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Stephen Lawrence 27 years on: How institutional racism continues to pervade society

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

By Sara Chitseko:

"On the first Stephen Lawrence Day, let’s admit our communities are still unequal." These are the words of Stephen's mother, Doreen Lawrence, writing in The Guardian on the 26th anniversary of Stephen's death in 2019. Last Wednesday 22nd April marked the second Stephen Lawrence Day and 27 years since Stephen was brutally murdered in an unprovoked, racist attack. Stephen's death has been referred to as "the murder that changed a nation." It undoubtedly brought institutional racism to the forefront of public consciousness. But with racism still pervasive in all areas of social and political life (including policing, the criminal justice system, education, employment, housing and healthcare); how far have we really come in dismantling systems of oppression?  Institutional racism has been defined as, "that which, covertly or overtly, resides in the policies, procedures, operations and culture of public or private institutions - reinforcing individual prejudices and being reinforced by them in turn." Public understandings of the term became more thoroughly embedded as a result of the Macpherson Report. Published in 1999, it was a public inquiry into Stephen Lawrence's death. Macpherson concluded that the Met Police investigation had been “marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership.” Less publicised, was the evident police racism in the handling of Stephen's murder beyond the Macpherson Report. In 2014, then Home Secretary, Theresa May announced a public inquiry following "profoundly shocking" evidence that Met police undercover officers had been planted to spy on Doreen and Neville Lawrence - Stephen's parents. Furthermore, May's decision to order this inquiry came as a result of other revelations surrounding undercover police, who infiltrated political groups over 40 years. Many formed sexual relationships with activists and stole the identities of dead children. Deceit, manipulation, racism, hypocrisy and a lack of accountability have plagued the police for decades. There are an array of examples which have demonstrated that the policing is institutionally racist at its very core. But to truly grasp how institutional racism plays out in our society, we must understand how it manifests in other aspects of life too. If we look at key events that shook the nation over the past few years, we see that we are far from living in a "post-racial" society. When Grenfell Tower burned in 2017, most of those who perished, or who lost everything in the flames, were from racialised communities. This March, an independent review into the Windrush scandal claimed, "the UK’s treatment of the Windrush generation, and approach to immigration more broadly, was caused by institutional failures to understand race and racism." At present, official figures show more than a third of people in intensive care from COVID-19 are from 'BAME' backgrounds, which is well over double the proportion of 'BAME' people in the wider population. Last week, the Labour Party launched a review into the disproportionate impact coronavirus is having on BAME communities, with Doreen Lawrence at the helm. Truth is, institutional racism is woven into the very fabric of our society. It is not a comfortable truth to accept, but to turn a blind eye, is to be complicit in a system which literally costs Black and Brown lives. While report after report may shine light on the violence that this system inflicts, there is an urgent need for meaningful action to rethink the very structures of our society and our ways of being. Patrisse Cullors mission statement for the political movement, Black Lives Matter reads, "To provide hope and inspiration for collective action to build collective power to achieve collective transformation. Rooted in grief and rage, but pointed towards vision and dreams." Our communities carry intergenerational trauma as a result of institutional racism - we won't let that define us, but we will let it drive us.

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