesn't discriminate just because of the colour of your skin".

What about the internal discrimination cases brought by the police?

Just last year Commander Shabir Hussain claimed he had been repeatedly rejected for promotion because of racial discrimination. Then Assistant Commissioner Tarique Ghaffur filed a £1.2m racial discrimination against the Met. Months later the force's second-highest ranking female Asian officer, Yasmin Rehman, a Senior Diversity Director, also sued the Met claiming racist bullying and victimisation. The charge of all three was that ethnic minority officers were routinely turned down from promotion when compared with a "golden circle" of white officers. The head of the Metropolitan Black Police Association this week dismissed Trevor Philips views, saying that the police's relations with the public might have improved but there was still institutional racism in how forces treat their black staff.

So who is right?

The problem is that racism is a slippery business. Police forces have learned how to tick the politically correct boxes to project a veneer of equality. But as the latest Prince Harry affair shows, for many people acts are racist not when they are motivated by racial prejudice but when people are offended by them.

What's Prince Harry got to do with it?

When he called a fellow officer a "Paki" recently his defenders said this was entirely acceptable in the cultural milieu within which the two soldiers operated; no offence was intended and none would have been taken. Whether or not that is true the remark, once it was reported more widely, gained purchase in a wider and rather different cultural environment.

Prince Harry becomes a victim too, since the culture in which he operates has made acceptable and normative for him behaviour which is unacceptable and offensive in various degrees to many in wider society. That is a classic example of institutional racism – a system in which a well-intentioned individual is channelled into behaviour which others deem racist. He longs to be "one of the boys", says Trevor Philips, and as one of the boys, he operates by the unwritten code of his environment – which does not once cause him to question the assumption that calling a fellow officer a "Paki" is appropriate.

Many young black men make their own culturally inherent assumptions when they look at their local stop-and-search figures and still see themselves as not being neutrally served by the police, nor by the local education or social services systems for that matter.

A group of young black men in Moss Side recently became extremely angry with someone from the local Fire Service who had come to talk to them about job opportunities. "The young black women in the group were very open-minded," said the social worker making the presentation, "but the young men didn't like the fact that it was a white middle-aged man addressing them. They assume a judgemental attitude on your part even if it is not there."

So what is the way forward?

If racism is in the eye of the beholder, we will never be finished with it, Macpherson's critics feel. They fear that his approach will racialise every encounter between the police and the non-white public, to the benefit of neither. Others see the solution in a more radical "racial identity nurturing" that is beginning to be practised in some places with substantial black populations, such as Moss Side, placing black scientists, doctors and businessmen before kids as role models.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin suggested that our society needs to distinguish between negative and positive visions of freedom. The positive kind is about building changes of attitude. The negative is merely about removing the obstacles, barriers or constraints which cause discrimination. The former might be more desirable. But the latter might be all we can manage for some time yet.

Can racism in the police ever truly be eradicated?


*The police have made a lot of progress in the way they treat ethnic minorities in the past decade

*Deep-seated assumptions are bound to shift as society continues to change

*Racial identity nurturing programmes, and other social engineering strategies, will work eventually


*Even the top echelons of the police are riddled with complaints about black and Asian officers not being promoted

*Behaviour can be changed but altering attitudes is a task that is beyond legal strategies

*So long as racism is in the eye of the beholder, complaints will arise