No one can seriously deny that our society is racist. I’m sure we all encounter it quite frequently. Twenty years ago, most people would have described much of it as banter. Not hateful. In bad taste, certainly, but nothing to be taken too seriously. But even as I write these words I can sense some reactions out there. Feathers ruffling, hackles rising, fists clenching. Perhaps teeth are being bared. One of the consequences of the Stephen Lawrence murder case is that nothing can ever again be dismissed as mere banter in the context of racial and cultural differences. That is the price we have had to pay to prevent racist banter lapsing into racist abuse and hatred. Some will lament the damage to our sense of humour, but I believe it’s an acceptable price.
There are, however, some aspects of the case that are more worrying and less acceptable.
Stephen Lawrence, a young black man, and a friend, Duwayne Brooks, were set upon by five or six white youths in a London suburb one evening in April 1993. Brooks managed to evade the gang, but Lawrence was stabbed to death. The police investigation was an utter shambles and the perpetrators initially escaped conviction. It became a cause célèbre and the government launched an official inquiry. Despite finding no specific evidence of racist conduct by any Metropolitan Police Officer, the main contention of the Macpherson Inquiry Report was that the London police force had become “institutional racist”.
Under pressure from activists and lawyers representing the Lawrence family, MacPherson redefined racist activity as “any incident which is perceived as racist by the victim or any other person.” The Metropolitan Police Service caused offence to the black community and was therefore deemed to be racist. The upshot of this remarkable assertion is that it is no longer possible to defend yourself against a charge of racism. So what happened to the presumption of innocence? And what can now protect people from mischief-makers?
Then there was the decision to put Gary Dobson through a second trial despite his original acquittal. Up until 2003, individuals were protected against judicial persecution and state repression by 800-year-old double jeopardy laws preventing anyone being tried twice for the same crime. The Crown Prosecution Service may have secured Dobson’s conviction, but should they have abandoned a crucial ancient safeguard upholding the rights of the individual against abuses of state power to achieve it? It’s a moot point.
Can the fight against racism go too far? Yesterday marked Martin Luther King Day. I can’t help feeling that, were he alive today, the great man would agree that we’ve been too quick to use legislation in recent years when there was still time for education. Will relations between people of different races be better as a consequence of these fundamental changes in our rights and freedoms? It seems to me there’s a danger that they will lead to a demoralised police force, an increase in racist paranoia and a kind of politically correct McCarthyism. Whilst condemning all manifestations of racial hatred, I fear the unintended consequences of eroding our civil liberties.