“It is vital to guard against the subtle dangers of unconscious prejudice, ignorance and stereotyping.”
Much media discussion about the recent report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities
(March 2021) has focused on comments that the term ‘institutional racism’ should be applied ‘only when deep-seated racism can be proven on a systemic level and not be used as a general catch-all phrase for any microaggression, witting or unwitting’ (page 8). But what exactly is ‘institutional racism’?
The phrase came to the fore in the report of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry (The Macpherson Report
, Cm 4262, Home Office), published in February 1999 by a small team headed by retired High Court judge, Sir William Macpherson, and including John Sentamu, later to become Archbishop of York. Macpherson died in February of this year at the age of 94.
As a commercial lawyer and ex-army officer, Macpherson was an unlikely author of a report that proved to be absolutely groundbreaking. It led to major changes to law and society, beginning with the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, bringing the scope of public functions firmly within the purview of discrimination law, which was followed by a range of other equality duties, eventually consolidated in the public sector equality duty in Equality Act 2010 s149. The ripples go far beyond race discrimination or policing.
Macpherson’s team did not invent the phrase ‘institutional racism’. The inquiry traced its roots back to The Scarman Report (November 1981) after the Brixton riots in 1981 and to academics before then. But in echoes of the present-day report, Lord Scarman had said, 40 years ago, that ‘institutional racism does not exist in Britain’ (para 9.1, page 135).
However, the context of this was:
If … it is meant that [Britain] is a society which knowingly, as a matter of policy, discriminates against black people, I reject the allegation. If, however, the suggestion being made is that practices may be adopted by public bodies as well as private individuals, which are unwittingly discriminatory against black people, then this is an allegation which deserves serious consideration, and, where proved, swift remedy (para 2.22, page 11).
Remedy was not swift. Nearly 20 years later, the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry developed the classic statement of institutional racism:
The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people (para 6.34).
The inquiry went on to say:
It persists because of the failure of the organisation openly and adequately to recognise and address its existence and causes by policy, example and leadership. Without recognition and action to eliminate such racism it can prevail as part of the ethos or culture of the organisation (para 6.34).
It is 40 years since the Brixton riots and nearly 30 since young Stephen Lawrence was murdered by a racist gang. A lot has changed in that time. Certainly, overt racism is far less commonplace now. But as long as racial disparities exist, it is vital to guard against the subtle dangers of unconscious prejudice, ignorance and stereotyping that underlie the persistent difference in life experiences of white and black people, however those crude categories are defined.
The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry realised one of the features of institutional racism is a failure by those who lead organisations to appreciate that it may exist within their ranks. As the report stated:
[T]here must be an unequivocal acceptance that the problem actually exists as a prerequisite to addressing it successfully (para 6.52).
The legacy of Stephen Lawrence is not to say that there needs to be firm evidence to prove institutional racism has occurred. That is missing the point. The point is to be eternally on guard by being proactive in rooting out racism before it occurs.