In the media
Passionate debate on a landmark in race relations
Black groups respond with mixed messages, writes Amelia Gentleman
Thursday February 25, 1999
The long-awaited publication of the report provoked impassioned
reaction and controversy last night. Most people heralded Sir William
Macpherson's findings as a landmark in British race relations, but
some pressure groups felt Sir William could have been stronger in
his criticism of the police.
There were suggestions that Sir Paul Condon, the Metropolitan police
commissioner, should have been forced to resign, debate on Sir William's
very broad definition of institutionalised racism and controversy
about suggested changes to the law on double jeopardy.
The Commission for Racial Equality responded with unqualified enthusiasm.
'The commitment by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary to
drive home a programme of change represents a historic step forward
for all our people,' a spokesman said .'This is a defining moment
for race relations in Britain.'
The Institute for Race Relations was also welcoming. 'This is a
landmark finding on a par with Lord Justice Salmon's findings after
the 1958 Notting Hill riots that 'everyone, irrespective of the
colour of their skin, is entitled to walk through the streets...
free from fear',' a spokesman said. 'But if the police are to take
on ridding the force of institutional racism it needs commitment
from the media and vigilence from the public.'
Lord Scarman, author of a report into the 1981 Brixton riots, said
he felt vindicated by Sir William's findings. The law lord whose
recommendations were largely ignored by Margaret Thatcher's government
said British race relations had not dramatically improved since
then. 'The whole thing was anticipated in my report on Brixton.
I stand by what I said then.'
The Society of Black Lawyers and the Association of Black Probation
Officers were among several organisations to warn that more was
needed if the affair was to have a positive outcome, and argued
that Sir Paul should be forced to resign. 'His position is untenable.
This is inevitable given the scale of the criticism of the Metropolitan
police,' a spokesman said. 'He no longer carries the trust and confidence
of the black community.'
But the British Sikh Federation said it hoped Sir Paul would remain
to see through the changes recommended. 'Other police services have
admitted institutionalised racial discrimination and it would be
pointless and damaging to expect so many chief constables to resign,'
the group said in a statement. 'The police officers on duty or at
fault should resign or be dismissed instead.'
Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, leader of the Muslim Parliament, said the
report was 'a major step towards creating a culture of tolerance'.
The Black Police Association also gave the report its full support,
describing institutional racism in the Met as 'an-age old problem'.
Spokesman Paul Wilson said a review of every facet of police life
was urgently needed if lasting improvements were to be made.
The Archbishop of Canterbury called for the 'deficiencies' of the
Meptropolitan police to be 'addressed with urgency, rigour and determination,'
and the Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Rev Tom Butler, whose Anglican
diocese covers Eltham where Stephen was murdered, added he was not
surprised by the assertion that 'pernicious and institutional racism'
existed in the Met. 'No institution, including the Church, has done
enough to combat racism. This must change.'
The report's call for changes to the rules against double jeopardy
to allow a second prosecution proved controversial. A Bar Council
spokesman said: 'We must not face a situation where the state can
endlessly prosecute unpopular defendants until they get the 'right
The director of the human rights organisation Liberty, John Wadham,
had concerns about civil liberties. 'This will be used more often
against black people than white,' he said.
Sir William's definition of the term 'institutionalised racism'
caused further debate. Some groups welcomed its breadth; others
expressed disappointment at the implication that racist behaviour
could be 'unwitting'. Sir Herman Ouseley, chairman of the Commission
for Racial Equality, praised its constructive approach. 'Very often
the racism is unwitting,' he said. 'And we should not be seeking
to blame people.'
But for the Society of Black Lawyers and the Association of Black
Probation Officers the definition was too weak. 'There is overwhelming
evidence that there are many serving police officers up and down
the country that deliberately and knowingly target and stereotype
members of the African, Caribbean and Asian community,' a spokesman
'The Macpherson definition of institutionalised racism therefore
falls short of the reality experienced by the black community.'
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