22 April 2021

Britain’s George Floyd moment, a generation earlier

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The murder of Stephen Lawrence was Britain's George Floyd moment – but it happened a generation earlier and it took years, not minutes, to spark new efforts to tackle racism in Britain. In this speech to the Cohesion Plus 'A legacy for change’ event on Stephen Lawrence Day, 22 April 2021, British Future Director Sunder Katwala says that the campaign for justice for Stephen Lawrence can inspire new efforts again.

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The murder of Stephen Lawrence – and the campaign for justice that followed – changed our country.

Along with the Hillsborough disaster when I was football mad 15 year old, it is the news event in my lifetime that had the biggest personal effect on me.

It is partly that we were the same age when he was killed. He had been born British, in the Greenwich District Hospital in September 1974, the same year that I was born. But then he was killed, for the colour of his skin, trying to spot the number 161 bus that might get him home to Plumstead.

I thought about Stephen Lawrence almost every day in the year of the inquiry into his death. When the Macpherson report came out, I was living on the Well Hall Road in Eltham, only a matter of yards from his memorial plaque. This was six years after his death – Eltham may already have been changing by then. I remained bewildered by the contrast between those frenzied seconds of hate and the mundane suburban normality as I trudged up the road past the local co-op and the bus stop.

We all learned so much from Doreen Lawrence’s campaign for justice. It changed the national conversation about race.

In 2021, I think we can now think of this as Britain’s George Floyd moment, a generation earlier.

But it was different too. For it took four years, rather than minutes and hours, for this killing to shock the conscience of our nation.

It wasn’t the first murder. It would not be the last. But it was this killing that opened new eyes to race and racism.

That had so much to do with the enormous commitment and courage of Doreen Lawrence. What was different was the sheer breadth of the coalition that she mobilised.

There were the groups that had long campaigned against racism, and the series of stabbings in the area. The lawyers who were challenging the police’s failures.

The politicians picked up the case. It was the New Labour government, when it came to power, that called a public inquiry into the case.

And the Daily Mail newspaper got behind the campaign too, after seeing the swaggering sense of impunity of the prime suspects at the inquest. Its front-page headline declared them to be ‘Murderers’.

People have different views, often critical views, of the Daily Mail newspaper. As it was my Mum’s newspaper of choice, I grew up with it. So I probably formed a lot of my emerging views against it when I was a teenager. Yet it had a very powerful impact that it made so much of this case.

Many in Middle England – often for the first time – saw the issue of policing through the eyes of this black family, the murder of a teenager, the grief of his parents, and the injustice at this failure to bring justice.

This famous case moved from the news to documentaries, even then to the stage and to television dramas. So we saw the police flounder, and we saw how their unwitting assumptions contributed to that.

“Institutional racism” was an unfamiliar phrase then – but I think people knew what it was when they saw it.

Such broad alliances are unusual – when the Guardian and the Daily Mail find themselves on the same side. I think it happened again, at least briefly, as the Windrush scandal finally grabbed the nation’s attention. When they do happen, they can reshape how we think – and how we see each other.

Over twenty years on, where are we now?

We find ourselves having a very polarised debate about Race, after the latest Race commission report. We can feel stuck.

It is another debate about institutional racism too.

I think the Race Commission gave a rather muddled account of that. It says that it accepts the MacPherson definition, but it then generated headlines saying it couldn’t find any institutional racism in Britain

Yet the Sewell report itself sets out clear evidence that there is systemic discrimination – when you apply for a job, for example, if you have an ethnic-sounding name you need to send in more CVs before you get an interview than somebody else with identical qualifications. Its not much use to be told the system is not ‘deliberately rigged’ – we need to focus on action to change the outcomes.

There were efforts in policing – but not enough progress. It is one of the areas where the Race Commission report is clear about the need for change. No police force comes close to reflecting, in its ethnic make-up, the public that it is there to serve – with the one exception being the Lincolnshire police, where about 2% of the police force and the public are from ethnic minorities. Faster change there would make a contribution to increasing trust.

We can go backwards as well as forwards. I know that I live in a less racist society than the one that I grew up in.

There has been an important shift in attitudes – especially across generations.  So there are fewer people who think overt racism is OK, or just a bit of banter.

But the paradox is this: I experience much more racism today, much more often, than I did in 1999.

In my case, it is because I have got a mobile phone and because I am on Twitter.  So in 2021, you cannot talk about race in this country, as somebody from an ethnic minority, without receiving racist abuse pretty regularly. It is a different experience of taking part in a public discussion. There is a sustained failure of the social media platforms to deal properly with the worst offenders – so we need to go back and make again the progress on social norms against racism, that I saw us make in the past, in school playgrounds and classrooms, in our football grounds, and on public transport.

The strength of the MacPherson report was its focus on institutions, not just intentions.

Unfair outcomes do not only result from malign intentions.

In hindsight, I am struck by how our discussion of “institutional racism” may not help us think about institutions.

That R-word carries so much more emotional punch than the I-word – and we associate it with intentions, not institutions.

And this is surely not a binary state of grace or disgrace – “Are we institutionally racist or not?”

Rather, it is about the need to acknowledge the gaps, the challenges, and to commit to the sustained work to narrow those gaps and to deliver fairness – though institutions that want to commit to doing that will always struggle to apply the dreaded R-word to themselves and their efforts to address it.

So maybe the last couple of decades also show why ‘institutional racism’ will always prove a difficult concept to drive change. It is the substance we need, perhaps more than the term itself.

I do feel we have made progress in my lifetime on race – but not enough progress.

We have seen expectations rise faster than the progress that we have made – especially from the next generation, who took to the streets last year insisting that progress needs to speed up again now.

So the focus of public policy and public debate needs to be on what still needs to change.

As we recommit to doing more, Stephen Lawrence Day shows us that the campaign for Justice for Stephen Lawrence can inspire new efforts again.


This speech was given at the ‘A legacy for change’ event coordinated by Cohesion Plus on Stephen Lawrence Day, 22 April 2021