Criminal Justice

Dear Stephen: Race and belonging 30 years on

Written by:
Dr Shabna Begum and Dr Maxwell Williams
Read time:
25 minutes

Dear Stephen: Race and belonging 30 years on

Racism is often a matter of life and death. This was never more true than for Stephen Lawrence, a bright young man who dreamed of becoming an architect. 

Stephen was murdered by racist strangers as he made his way home with a friend in South East London, 30 years ago. The fight for justice that followed, led by Stephen’s grieving parents, has brought us all to know Stephen’s name, and carry forward his legacy. 

Stephen’s murder changed the country, and was core to progressing racial equality in the UK. This report, produced in partnership by the Runnymede Trust and Stephen Lawrence Day Foundation, is intended as a small contribution to mark this difficult anniversary and assess just how far we have come as a nation in the last 30 years.

In 'Dear Stephen', we reveal the points of hope and connection in our communities, at a time when the UK feels increasingly polarised. Data from the British Social Attitudes Survey shows that, although people feel the world around them is becoming more hateful and prejudiced, people’s own attitudes are shifting in a much more positive trajectory, and that race, inclusion and belonging are not such divisive issues as we are led to believe.

We show that:

  • Less than one-fifth of people now think that it is very important for being truly British that someone was born in Britain, down from almost half in 1995;
  • And 45% said that equal opportunities for Black and Asian people had not gone far enough, up from 25% in 2000, and further rising to 71% among people with ‘socially liberal’ outlooks;
  • In 2011, around a quarter of people thought that migration was good for both the economy (21%) and for cultural life (26%). By 2019, this had risen to almost half in both instances;
  • Conversely, the proportion of people who think immigration has had a negative impact in these areas more than halved, from around two in five in 2011, to less than one in five in 2019.

The resilience and determination of younger generations to create change underscores the importance of fostering a sense of belonging and building empathy across society. We found that while traditional markers of community engagement - such as political participation rates and youth club membership - paint a picture of an increasingly alienated youth, it’s because we’re looking in the wrong places. Young people around Stephen’s age (18) have a clearer grasp than most on the issues their communities face, and have developed powerful bonds and strategies for navigating a society that has simultaneously changed a lot and all too little, thirty years on.

They have a strong sense of happiness in their friendships and, compared to older generations, a stronger sense of community. Of note, younger generations are ambitious in their career aspirations not as a means to escape their communities, but in order to improve conditions and contribute back in to them.

“I consider Lewisham, Deptford my community and you know, I love it. It's such a vibe - you go there and you just know you just accept that, someone's gonna come up to you and talk about Jesus, and someone’s gonna try and convert you to Islam. There's always gonna be some crazy stuff happening. And I love it for that. I love it.”
Christty* (names have been changed)

Through their collective strength, younger generations are actively reshaping the world for the better. As one student from our focus groups put it:

“teachers definitely have so much [room for] improvement, but I'm glad that our generation are coming together and actually making [the world] a better place. I'm excited for when we all get older, the way we can all teach our children… I feel the world will be such a better place”.

The report contains reflections from Jeffrey Boakye, Gary Younge, Nadine White, Nasra Ayub and Savannah Williams.

In her foreword to the report, Baroness Doreen Lawrence OBE said:

“This important contribution to Stephen’s legacy at the 30th anniversary of his death reveals the points of hope and connection in our communities, particularly for young people who, like Stephen, have ambitions to become the architects of a more equitable future. Their resilience and determination to create change underscore the importance of fostering a sense of belonging and understanding. Through their collective strength, they are actively reshaping the world for the better.
“As we reflect on the past 30 years, we must acknowledge both the progress that has been made and the work that remains to be done. Stephen’s story serves as a potent reminder that our commitment to racial justice must be constantly renewed, while his legacy reinforces the potential of coalition-building in advancing the cause.
“It is with a sense of hope and unity that we offer this report, as a testament to the power of ordinary people coming together to drive extraordinary change, and in tribute to the life and legacy of my son, Stephen Lawrence.”

Dr Halima Begum, CEO of the Runnymede Trust, said:

“Stephen and I were born within a year of each other and, inevitably, I find myself regularly thinking of the life that was stolen from him so brutally. I joined the huge march in Welling after his murder, and it’s one of those moments I will never forget – people from all walks of life and every background coming out onto the street to say, ‘No more prejudice. Enough is enough.’
“Thirty years on, this is a hugely symbolic moment for us as a nation to take stock. We have made considerable progress on the path to achieving racial equality which, in no small part those, are a direct legacy of Stephen’s death. But we also take this moment to be absolutely clear that racism, however it manifests itself, has not gone away. In its most extreme forms, 30 years after Stephen had his life taken from him, racism still remains a matter of life and death in our country. 
“As this work shows, the vast majority of people in the UK support the cause of racial equity and justice, and that we can and will achieve our dreams of true equality together. So, while in recent years it has suited some of our leaders to contrive the national debate on racial equity as one that is polarising and divisive, I take great heart from this report, and I am sure Stephen would too. It leaves no doubt that the achievement of equality and respect for our common human dignity are hugely unifying issues to our next generation. Even if our institutions lag behind, young people are paving the way towards a more equitable, just and inclusive society. We offer this report in that sentiment of hope, and of course in memory and honour of a dear young man taken from us too soon, but whose legacy will live eternally.”

Jessica Neil, CEO of the Stephen Lawrence Day Foundation said:

“Produced at the intersection between the Stephen Lawrence Day Foundation and Runnymede Trust’s shared vision for a more equitable society, this report explores the impact of Stephen's life and death on young people in and around Southeast London. “We cannot fail to recognise the importance of data in giving voices to those who are most marginalised in our society. Our individual stories, when woven together, can create a picture of our collective experience that can be harnessed to challenge bias and discrimination, dispel mistruths, and serve as a force for good.
“The power of coalition in the fight for social justice cannot be underestimated, and this project is a demonstration of what can happen if organisations join forces in the pursuit of change. This contribution to Stephen’s legacy at the 30th anniversary of his death provides a detailed analysis of the progress that has been made in our society over the past three decades in relation to attitudes towards race, ethnicity, and identity, while still highlighting the persistent challenges that remain.”

We offer this report with a sense of hope and unity, as a testament to the power of ordinary people coming together to drive extraordinary change, and of course in honour and memory of Stephen Lawrence.

Rest in eternal power, dear Stephen

Stephen Lawrence, 13.09.1974 - 22.04.1993

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