Racism remark causes police fury

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DAVID WILMOT, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, reiterated his belief yesterday that his force is plagued by institutional racism, an assertion that has infuriated - and mystified - his 7,000 officers.

The bemusement of the rank-and-file was articulated by John Stalker, the force's former deputy chief constable. "The police force here and the public are entitled to a more clear definition as to what constitutes institutional racism," he said.

"It seems to me that we are all marching to a different drummer. In such a sensitive area, I think that words are very, very important."

His comments were timely, for - as the storm started by Mr Wilmot's remarks to the Stephen Lawrence inquiry earlier this week has demonstrated - the debate about racism is becoming mired in semantic obfuscation.

Institutional racism is the term causing grief, and small wonder. For as the chairman of the inquiry, Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, lamented on Tuesday: "You ask a dozen people what it means and they give you a dozen answers."

The apparently opposing standpoints of Mr Wilmot and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, reflect the linguistic confusion. Mr Wilmot acknowledges institutional racism in his force; Sir Paul refused to do so during evidence to the inquiry a fortnight ago. But their definitions of it are entirely different.

Mr Wilmot spoke of "internalised" prejudices that affected the way in which officers dealt with individuals and situations. Society was racist, he said, and organisations such as the police inevitably reflected society.

Sir Paul, determined to deny institutional racism, based his view on a much narrower interpretation: the concept of policies and procedures that deliberately and openly discriminate on the basis of race.

This was the definition used by Lord Scarman when he absolved the police of institutional racism in his report on the 1981 Brixton riots, propounding instead the "rotten apple" theory of a service tainted by individual racist officers.

Seventeen years on, few social scientists regard Lord Scarman's interpretation as useful, since it implies a blatant racism found only in societies such as Nazi Germany.

The problem is that there is no authoritative definition of a phenomenon that, arguably, affects institutions as varied as the Armed Forces, universities and the criminal justice system.

It can, most commentators agree, encompass anything from a pervasive "canteen culture" of bigoted jokes and comments to a more subtle, often unintentional form of racism that is manifested in negative stereotyping of black people.

Sir Herman Ouseley, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, defines institutional racism as "organisational structures, policies, processes and practices which result in the ethnic minorities being treated unfairly and less equally, often without intention or knowledge".

Dr Robin Oakley, an academic and senior consultant to the Met on race issues, talks in a submission to the Lawrence inquiry of a "generalised tendency, particularly where any element of discretion is concerned, whereby minorities may receive different and less favourable treatment than the majority".

Professor Simon Holdaway, a Sheffield University sociologist and leading authority on institutional racism in the police service, believes that the term is of limited use.

He talks instead of an occupational culture characterised by widely shared and deeply embedded prejudices that affect day-to-day policing - stereotyping that leads to disproportionate numbers of black people being stopped and searched, for instance.

As the Lawrence inquiry held a public meeting in Tower Hamlets, east London, yesterday, Sir William and his advisers were still grappling for a clear definition.

Sir William gave a clue to the direction of his thinking earlier this week when he said that he preferred the concept of a "collective failure" to behave properly towards minority groups.

Semantics, clearly, are something of a minefield, and it may be that the definition of institutional racism is less significant than the willingness to accept that the problem exists.