“Call Me a Bungling Incompetent – But Never a Racist”: The UK Debates Racism

Police brutality is forcing England to confront its understanding of racism and what to do about it. Gary Wiltshire examines the debate.

By Gary Wiltshire May 15, 1999

Black Londoner Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death at a bus stop in front of friends in 1993. When the police arrived, they made a cursory check to see if he was breathing, then concentrated their attention on questioning the eye-witnesses, who were also black. The police were convinced that Stephen was the victim of a black gang-related fight. The witnesses said Lawrence was attacked by white youths. The police refused to listen, left Stephen to bleed to death, and the white murderers escaped.

Now, the UK government has issued a report about the incident that is inflaming public debate about race. The product of the indomitable persistence of Stephen Lawrence’s parents, the report analyzes the collective failure of the London police force in this case. Lawrence’s parents, backed by much of the black community, turned the incident into a public indictment of racism in the police force.

The UK has chronically failed to pursue racist crime. Since the Lawrence murder, there have been at least 20 other racist murders and few convictions. Government figures identify 13,151 racist incidents in the last twelve months alone. Other surveys suggest a much higher figure. The simple act of setting up a Racial and Violent Crimes Task Force in September, 1998 resulted in a 68 percent rise in notified racial offenses within six months.

Despite the rise in racist crime, there is little legal redress. The only piece of specifically anti-racist legislation in the UK, the 1976 Race Relations Act, does not even apply to the police or other public services.

The senior black Member of Parliament, Bernie Grant, has called the response to the Lawrence report “the last chance for British society to tackle racism and push for racial equality. The black community is giving British society a last chance.” The two-year-old Labour Party government of Tony Blair is touting its determination to solve the problem.

Public Debate over Racism

The Lawrence report has fueled a public debate over what racism is, and what British society and institutions like the police need to do to eliminate it. The current furor centers on the Lawrence report’s statement that: “The conclusions to be drawn from all the evidence in connection with [this] racist murder are clear. The investigation was marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism, and a failure of leadership by senior officers.”

The phrase “institutional racism” is the source of the uproar. Sir Paul Condon, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police (the head of the police force in London), announced he would accept the conclusions of the report only if the definition of “racism” in the UK were changed. The previous working notion of “racism” dates from a 1982 report on a series of riots sparked by police brutality and defined it as intentional actions motivated by overt racial bigotry.

So, by placing the word “institutional” in front of this understanding of “racism,” the Lawrence report opened the entire police department to charges of conscious racial prejudices and actions, and to strong corrective measures. Hence Sir Paul’s protests.

Blame all, Blame No One?

In response to Sir Paul, Sir William MacPherson, author of the Lawrence report, issued the following definition of institutional racism: “Institutional Racism consists of the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their color, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes, and behavior which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

Although acknowledging “institutional racism” may some day prove a blessing to the fight for racial justice in the UK, in the current context it is being used to let the police department off the hook. The idea that any racism involved was “unwitting” means that neither the department as a whole nor any individuals can be held accountable. Sir Paul is willing to be labeled bungling, incompetent, ignorant, and unwittingly racist, so long as no one loses their job. The message MacPherson seems to be sending is: “You can keep your job—just go to diversity training.” Indeed Sir Paul did so, with the fulsome praise of the Blair government for his commitment to “stamping out racism.”

What the police, in responding to the Lawrence report, are unwilling to deal with is that their racism was part of, and amplified, their incompetence.

The slow response of the police on the night of the murder allowed the killers to get away and the immediate evidence to dissipate. The police then waited days before arresting the white thugs identified by an eyewitness. There was evidence that one of the investigating officers had a connection to a suspect’s father and worked with him to cover up the incident.

Eventually, because the police devalued Lawrence’s life and failed to collect the damning evidence, the two young suspects brought to public trial were released and all charges were dropped. The victim’s parents then brought a private suit against the two boys and three other accomplices. It was this private trial that, despite resistance, lying, and cover-ups by the police, revealed the unlawful death and the racist role of the police in the injustice and finally led to the commissioning of the Lawrence report.

Denouncing institutional racism is unquestionably a good thing, especially in this age of conservatism. But holding institutions and people accountable for it is quite another. It is such accountability that most UK black organizations demand.

Political Roots of Racism

If the police are escaping accountability in this controversy, they are doing so with the complicity of the Blair government.

First, when the Lawrence report was leaked to the press, the Blair government got an injunction against release of the details of the report, fearing the matter would get out of its control. The government has agreed to include the police within the Race Relations Act, but says it cannot produce the necessary legislation for at least three years. In the meantime, the government proposes to combat racism in the police force by sending undercover black police officers into the force to detect racist comments among their colleagues.

In London, 20 percent of the population is black, mostly from Africa or the West Indies, or Asian, mainly from the Indian sub-continent, yet 97 percent of police officers are white. The police are formally accountable only to Parliament. But institutional racism in the police force is matched by the disempowerment of racial and ethnic minorities in Parliament.

There are 3.4 million black, Asian, or minority ethnic people in Britain, yet the first black Member of Parliament (MP) was not elected until 1987. Today, out of 651 MPs, only 5 are black. Yet the Blair government tells the people to continue to place their trust in people in high places and, as is traditional in the UK, most of the public apparently does. But as Benjamin Zephaniah, the black British poet said, “it’s no good knowing people in high places if they are not your friends.”

The full report on Stephen Lawrence’s murder is at