Could Martin Luther King’s dream of a society without racism ever become a reality? For millions of people, the inauguration of Barack Obama as US president is a sign that maybe it can. However, many rightly believe that we will have to fight for every gain we make – and that the state will remain an obstacle to our progress. Nevertheless, the US election has caused some to reassess the state of racism here in Britain. Trevor Phillips, the chair of the Commission on Equality and Human Rights, last week chose a speech marking the 10th anniversary of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report to suggest that it was no longer appropriate to call the police institutionally racist. Phillips’s words were actually more challenging than has been reported. Indeed, he specifically stated that he does not believe that “institutional racism as it was described in the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report has been obliterated.”
However, it is dangerously complacent to assert that institutional racism is “too incendiary” a phrase to use today and that instead, the term “systemic bias” more accurately describes the challenges we face. Writing in the Guardian, Dwayne Brooks, who witnessed the brutal murder of his friend Stephen on that fateful night in Eltham 16 years ago, eloquently dismissed Phillips assertions. A black person is still EIGHT times more likely to get arrested than a white person. These phenomena are no coincidence. Rather, they are the inevitable outcome of the discrimination that the Lawrence family’s long, determined and courageous campaign exposed. The importance of that struggle was that it highlighted the fact that racism is not simply a question of individual behaviour and attitudes.
It is easy to identify the jackbooted skinhead. But the everyday experience of most black people is not one of victimisation at the hands of thugs, but one of systematic discrimination at the hands of schools, the criminal justice system, and employers. Compared to our white counterparts, black people are three times more likely be excluded from school, five times more likely to imprisoned and twice as likely to be unemployed. Government decrees, and increasing the number of black faces in high places, simply cannot overcome this kind of racism. The US has thousands of black people appointed to high office. Yet the impact of Hurricane Katrina vividly portrayed the depth of the social and economic divisions that remain. So, if elected office is not the way forward, then what is?
My parents, like many others, arrived in Britain after the Second World War and had to fight for recognition and respect. They organised themselves, and in so doing so, they not only improved conditions for their children, but also found some allies among the working class. Today, the simple truth is that most black people live, study and work alongside white workers in a way that would have seemed impossible in the 1950s. That level of integration is the reason why Phillips can claim that Britain is “by far the best place in Europe to live if you are not white”. However, the “ease with our diversity” that he identifies is by no means an automatic or inevitably permanent development. This is a lesson we will need to remember as the economic crisis deepens and our rulers seek to deflect anger at the mess that they have created. Now is a time for increased vigilance among all anti-racists, not one for sending a signal that racism is a thing of the past.