Issue 229 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
Following the Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the Economist magazine described the police as racist, incompetent and untrustworthy. The acceptance in the report that the police are institutionally racist is a big step forward. It is testimony to the widespread anti-racist feeling in the rest of society that institutionalised racism is now recognised. The report also talks of the incompetence of the police. But the acknowledgement of racism and incompetence only goes a small way towards explaining the circumstances which led to Stephen's murder, or the reasons why the murderers were never brought to justice.
Doreen Lawrence said of the report, 'It has only scratched the surface. It has not gone to the heart of the problem.' Macpherson was clearly shocked by the levels of police racism against black people. But his report fails to explain how racism has developed in Britain. He doesn't describe the influence of fascist organisations in south east London where Stephen was killed, nor does he look at the role that trade unionists and anti-racists have played in challenging racism.
To examine the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the lack of response from the police requires a political and historical analysis winch explains the racism and poverty that existed in the area at the time of his murder, and the role of the police. This cannot be explained without looking at the changing attitudes to racism over the last 40 years and how these changes have been linked with anti-racist and anti-fascist struggles.
The institutionalised racism of the police is not accidental. It reflects the fact that the structures of society are so organised as to deny black people equal treatment with whites. Jack Straw implies that the police are no more racist than any other institution in society when he says it's up to every institution to change in the fight against racism. This ignores both how racism comes to exist and how it is challenged within institutions. On the demonstration to close the fascist British National Party headquarters at Welling in October 1993, there were teachers, council workers, postal workers and other workers and trade unionists. The police were also present, but their role was quite different. Their aim was to prevent the demonstrators closing the BNP headquarters and to attack the march. Whereas the march was a powerful display of black and white unity and was part of breaking down racist attitudes in society, the effect on members of the police force was likely to be the opposite. They were there to defend the fascists' headquarters, allowing them to peddle their racist filth in south east London. Racism within the police force is a consequence of the role of the police within society.
Why has the question of institutionalised racism come to the forefront? Since the end of the 1970s it has been the predominant form of racism in this country. There has been a decline of 'popular racism' in the form of upfront racist remarks, racist jokes and stereotypes, and racist attitudes. In 1955, 83 percent of white people said they would mind if a relative married a black or Asian person. By 1986 this had fallen to 66 percent and by 1996 the figure was 22 percent. This clearly shows a shift in attitudes towards black people because, although racism divides people, living in the same areas, going to school and working together also forces people together. Some 96 percent of black people live in large urban areas. The majority of black people in this country are semi-skilled or skilled workers--they are an integral part of the working class. In the middle of the 1950s there were union motions calling for the exclusion of West Indian bus drivers from the country. By 1991 Jamaican born Bill Morris was elected leader of that same union, the TGWU. This is a consequence of the fights against racism that have taken place over the last 40 years.
The 1981 Brixton riots showed the confidence of black people and white anti-racists in confronting the police. They followed high profile police raids in black areas. The riots spread to many other cities across Britain. In Liverpool and Hull the riots were misnamed 'race riots'. But they were not fights between blacks and whites--they were class riots against rising unemployment and against the police. Throughout the 1980s and 90s the enormous political fights against the poll tax and the pit closures involved thousands of black and white workers fighting side by side. Also, there were a series of important fights against racism led by workers. One was in 1984 at the Longbridge car plant in Birmingham where workers struck to defend a black trade unionist who hit a racist supervisor.
The confidence to take on racism in the early 1980s was built from the experience of beating the racists during the 1970s. Then, the National Front, an openly racist organisation, became a serious political force. In 1974 at Bethnal Green and Bow it received its biggest vote anywhere in the country. Levels of racist attacks rocketed. In the 1977 council elections the NF polled 119,000 votes in London and were able to beat the Liberals into fourth place in some areas. They were capable of building large street demonstrations. Against the backdrop of massive cuts under a Labour government the racists were able to go onto the offensive. In Newham, east London, where 40,000 jobs had been lost, it was possible for the fascists to scapegoat blacks and Asians for the plight that many whites suffered.
