‘RACE’, THE POLICE AND THE STEPHEN LAWRENCE CASE[1]

With the conviction of Gary Dobson and David Norris for the murder of Stephen Lawrence, there has been much media comment about the impact of race on the case and comparisons of 1993 and 2012.

It is evident that many commentators still have little understanding of the nature of ‘racism’ – particularly ‘institutional racism.’

In 1998, at the request of the Lawrences’ lawyers, I produced an analysis of ‘race’ as a factor in the Stephen Lawrence case which was incorporated into the Macpherson Inquiry report.  In our attempt to assess progress since 1993 it is instructive to look back to the summary of that analysis.

At the Macpherson Inquiry into the Stephen Lawrence case, Counsel for the Metropolitan Police referred to the issue of ‘race’ in his opening remarks:

“Why does racism exist? What is it that creates such wickedness?…

“It is also quite possible to get things wrong, perhaps even very wrong, without being racist and without being in any way influenced by conscious feelings of antipathy towards certain individuals or groups…

“[The police officers involved in this case] are also deeply concerned that they have been portrayed as callous racists.”
[Transcript of hearings  pp 147-150]

This was part of the Met’s general denial of the relevance of race.

It is important that racism and racial discrimination are not equated only with “wickedness” or “feelings of antipathy”.  It should also be recognised that racial discrimination is not only perpetrated by “callous racists”.

Racism is not restricted to bigots.  Racially discriminatory behaviour by a white person can also result from a number of processes, including:

thoughtless behaviour or the ‘traditional’ ways of doing things, where ignorance or insensitivity may result in less favourable treatment to a black person;

unfamiliarity with the behaviour and cultural practices of black people leading to a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of their behaviour;

insensitivity to or ignorance of the subjective experience of racial discrimination of black people in this country leading to a misunderstanding of their needs or reactions and inappropriate or offensive actions towards them;

well-intentioned, but nevertheless patronising behaviour, which denies the equality of black people;

widely held stereotypes about particular groups (which attribute certain behaviours, attitudes or aptitudes to black people as a whole) which influence a white individual’s perceptions of/behaviour towards a black person and can be self-fulfilling;

unconscious feelings about the relative value to be ascribed to black people (i.e. their importance within the society, their intelligence and the value of their opinions, the necessity to please them or avoid their displeasure);

the perception of the black person as “the other” resulting in a failure to identify with the humanity of a black person and the failure to take appropriate or sufficiently prompt action to help a black person in need of assistance; and

institutional failure to establish appropriate systems or assign sufficient priority to addressing the needs or concerns of black people.

From the evidence presented at the Inquiry, it would appear that all of these features of racial discrimination were present to some degree in the police response to the attack on Stephen Lawrence and their subsequent behaviour towards the Lawrence family.

 

The influence of ‘race’

The potential influence of racial issues was evident in the following:

  •  The initial response to the attack on Stephen Lawrence

Response to two young black men – stereotyping of young black men as“perpetrators of crime”

Failure to provide first aid

  • The failure to identify this as a “racist incident” and to respond to the racial motivation
  • Family liaison
  • Senior officers’ understanding of racism
  • Use of offensive language
  • Police response to the racist abuse of Mrs Lawrence
  • Subsequent response to the Lawrences’ complaints about the police investigation
  • Institutional failure to develop the required competence in “race” issues
  • Institutional racism

 

Institutional racism

 The concept of “institutional racism” has been raised in relation to the handling of this case by the Metropolitan Police.  Once again, an unacceptable level of ignorance has been revealed by the responses of key personnel – most notably the Commissioner himself, who referred to this as a “new” concept.

The concept is not new.  It dates from the 1960s, when the term was used by two black activists in the United States, Stokely Carmichael and Charles V Hamilton, to distinguish between individual and institutional manifestations of racial discrimination:

It is apparent from the evidence presented to this Inquiry and from related data on the interaction between the Metropolitan Police and members of minority ethnic communities (both inside and outside of the service) that racially discriminatory processes pervade the organizational culture.

Social psychological theory highlights the importance of the organizational culture in explaining individual behaviour in organizations:

“’Organizational culture’ refers to a system of shared meaning held by members that distinguishes the organization from other organizations.  This system of shared meaning is, on closer analysis, a set of key characteristics that the organization values….

“Culture is the social glue that helps hold the organization together by providing appropriate standards for what employees should say or do.  Finally, culture serves as a sense-making and control mechanism that guides and shapes the attitudes and behaviour of employees.”
Stephen P Robbins (1989) Organizational Behaviour Prentice-Hall

The culture which served as the “sense-making and control mechanism” for the police officers dealing with the Lawrence case was one which displayed the following characteristics:

  • a low level of awareness of race issues although officers served one of the most racially and ethnically diverse populations in the United Kingdom
  • complacency in relation to that ignorance;
  • low priority to competence in dealing with racial issues, in general, and racially motivated crime in particular;
  • a disregard for the offence caused by the use of certain terms in relation to members of visible ethnic minorities;
  • a failure to recognise the validity of the perspective of the Lawrence family and to identify with it;
  • a disregard for the evidence of the racial dimension of the crime;
  • a lack of respect for the Lawrences and Duwayne Brooks as the victims of crime;
  • a failure to recognise and act on the validity of the Lawrence’s distress at the inadequacies of the investigation of their son’s murder;
  • complacency in relation to the issue of race and a failure to recognise the importance of racial discrimination in organizational processes; and
  • a greater concern with a defence of the culture than with the necessity to challenge the racial discrimination within the culture.

As a result of these pervasive organizational cultural characteristics, there was an absence of the required interpretation of this murder as racially motivated with consequent urgency in the investigation of that dimension of the case.  There was therefore also an absence of the control mechanisms that should have acted to check and challenge the behaviour of individual officers.  The organizational culture meant that essential, critical questions in relation to the racial dimension of this case were never asked and poor performance was acceptable.

Conclusion

 This case should not be viewed simply as a failure of the officers directly involved, although establishing the culpability of the individual officers will be essential for the prevention of future cases of this type.

It is clear from the evidence available that there was a comprehensive failure in competence and process in relation to a racially motivated crime – at both the institutional and the individual levels.  Senior officers did not give sufficient organizational priority to this area of work and too many individual officers were ignorant, insensitive and incompetent in relation to the issue of race.

Dr Marie Stewart MBE

[1] Extracts from ‘Race’ as a Factor in the Stephen Lawrence Case  a report by Dr Marie Stewart (1998)

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