Canteen Culture: The Language Of Bigotry

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The Independent Online
ANDY CAN still recall the first time as a young black police officer that he encountered his profession's infamous "canteen culture".

"I was sitting in the back of the police van and the two white officers next to me started talking about some `wogs' and `coons' and how they probably robbed a bank to pay for their cars. It was if I was invisible," he said.

The officer, from a force in the North of England, had experienced what a series of reports and official inspections have identified as a national problem in the police service.

While there have undoubtedly been improvements in tackling it, the evidence from the Lawrence inquiry suggests that the service is light years away from an acceptable standard on race.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, is certain to use the inquiry's final report as a blueprint for reform among the forces in England and Wales. Over the next year chief constables are going to be told in clear terms to clean up their act.

Professor Simon Holdaway, of Sheffield University, who has interviewed many black, Asian and white officers in England, believes that widespread racism is due to the "occupational culture" of police work, which forces all officers to conform to a white status quo.

He added: "I believe that the racism has become more subtle and more underground."

Among the people he has interviewed was a white officer who said: "Bobbies used to talk in West Indian patois or refer to `niggers and pakis'." Asked whether an Asian officer might find this offensive he replied: "Yes, but it was all right because he was Asian, he was white really."

Another white officer said: "There's a lot of leg-pulling. I mean we've got an Irish guy and I take the mickey out of him. I take the mickey out of gypos. I wouldn't say everyone's a racist ..."

A black constable said: "I find more racism in the actual force and amongst colleagues than ... I've ever had in my whole life. But I accept it because if I don't then I can't do the job."

An Asian officer recalled: "With black people they saw them as trouble- makers, drug dealers, robbers and nothing else. With the Asians they saw them as fighting, streetwise wogs."

"I think through [each of] the 365 days of the year, barring holidays, I had some comment made about me being black," said another.

However several black officers told The Independent things had improved. A black woman in the Metropolitan Police said her colleagues were far more conscious of the race issue since the Lawrence inquiry. "They know if they start saying racist things they could lose their job. It has become quite a taboo subject," she said.

The Black Police Association has been credited with helping to push through reforms, although the extent of the struggle is illustrated by the association's treasurer, Inspector Leroy Logan, who told the Lawrence inquiry: "What is said in the canteen may not have been meant to be racist, but it impacts negatively on all of us."

A thematic study by the Inspectorate of Constabulary, published last year, found that racist attitudes were prevalent within the police.

Despite statements by police chiefs, such as Sir Paul Condon's assertion when he took over the Met five years ago that racism would not be tolerated, there is little evidence to show the message has filtered down to all rank and file officers.

The inspectorate's report noted that officers of sergeant and inspector rank - usually middle-aged men - were often "reluctant" to intervene or stop racist language and behaviour.

The Home Office is already preparing for sweeping reforms after publication of the Lawrence report, which has become the most important race relations inquiry since the Scarman report on the Brixton riots in 1981.

The number of black and Asian officers in England and Wales has increased from 339 in 1981 to 2,483 in 1998 but is still less than 2 per cent of the force.