However, opposition to the fascists, through organising against Nazi marches, boosted the confidence of black and white people to fight racism. By 1977 the scene was set for a major confrontation between the Nazis and the antiracists. Two things broke the racists. One was the fact that large numbers of white workers fought alongside black and Asian workers, unifying working class activity. A good example of this was the support and solidarity received by the Grunwick's strikers, most of whom were Asian women. In 1977 a mass picket of workers including miners came together to support Asian women demanding union rights.
The other major factor was that anti-racists confronted the fascists. In 1977 in Lewisham the Nazis were driven off the streets in a pitched battle. Predictably the anti-racists faced opposition from the labour government as Michael Foot, then Labour deputy prime minister, said that 'the most ineffective way of fighting the fascists is to behave like them'. Despite this, in the aftermath of Lewisham the Anti Nazi League, initiated by the Socialist Workers Party and Labour Party left wingers, built a mass movement against racism. Its two pronged strategy of exposing the Nazi nature of the NF and physically confronting them on the streets pulled masses of people into an anti-racist struggle. The enormous marches and the launch of Rock Against Racism attracted hundreds of thousands of people. The idea currently being peddled that the judiciary was a major part in the fight and that legislation can rid us of racism was exposed in the trial of Kingsley Read, a prominent Nazi, for incitement to violence. He said in response to a racist murder, 'One down, a million to go.' The judge in charge of the case directed the jury to acquit him and pointed out that at public school he had the nickname 'nigger' and he saw nothing improper with its use.
In 1979 there was a massive protest in Southall against the National Front. Demonstrators were attacked by the police and there were several hundred arrests. Blair Peach, a white SWP and ANL member, was murdered by the police. No policeman was ever held accountable for his murder. Martin Webster of the NF had declared that his party was well on the way to making him the prime minister. But by 1979 the organisation was a shadow of its former self. The NF became marginalised as a movement, retreating into racist attacks. By fundamentally breaking the hard racists, the Nazis were prevented from establishing a base. In 1981 Martin Webster sued left Labour MP Peter Hain for defamation of character for calling him a Nazi!
The increased presence of the fascists in south east London in the early 1990s gave confidence to racist thugs in the area. The BNP had its headquarters in Welling, and the number of racist attacks and murders in south east London grew sharply and reached a level higher than anywhere else in the capital. In 1993, when Derek Beackon won a seat in the Isle of Dogs in east London, the Nazis set out to emulate their French counterparts to build a mass movement. They used the racist argument that Bengalis were to blame for the cuts. But Beackon was swept out of office after months of campaigning against him and on a wave of revulsion against racist attacks like that on Muktar Ahmed who was beaten and left for dead. The massive turnout of 60,000 on the Unity march against the Nazis in Welling in autumn 1993 demonstrates mass opposition to the Nazis.
Stephen Lawrence was murdered by a group of thugs clearly influenced by far right organisations. But following his murder these Nazi groups were marginalised by mass activity. The fact that an ANL Carnival attracted 150,000 people and the TUC could organise a 60,000 strong march against racism was a point completely lost on the Macpherson report. It also fails to address the issue of fascism or the influence of fascists in the rise of racist attacks in the area. The inquiry did not expose the link between the far right and Stephen Lawrence's murder and the response of ordinary people to fight back against racism. If it had, the conclusions would have been completely different.
Socialists welcome any change that may weaken racism, but it is clear that many of the institutions of society are reluctant to tackle racism because they are part of the central pillars which maintain the wealth of a tiny minority. The Macpherson report and the government place the responsibility for change firmly in the hands of existing institutions themselves. If these institutions are racist in a sense that pervades their structures to the core, how can they reform themselves? The struggle against racism and fascism over the last 30 years has taught us that only when black and white working class people organise themselves can the prevailing racist ideas be broken down.