Race Matters

28 years after Stephen Lawrence's murder, how far have we really come?

Today marks 28 years since the murder of Stephen Lawrence, which led to the landmark Macpherson Report on institutional racism. Runnymede's Unbound trainee, Bowale Fadare, interrogates how much has truly changed in Britain.


The murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 was a turning point in discourse on racism in the UK. 

The inquiry into his death, and the subsequent Macpherson Report (1999), brought institutional racism to the mainstage. The report criticised an established institution for its failure to “provide an appropriate and professional service” during its investigation of Stephen’s murder. 

Since then, institutional racism has become an important feature in the UK’s race dialogue. Students with natural hairstyles and Black men who have been stopped and searched can, sadly, attest to the ways in which systemic racism manifests. More than 20 years later, one might think Britain would be in a much better position, but recent examinations of inequality show that much of the progress made by the Macpherson Report has been undermined. 

The Macpherson Report was not perfect, but its impact was wide reaching. Firstly, it provided the landmark definition of “institutional racism”, which Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) communities have generally accepted. Secondly, it found that Black people had different outcomes when they interacted with institutions compared to their white counterparts. It also went further than the Scarman report of 1981, by acknowledging that racism can manifest at both an institutional and an individual level. As a result, Sir Herman Ouseley, Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, hailed the inquiry as “a unique opportunity to make a difference for all our institutions”. But decades on, is racial equality still top of the agenda?

The killing of George Floyd in the US has had a seismic impact on conversations about race globally, including in Britain; so much so that last summer the government announced a commission that would examine inequalities in the UK. Its subsequent report, however, concluded Britain was no longer a “system deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”. A quite clear contradiction to the critical findings of the seminal Macpherson Report.

The Coronavirus pandemic, and its severe impact on ethnic communities, paints a different picture of institutional racism in the UK. A report by the NHS confederation found that long standing health inequalities, socio-economic inequalities, and institutional racism are behind the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BME people. Indeed, 60 of the first 100 NHS clinical staff to die of COVID-19 were BME, when they only  comprise 20% of NHS staff in total. This example, which is one of many, supports the idea that institutional racism is just as prevalent as direct racism. 

Retaining progress in racial equality in Britain is difficult because for every step forward, there seems to be evidence of backwardness. For example, a report by the Network for Police Monitoring, Netpol, concluded that during last summer’s protests, institutional racism drove the “disproportionate use of force and the targeting of black protesters, as well as a failure of the police to fulfil their legal responsibilities to protect protesters from far-right organised counter-demonstrators.” This is just one reason why the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill, which would increase police powers, is contested. 

In light of Derek Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of George Floyd, the UK appears to be going in the wrong direction with its stance on institutional racism. 

This is also made clear by the effects of the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ on BME communities. In her review of the pandemic’s impact on ethnically diverse communities, Baroness Doreen Lawrence, Stephen Lawrence’s mother, states that undocumented migrants are blocked and prevented from public life. It is institutional policies like the ‘hostile environment’ that the Macpherson Report strongly rejected. 

Moreover, legislation set to be introduced later this year will worsen institutional racism, citizens will have to produce photo ID to vote at elections. Again, this is a policy that will disproportionately impact ethnic communities for a plurality of reasons. Those who already operate cautiously with the state, due to historic mistrust, will likely feel intimidated; the numbers just do not add up to justify disenfranchising millions of people.

Macpherson’s understanding of institutional racism was clearly ahead of its time, given the recent backlash against the report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED) in the UK. Rather than build on Macpherson, the CRED report claims that institutional racism has been diluted and turned into “a general catch-all phrase”. They suggest “assessing the intent of the perpetrator” instead, making the problem an individual one. 

Institutional racism, when properly understood, shifts the burden away from the individual to the institution in which they are employed. Nevertheless, as found in the Macpherson Report, both forms can intersect. We can see the impact of this in the #FreeSiyanda campaign; this surrounds a 20-year-old woman who was racially abused and attacked by white adults. Her attackers were not arrested, but she was convicted for defending herself, and sentenced to four and half years in prison on 13 March 2020. Her story mirrors Stephen’s – victims of both individual and institutional racism. 28 years after Stephen’s murder, how far have we really come?

The inquiry into Stephen Lawrence’s murder set an important standard. As a signatory of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the UK has a duty to root out all forms of racism including institutional racism. 

On this day, the UK should honor the impact of Stephen’s murder by ensuring it does not ignore the institutional and individual racism faced by Black and Minority Ethnic people in the UK.


Image by Darryl_SE7 via Flickr

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