Trying to clarify the linguistic confusion

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The Independent Online
RANK-AND-FILE officers in Greater Manchester demanded an explanation yesterday of precisely what their chief constable, David Wilmot, meant when he said there was institutional racism in the force.

It was a fair question for, as the storm provoked by Mr Wilmot's remarks has demonstrated, the debate is fast becoming mired in semantic obfuscation.

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

The linguistic confusion is reflected in the different definitions used by Mr Wilmot and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, who refused to acknowledge institutional racism in his force.

Mr Wilmot spoke of "internalised" prejudices affecting the way officers carried out their duties. Sir Paul based his stance on a far narrower concept of deliberately discriminatory policies and procedures.

This was how Lord Scarman interpreted the term 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 a few racist individuals.

The problem is that there is no single authoritative definition. Sir Herman Ouseley, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, says it means "organisational structures, policies, processes and practices which result in the ethnic minorities being treated unfairly and less equally".

Professor Simon Holdaway, a Sheffield University sociologist, talks of an occupational culture characterised by widely shared and deeply embedded prejudices - such as the negative stereotypes blamed for the disproportionate numbers of black people stopped and searched.

The Lawrence inquiry team, picking its way through this mine field, may well conclude that semantics are less significant than a willingness to accept that the problem exists. As Sir Herman wrote in a letter to the inquiry last summer: "To tackle an illness, one must first accept one is ill."