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Macpherson 20 years on: a personal reflection by Mark Blake

The murder of Stephen Lawrence and the Lawrence family’s arduous pursuit for justice marked a painful period for the nation. For many it crystallised the struggles of Britain’s black and minority ethnic communities for acceptance and equality in British society. Judge William Macpherson’s report into Stephen’s murder was a powerful critique of how our institutions absorb racism into their culture and practice.

Macpherson’s use of the term `institutional racism’, in relation to the Metropolitan Police, evoked a heated response. Macpherson defined institutional racism as:

"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."

Many, including the media commentator Melanie Phillips, rejected the concept of `institutional racism’.

I feel a lot of that is wrapped up in an uncritical interpretation of Britain’s history and a lack of empathy to those who were on the receiving end of past British glories. This approach to history is a real turn off to a lot of young people from BAME communities in school. Understanding, or even giving an acknowledgement to, different interpretations of history doesn’t feature in the conventional view of Britain’s past that shapes too much of our politics, mores and world views.

20 years on from the launch of the Macpherson Report, many would say that the country has moved on and got better at addressing racism and inequality. Undoubtedly a lot has changed since 1999 (the war on terror, Islamophobia, the resurgence of the far right and anti-Semitism) but, by the government’s own data through its race disparity audit, inequality on the grounds of race and ethnicity are more widespread and entrenched since 1999.

The challenge now for those campaigning and supporting efforts to address race disparities in the criminal justice system, as we do at BTEG and Equal, is how we actually make progress.

I think Macpherson is still relevant today in giving us lessons in moving forward. Leadership is crucial, as is acknowledging that the problem exists and that it is in the interests of all of us to address it.  We also need to give a greater attention to the self-interest of frontline workers, such as police and prison officers, who I believe do not see any benefit in actions that address race inequality and may, in fact, be quite hostile.

Efforts to make our workforce more representative of the communities they serve have not been successful over the past 20 years.  A good example of this is policing and the dominant media message that more “stop and search” from the police will alleviate knife crime and youth violence. This analysis seems to run contrary to the public health approach with its emphasis on prevention and early interventions and to evidence from academics, such as recent research from Sussex University that showed the link between stop and search and the 2011 riots.

Another aspect of stop and search, that affects me on a personal level, is its impact on children. The father of two sons, my eldest was stopped and searched for the first time at 16 and my youngest at 12. Is this really helping to nurture better community relationships with the police and address the fundamental issues Macpherson raised more than two decades ago? Are the police openly engaged in real honest debates about these challenges and taking them seriously?

The police would make greater progress by reintroducing some old interventions for the current times. I rarely hear senior police officers or political leaders speak about the need for more police officers to walk the streets, speak to members of communities and build relationships and trust. This was the foundation of British policing. It is a visible deterrent and a way to generate greater confidence in policing.

I recently heard the current Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, on Desert Island Discs. It was interesting to learn more about her as a person – the daughter of value-driven parents, losing her father at young age and being brought up by a single parent and, of course, being the first openly gay Commissioner of Police for the Met. She brings all of this life experience to the job. My challenge to her would be where is the authentic experience from London’s BAME communities within her institution? I think 20 years on from Macpherson it’s a pertinent question for all of our institutions.