Eighteen years since Stephen Lawrence was killed, a prosecution for his murder has led to the convictions of two men. In the intervening period there have been no fewer than three separate prosecutions in a case which has seen, amongst other things, a reformation of the ‘double jeopardy’ law and a revolution in the public perception and discussion of racism.
Yet the phenomenon of institutionalised racism remains rather poorly understood in the public perception. Most people are OK with the idea that it means people acting in a prejudiced or prejudicing manner without consciously intending to, but this begs the question, if people don’t realise they’re doing it, how do we know it exists?
Let’s take a more general (by which I of course mean more specific, but usefully illustrative) case, say, the number of years it takes people in a particular industry to make it to senior management level. there are sometimes cases where people feel they have been overlooked or had to work harder in order to achieve the same as their colleagues of different backgrounds. With any single person it’s nearly impossible to establish that they’ve been the victim of institutionalised racism. Yes there are cases where people are provably held back by their ethnicity, but that form of overt racism is a separate phenomenon and recognised as wrong. In most cases there simply isn’t any positive evidence one way or the other to establish whether the person’s ethnicity has had an impact on how they have progressed in their career. However, when large groups are considered, something very different happens.
The old adage about ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’ is itself something of a lie. Statistics are potentially one of the most powerful analytical tools available to us. The problem usually arises when they are quoted inappropriately and out of context (Daily Hate, I’m looking at you here!). When they are presented in an honest and clear format by people who understand the limitations of the data they are resenting they can provide real insight (Those wishing a more in depth look at the importance and abuse of statistics are referred to Ben Goldacre’s excellent book “Bad Science” and Radio 4’s “More or Less”). Thus is the case with institutionalised racism. Taking the example above, if you collect data over a large enough sample group then the relative merits or not of individual cases even out and it’s becomes possible to see measurable differences between different groups, differences that are large enough to fall significantly outside the natural spread of data. When this happens there are only three possible conclusions:
- The results are a fluke (Though this argument rapidly loses credibility for large sample sizes).
- People of the ethnicity in question are less able than those of other backgrounds.
- This ethnic group are the victims of institutionalised racism.
The same principle applies to other institutionalised prejudices like sexism, ageism, homophobia, etc.
I was explaining this idea to a friend at one point who responded with, “That sounds uncomfortably like ‘thought crimes’ to me.”
This raises a very important point. As there is no positive evidence of such racism in individual cases, individuals cannot be held criminally accountable for it. Put another way, institutionalised problems require change on an institutional level. The problem is that most institutions, in the absence of positive proof of the problem, are reluctant to introduce measures to address this.
What makes the Stephen Lawrence case so compelling is that, for once, it was possible to identify specific instances where individual actions and the system itself led to a failure to bring Lawrence’s killers to justice that required nearly two decades’, massive publicity and an overhaul of the Metropolitan Police to get to today's result.
Not that today's verdict is really an end, either to the investigation into Lawrence's murder or the problem of institutionalised racism.
Don't get me wrong, two murder convictions and a more accountable and sensitive Metropolitan Police is a good first step, but as this is an organisation that is supposed to embody " fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality, upholding fundamental human rights and according equal respect to all people" I think it's fair to say that this is pretty much in the job description and the fact that it's taken the murder of an innocent young man and eighteen years of heartache and determination from his family to achieve this is little short of shameful.
A good first step, which takes us as far as square one.