The race card after Macpherson

Why is it that those who worry most about racism today and call for greater tolerance, exhibit an intolerance to outsiders not seen since, well, the time when society really did have a problem with racism?

According to Hugh Muir at The Guardian, from female genital mutilators to the alleged hate crimes of Luis Suarez, there are some people that ‘shouldn’t progress further than the tarmac at Gatwick’. This is not to say that there are no longer racist crimes or that we don’t still have a problem with institutional racism. If by that we mean an institutionalised practice, particularly in the police force, of targeting certain sections of the community. I am not referring to the ‘canteen culture’ version of institutional racism here, invented by the Macpherson Inquiry, and subsequently used to (ironically enough) police the thoughts and speech of the rest of us.

In an instructive short film Muir interviews some of the key players in the Inquiry. According to the Lawrence’s family lawyer Imran Khan: ‘It made race mainstream’. And yet even he acknowledges that while the language has changed – as people mind their PC Ps and Qs – racism is still there, just ‘slightly more secret’. The Macphersonisation of the race issue has been disastrous, both for black people and for society as a whole. It has racialised social discourse at a time when racism itself has been in decline as a social force; and encouraged a censorious climate around an official anti-racism that only gets more hysterical.

The Inquiry brought an end to the double jeopardy rule – an important and long-standing legal safeguard against police harassment (not least of black people) – on the pretext of giving the police the opportunity of getting it right the second time around; and played an important role in the creation of hate crime laws – criminalising what people say or even think, as opposed to what they do. We’re so used to being told that it’s everywhere, and that its ‘unwittingly’ in all of us that we can’t see racism for what it is anymore. Peter Preston, a former editor of The Guardian, recalls in a recent column the Walworth, South London, of the 1970s:

The only black people you tended to see were young men in old cars having their boots stopped and searched by the white, Carter Street Old Bill.

The persistence of this old-style institutional racism is confirmed by a recent study – again, conducted by The Guardian. It finds that of those found guilty of driving offences: black people are 44% more likely to serve a custodial sentence; 38% more likely with regards public order offences or possession of a weapon, and 27% more likely to go to prison for drugs possession. As Preston says,

Everything changes, except stop and search, down the Walworth Road.