Tuesday 24 February 2009

10 Years from Lawrence - Race still matters

Today’s Government report looking at issues of race equality in our criminal justice system is sobering. It follows several others that highlight the lack of substantial progress.
Black men are still seven times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police. Ethnic minority groups are arrested over three times as much as white communities and account for around 25% of the prison population. Just 3.5% of police officers and 4% of prison staff are from an ethnic minority background. Just 3% of the judiciary are from an ethnic minority and the vast majority of these are concentrated at the lower end.
People have been so keen to pronounce the concept of ‘institutional racism’ dead, that they miss the glaring evidence of inequality that still exists. This demonstrates a lack of understanding about what we mean by the term. It is not that the Metropolitan Police was or is full of racists, but that organisationally, it simply could not treat ethnic minorities as well as it treated white people. Stemming from the more radical elements of the US civil rights movement, ‘institutional racism’ is about collective failure not individual malfeasance.
Given the statistics outlined above, surely no-one could claim that our public services, let alone the police, are not still guilty of this collective failure.
The problem I feel with the term is that it tended to allow people to think that it wasn’t about them. It amounted to an opportunity to blame the inanimate object of the institution they worked for rather than the individuals whom it collectively comprised. Rather perversely, the terminology of ‘institutional racism’ became a barrier for real change.
When I was at the Commission for Racial Equality, I used to prefer the term ‘institutional complacency’ to describe many of the attitudes I came across in the public sector. Because people, be they senior civil servants, teachers or senior police officers, tended to have liberal sensibilities themselves and be genuinely committed to greater equality, they failed to see how anything they did might work against this. This became the justification for not following race relations legislation or not engaging properly with marginalised communities.
The results of such complacency are seen in the inequality that is rife today. The danger is that in the rush to bury ‘institutional racism’, we ignore the very real challenges we still face. We may be generally more racially tolerant but economic hardship may yet be exploited to fan the flames of racial discontent. And in that discontent, it will once again be issues of race and faith that are the dividing lines.
Pronouncements of success are also in jarring juxtaposition with the recent success of the BNP in Council by-elections and Peter Hain’s warnings about the party winning seats in this year’s European elections. Indeed, he may well have underestimated its chances. As well as potential success in Yorkshire and the North West, low turnout and the collapse of the Labour vote could see the BNP winning seats in the West Midlands (remember Kilroy?) and repeating its success in last year’s London elections.
This is no time for complacency.

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