When I was at university in Leeds in the early Seventies, two policemen were put on trial over the death of a black man called David Oluwale who had been for several years the butt of racist attacks. The homeless rough-sleeper, who had a history of mental illness which began after the first police beatings, was routinely sought out and hit, kicked, urinated upon and mocked as a "lame darkie" by a police sergeant and an inspector. On the charge sheet, when they arrested him, they wrote "Nationality: Wog". After Oluwale, who was known to locals as Smiling David, was found dead in the river Aire, the two officers were charged with manslaughter, and though that charge was dismissed, they were found guilty of assault and jailed.
Certainly things have come a long way since the days of such overt racism, though a defender of the English judicial system might point out that even in 1971 it put the guilty men behind bars. But forgive me if I don't join the cosy consensus about how the conviction of the loutish murderers of Stephen Lawrence is some kind of watershed in British race relations.
The received wisdom is that the way white Britain empathised with a black family's suffering changed the way the nation thought about racism. It changed politics, society and the police. I'm not so sure. There were almost 40,000 race hate crimes recorded in the UK in 2010. Since Stephen Lawrence was fatally stabbed while waiting for a bus, at least 96 people have been murdered, the Institute of Race Relations says, in cases where racial hatred was either proven or suspected. "Racism and racist attacks are still happening in this country," Stephen's mother, Doreen Lawrence, said after her son's killers were found guilty of murder. "The police should not use my son's name to say that we can move on."
There is a faultline here, but it is not race. Polite society has never cared much about members of the so-called underworld killing one another. Attitudes which stretch back to the gangland wars over which the infamous Kray brothers presided, seemingly untouchable, in the Sixties, obtain still when "black on black" executions occur today among drug dealers in Moss Side, Toxteth or Brixton. If those kind of people kill one another so much the better, is the unspoken compact. And the disparagement extends far beyond murder down to the daily lives of the Shameless class with their won't-work, feckless, tasteless, fast-food culture. Let them live like that, polite society sneers, so long as they stay on their sink estates.
It is when they intrude into the lives of the rest of us – as they did so spectacularly during last summer's riots – that a line is crossed and disdainful tolerance ends. In the Lawrence case that happened not with the poor boy's murder, nor with his family's anguished response. It happened during the Macpherson inquiry into the original hopelessly inept police investigation of the crime.
When the five youths accused of killing Stephen left the inquiry, swaggering and vicious and spitting venom, something snapped in the mind of Middle England. These white youths were not "people like us". Rather they were dark doppelgangers who stood for everything Middle England feared in itself and rejected. They came from families with criminal backgrounds. The Lawrences, by contrast, were a paradigm of decent family life. Stephen was a Bluecoat boy who wanted to become an architect – and who, contrary to early rumours, was not in a gang, in possession of drugs, carrying a knife, involved in a dispute over a girl or any of the other initial stereotyped bar-room speculation. The anguished mother, Doreen, was an aspiring bank worker. The taciturn father, Neville, was a hardworking painter and decorator.
Serendipitously, one of his jobs was in the home of Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail. That encounter prompted a nodal piece of British journalism with a Mail front page that pictured the five suspects under the headline: "Murderers: The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us." It was an extraordinarily brave piece of journalism. But it was not, as some have said, a sea change in British attitudes to racism. It was an explosion of an older polarisation of us and them, the deserving and the undeserving.
What distinguished the Lawrence case was the same thing that drove attitudes to the killings of Damilola Taylor (black), Anthony Walker (black), Rhys Jones (white) and in Salford on Boxing Day, Anuj Bidve (Asian). All were nice boys from nice families who encountered the uncontrolled appetites and careless cruelty of feral lawless peers who may have lived nearby but who came, metaphorically, from across the tracks – and had had the temerity not to stay there but had burst through into our world as violently as did the rioters.
So this is not, despite the knee-jerk divide-and-rule posturing of the hapless Diane Abbott, about race. It is not even about class. It is about culture. The historian David Starkey was groping towards an articulation of that when, on Newsnight during the riots, he attacked "chav" culture, though he got it egregiously wrong when he placed a race lens over his argument saying "the whites have become black. A particular sort of violent destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion and black and white boys and girls operate in this language together."
The political excrescence of this is what we see in political movements like the English Defence League and the British National Party. Of course thugs such as Gary Dobson and David Norris are more than emblems of white working-class bigotry. As Owen Jones, the author of Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class – who appeared against Starkey in that television debate – has noted, people of all ethnic backgrounds work, socialise and sleep together more in working-class areas than in middle-class ones.
Yet it is inescapable that there is a problem with jobless, alienated youths – black and white alike – who embrace our consumer society's materialist values but reject our social etiquette, system of policing and political processes.
Middle England, above everything else, hates anarchy. So what is it to do with this alienated underclass, not just in its most violent manifestation, but in the festering culture amid which such violence is nurtured? The worst offenders we can lock up. But unless we can bring ourselves to care for the interests of the rest of them, they will continue to show their lack of care for what mainstream society holds dear.