On the 20th anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, JUST West Yorkshire invited two BME practitioners to assess his legacy.
It is odd to think that Stephen Lawrence, a teenager who was killed 20 years ago this week, looms as large in various parts of my professional life (as an artist and teacher) as Tagore, Arundhati Roy, Martin Luther King Jr, and Gandhi does. His death did not unleash a popular outcry against racial injustice. On the contrary, like so many criminal killings of Black and minority people at the time, the authorities and the nation at large were nonplussed. In fact, the Police lost vital evidence in the case due to a lack of timely action, the Crown Prosecution Service failed to prosecute, and it took years and a change of government (from Tory to Labour) before a public inquiry was granted. But what the tragedy of Stephen’s death did unlock was a pragmatic and long-suffering determination by the Lawrence family, friends and supporters to build change in this society one brick at a time. Their efforts over the last two decades have led to important changes in law and institutional attitudes towards the issue of race … or has it?
This morning I looked at a photograph of Doreen Lawrence, Stephen’s mother, and the country’s current political leadership outside the church where a service had been held in his memory. Aside from the obvious visual evidence that, 20 years on, our leadership is still White, it troubled me to realise that we are rather smug about the legacy of Stephen Lawrence: that we can all stand round Doreen Lawrence for the anti-racist photo op, affirm our anti-racist credentials but then go back to the comforts of our institutionally racialised organisations and practice. Doreen and friends have done the job. There is an Equalities Act in place. The great and the good publicly honour Stephen. We are therefore now ’post-race’.
While we pay lip service to our own conceptions of how society is no longer racist, the facts of the nation’s institutional racism speak for themselves. Black and minority ethnic citizens continue to be stopped and searched, imprisoned and generally criminalised more than their White counterparts. Public institutions continue to under-recruit or to adequately retain Black and minority ethnic staff, especially at senior levels, in spite, of the increasing number of qualified graduates emerging from our colleges and universities over the 20 years since Stephen’s death. Since the Northern Riots of 2001, we have adopted the attitude of blaming minority communities for not integrating into ’our’ culture, and to solve the problem of ’them’ living parallel but separate lives from ’us’, we have regressed to a pre-Lawrence policy of assimilation.
But the stakes are higher than we realise, not just for minority ethnic people, but for us all. The laws and perspectives created that expedite the criminalisation or disadvantage of one particular group can easily be turned against another in a different time. If the work to eradicate racism and institutional racism is taken for granted, belittled or forgotten, this can become a back-door through which all our fundamental civil liberties and human rights are eroded.
The funny thing about memorials is that they have the very bizarre effect of permitting us to forget. The marble, stone or bronze monuments that dot our streets fade into the everyday urban landscape until, once a year, red wreathes call them back into the present. The further away in time these memorials are from the person or event they memorialise, the more they become objects of curiosity and divorced from our contemporary reality (but of course the opposite is true, that we enjoy our current circumstance only because of the persons or deeds memorialised). In the same way, remembering Stephen for me is not about memorialising him but to be aware of and, if possible, to act against the small movements of institutional racism around me. As such, Stephen Lawrence’s legacy is not that it is a *landmark* of anti-racism in British politics, but that its demand is for a *practice* and attitude of anti-racism to be established in British political and institutional culture.
Jack Tan is an artist working around issues of politics and social justice. He is currently doing his PhD research in the performance of civil rights at Roehampton University, and teaches Sculpture at the Royal College of Art.
Constants, contradictions and change
On leaving an England football match, we ended up behind an overweight Portsmouth fan singing at the top of his voice “You don’t have to wear a veil to support England”. One of his compatriots turned and saw us and nudged the “singer” at which point he turned round too. Averting his gaze from us, he said to his compatriot “What, I’m not a racist. It’s just my opinion.” Although he returned to his song, he soon stopped when he saw two policemen at the exit we were all heading for.
For those trying to understand what change there has been in Britain since the murder of Stephen Lawrence, incidents such as these can provide evidence of change: Asians going to an England football game to support England when less than a generation ago there were virtually no black faces on the pitch and often none in the terraces. At the same time it can provide evidence that racism is still engrained in everyday life, with people finding new and more ingenious ways of saying who belongs and who does not.
At times hard won change has been too readily undermined. In 2013 we saw a man, who was in charge of the prison service when Zahid Mubarek was murdered after being put in a prison cell with a known and violent racist, telling social workers and others that they were paying too much attention to ‘race’ in attempting to place children in care with adopters. He proposed changes to legislation which if enacted will go against the evidence, the advice of many practitioners, as well as the House of Lords committee that reviewed the proposed legislation. What hope for real progress when hard fought and evidenced change is undermined by ill-informed and politically motivated action.
But the history of social action tells us that change is never linear, nor without setbacks. So the evidence that shows black and minority ethnic older people are more likely to have their needs assessed than in the past is significant. The fact that sheltered and supported housing for black and minority ethnic communities have been established in places such as Leicester, Liverpool and London is important. The fact that we now have a national screening programme for sickle cell and thalassemia is telling. The fact that over 20,000 black and minority ethnic parents have accessed an evidence-based parent education programme since the year 2000, with independent evidence demonstrating its effectiveness is also a sign of change. The fact that a myriad of mental health agencies are finding ways to ensure that talking therapies reach communities such as gypsies and travellers matters.
Acknowledging how much change there has been is not the same thing as saying racism is not an issue any more. It is certainly not the same as those who have announced the end of institutional racism. However, acknowledging that Britain is not what it was at the time of Stephen Lawrence’s death is a necessary step. It recognises the efforts of Mrs Lawrence, the myriad of voluntary and community organisations as well as the range of individuals and communities that have fought for better schools, better housing, better health and social care, better and more accountable policing, better and more representative media and better laws and better law makers. It also recognises that positive change is possible. Finally, it also recognises that something can be done about the injustices of a young man’s life being taken and no one being held to account.
Deputy Chief Executive
Race Equality Foundation