When black teenager Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death in 1993 by what a British court called last week a ‘gang of racist thugs’ no one expected it to become the most notorious case of justice evaded, leading to the indictment of the Metropolitan Police by the MacPherson Inquiry as ‘institutionally racist’. Had it not been for Stephen Lawrence’s indomitable family, particularly his mother Doreen, and their supporters, the conviction eighteen years after the killing of two of his five murderers, Gary Dobson and David Norris, may not have come to pass. While the conviction was a triumph for justice, late as it was, questions remain as to why it took so long and what we can learn from this case. Would Stephen Lawrence’s murder have been left unresolved for so long had he been white?
The accusation of institutional racism may have led to changes in policing practices beyond just ‘lessons learned’ as the Met insists. There are more police officers of colour in Britain (in Ireland, by comparison, there are only 46 Gardai from migrant background), and the Met insists things are different now. But crucially, the murder happened in a society which sees itself as white and sees people of colour, British born or new immigrants, as racialised others. This leads to racial profiling – black and Asian people are stopped and searched much more often than white people, particularly since 9/11, and to increasingly restrictive immigration regulations – both in Britain and here. It also leads to the demonisation of migrants and asylum seekers as ‘bogus’, ‘scroungers’ and as ‘taking our jobs’ as British and Irish societies assume whiteness to be the hegemonic norm.
Remember that the recent London riots were sparked off after the met refused to explain the shooting to death of an unarmed black man, Mark Duggan, even though they became uncontrollable later. And remember too, that despite the achievements of black and migrant Britons in the arts, football and other sports, there are not enough black people in leadership positions.
And what about Ireland, where immigrants constitute just ten per cent of the population and where black and ethnic minority people are not at all represented in the arts, media, sports and politics?
On Good Friday 2010 a fifteen years old Nigerian boy, Toyosi Shitta-Bey, was murdered by two Dublin brothers. It took the Gardai quite some time to pronounce it as a racist murder – in fact immediately after the killing, everyone, from the local Tyrrelstown community, to religious leaders and politicians, claimed it was not racially motivated. It took the Gardai even longer to bring Toyosi’s killers to justice. Had it not taken that long, justice might have been done and Toyosi’s family might have had its closure. But last November, just before the trial was to begin, one of the killers, 40 years old Frank Barry, was found dead and the trial was cancelled.
The Lawrence family had their closure, but institutional and state racism continues. It does not mean of course that all British or Irish people are racist. Far from it. But the assumption of whiteness means that these two multicultural societies keep refusing to truly recognise their racial diversity, preferring to project societal problems – such as unemployment – onto immigrants and people of colour.