• Carol Young

How long does it take to eliminate institutional racism? 16 years, apparently.

Twenty years ago today, Lord William Macpherson of Cluny changed how the public sector talked about race. His groundbreaking work, The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report, gave a harrowing account of Police negligence, racism and whitewashing.

Through scrutinising the Metropolitan Police’s investigation into the racist murder of a young Black man, Macpherson laid open the workings of not just the Met, but all of Britain’s public sector institutions.

He described institutional racism as ‘The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin (which) can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes, and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racial stereotyping’.

This gave a solid form to concerns that anti-racist activists had been articulating for decades, formalising a problem that needed active solutions. It spurred the creation of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, one of the biggest milestones in British equality legislation.

Much was made of this in the public sector. Race Equality Schemes, action plans and impact assessments were published everywhere from Cornwall to the Highlands and Islands.

The Met Police in particular threw every effort into ‘mainstreaming’ race equality. In 2003, marking the tenth anniversary of the death of Stephen Lawrence, Commander Cressida Dick gave a refreshingly mature and transparent statement to the press; "I would say there is not an institution out there that could say, 'We are not racist'."

Speaking in her role as head of the Met’s Diversity Directorate, she went on to say that "It's very difficult to imagine a situation where we will say we are no longer institutionally racist." Cue hesitant applause from anti-racist campaigners. Whilst it’s a depressing thought, all things considered, it’s probably true.

Fast forward to today, February 2019, and the very same Cressida Dick has evidently conjured some kind of miracle. Because in just sixteen years, an unimaginable thing has happened.

Since rising to the rank of Met Police Commissioner, Dick now believes that her organisation is no longer institutionally racist. Racism does still exist, of course; just somewhere else, outside of the Met Police’s structures and processes. Mentioning various racial inequalities, the Commissioner thoughtfully claims to be “saddened across society that things have not changed more.”

Oh, but wait. Apparently the Met will be disproportionately white for at least another 100 years at the current rate of progress. And then there’s the deaths in custody, disproportionality in stop and search and lower confidence rates in the Met’s policing amongst minority ethnic communities.

But none of that can be at all challenged by providing an appropriate and professional service to minority ethnic people. It can’t be confronted by ensuring that processes, attitudes, and behaviour in the Met don’t amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racial stereotyping. Macpherson’s words are, according to Dick, no longer “helpful or accurate”.

At least the Westminster Government plans to find out how helpful and accurate the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report has been, announcing last year that it would review progress to mark the 20th Anniversary. Scotland’s own report, ‘The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: An Action Plan for Scotland’, has been utterly forgotten. Even Google can’t seem to remember where the Scottish Government put it. (A dusty filing cabinet in the basement of Victoria Quay, probably).

Nevertheless, we know that the Scottish Government still have faith in Macpherson’s definition; the Race Equality Framework for Scotland 2016-2030 clearly states that is was developed “with an understanding of the urgent need to avoid and eradicate institutional racism wherever it is found.”

Although there has been some confusion over what institutional racism means amongst Scottish Ministers in the past,* this strong message provides some reassurance that there should be no Cressida Dick style renouncement here. Considering the cases of Surjit Singh Chhokar, Simon San and Sheku Bayoh, there’s certainly no room for complacency in Scotland.

This is why today, we’re calling on the Scottish Government to revisit ‘The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: An Action Plan for Scotland.’

In her report Addressing Race Inequality in Scotland: The Way Forward, Scotland’s Independent Race Equality Advisor, Kaliani Lyle, highlighted the importance of reviewing previous race equality initiatives and made a recommendation to that effect: “The Scottish Government should instruct Directors of Service to review previous race equality initiatives… with a view to identifying blockages to implementation and learning the lessons from those initiatives.”

This recommendation wasn’t adopted in the Race Equality Action Plan which responded to The Way Forward, however understanding the successes and limitations of previous approaches is a vital part of evidence based policy. Whilst it might seem onerous to try to review absolutely every strategy, plan and statement, this 20th anniversary year would be an ideal time to look again at this one.

Reviewing how Scotland has changed since the publication of ‘The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: An Action Plan for Scotland’ would also provide an opportunity to remind ourselves why the Action Plan was needed in the first place, and to understand why we still need initiatives like the Race Equality Framework and Action Plan.

Eliminating institutional racism in sixteen years may be, as Cressida Dick once said, difficult to imagine. But if we learn from the past, we’re bound to progress faster than we have in the last twenty.

Read our open letter to the Scottish Government on reviewing ‘The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: An Action Plan for Scotland’ here

*See Kenny MacAskill’s blunder as Justice Secretary, where he announced to a conference of SEMPERscotland (Police Scotland’s equivalent of the Black Police Association) "Institutional racism does not exist in the police service in Scotland – of that I'm sure."