Page last updated at 14:34 GMT, Monday, 19 January 2009

Analysis: Institutional racism dead?

A black man walks past grafitti supporting Eoch Powell in the 1960s
Times have changed - but relations are still a complex thing

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News home affairs

The police should no longer be accused of institutional racism, the UK's equalities chief has said. But what has changed over the last 10 years?

Ten years ago, if you asked an average police officer about wearing shoes in a mosque, the chances are they would not immediately know the answer. Ask them today and they would almost certainly know to take them off.

That simple shift is symbolic of the fundamental changes in policing in the UK since the damning Macpherson report into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence.

Today, on the eve of Barack Obama's inauguration in the United States, the UK's equalities chief Trevor Phillips has called for a fresh debate, saying that the simplistic charge of institutional racism against the police is no longer valid.

The 1999 Macpherson report had a very clear idea of what it meant by institutional racism.

Stephen Lawrence's death was not taken seriously because he was different, it concluded.

The report led directly to the creation of the Race Relations Amendment Act, a crucial piece of legislation that forced every public body in the UK to take racism seriously.

Deeper challenges

Professor Chris Mullard is one of the UK's leading academics on race relations and chairman of Focus Consultancy which provides training on diversity.

He says the key to understanding how things have changed since Macpherson is to look at the difference between organisations and society.

"There has to be a distinction between institutionalised and institutional racism," he says. "Racism is institutionalised because it's deeply embedded within the prejudices of a society. And it's those prejudices and deep psychological feelings that allow racism to be legitimised.

"Institutionalised racism is not something you can get rid off in just 10 years. But institutions can be 'deracialised' and I think that is what we have been seeing."

Trevor Phillips
Would the police deal with Stephen Lawrence's murder differently today? Evidence from the murder of Anthony Walker in Merseyside in 2005 indicates they would
Trevor Phillips

Prof Mullard uses the example of education. In diverse inner city schools, the curriculum, and how children are taught about each other, can feel completely different to the environment in a small village school in an exclusively white rural area.

That's not to say the rural school is racist - it's just that the subtle business of understanding differences, and accepting them as natural, has worked differently.

The challenge for public bodies and society, he says, is to take steps to understand those differences, prepare for them and recognise them as a reality of our society, rather than something unusual, awkward or just too plain difficult to address.

The past decade has seen a huge drive on race relations in the UK, with both public sector bodies and private enterprises queuing up for training.

This cultural shifting has been backed by legislative changes designed to expel prejudice from the workplace.

Complacency warning

However, that's not to say all is rosy in the garden. Trevor Phillips' clean bill of health for the police has raised some eyebrows.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Alf Hitchcock of the Metropolitan Police has welcomed the comments, saying that endemic racism in the force is a thing of the past.

"I think canteen culture is dead and buried within the Met," he told the BBC. "I think there is, there are still occasions where people will stupidly say inappropriate things but nowadays we know our staff are confident in challenging that."

But his confidence is not universally shared.

Former Commissioner Sir Ian Blair was mired in a protracted row with two senior officers and allegations that they had been subject to racism.

Britain's highest ranking Asian officer, Tarique Ghaffur, has since reached a settlement and left the Met.

Interview with Trevor Phillips

A second officer, Ali Dizaei remains in dispute and is currently suspended.

He told the BBC that the police had indeed moved on - but there was a danger of complacency.

"In terms of our service [to communities] we have gone a long way. Where we have failed woefully is in how we deal with our own staff," he says.

"Institutional racism is still alive. The danger is that Trevor Phillips' comments will be misconstrued and give a 'fit note' to senior officers who will say that it's no longer an issue."

Mr Dizaei says that the police only act on racism when they are under pressure.

He argues that five years ago complacency was already setting in when a BBC undercover documentary revealed racism in police training.

The danger now is that Mr Phillips' comments will lead to the foot again being taken off the pedal.


That said, the challenges for the police and for society have fundamentally changed.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the UK's racism debate came down to relations between white, black, Asian and Chinese communities.

It largely cast white people as racists and everyone else as the victims (with the notable inclusion of the Irish).

Many race experts agree this one-dimensional approach is now facile.

Britain is now so diverse, it is almost impossible to count the different communities, cultures and ethnicities that have grown up in the era of free movement.

People come as workers, students and visitors from all over the world. Some stay forever, some stay for a while.

That means the pressure on public bodies to understand differences between people has become ever more acute.

Eastern European migration has sparked prejudice and tensions from among some white, black and Asian Britons who resent the arrival of these cheap workers.

In parts of London there are some tensions between the differing communities from Africa and the Caribbean.

And in the middle of all this is a younger generation of Britons who are more likely than ever before to know or marry someone from another background.

Which is where the mixed-race, mixed religious heritage of Barack Obama's inauguration comes in.

"The world is becoming more diverse," says Prof Mullard.

"It's not just our country, and it is leading to 'one world' where racial backgrounds and ethnicities are mixed and we intermingle emotionally and must see each other as equal.

"Obama's election is really about that - a symbolic culture of oneness."

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