Mistaken Mantra: the declining significance of racism and the Stephen Lawrence case

  • Author: Ian Law, Jan 2012

Despite the assertion that Britain is ‘much more at ease with its racial diversity than it was two decades ago’ (Mark Easton BBC News 3 January), in the UK 90 people have lost their lives in attacks with a racial element since the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, and racist attacks regularly take place on the street, in people’s homes, in taxis and taxi offices, in takeaways, restaurants, pubs and bars, as well as shops and religious institutions (Athwal et al 2010). Entrenched patterns of racist hostility and interconnected racist violence continue to be a significant dimension of both urban and rural life both in the UK and Europe despite increasing understanding, evidence and official commitment to challenge these trends. This indicates both the failure of antiracism as an institutional project and the paradoxical nature of this racial crisis (Law 2009). A recent research report which examined the response of public authorities commitment and action to eliminate targeted harassment and violence, in England, Scotland and Wales, has confirmed that decreasing numbers of authorities are taking action, working on prevention, supporting victims and working with perpetrators (Chakraborti et al, 2011).

The perception that the post-Lawrence environment is somehow post-racial and that there has been a ‘sea-change’ in levels of racist hostility, institutionally racist practices and in patterns of news media reporting makes sense to many people and the recent guilty verdict is likely to strengthen that perception. Britain has changed, we can feel better about ourselves and racism is of declining significance. This mistaken mantra partly results from a wider underlying shift where there has been a move from the politics and law of identities to the politics and law of human rights (Hepple 2010) together with the demise of institutionalised anti-racism. The logics of the post-racial incorporate a denial of the contemporary significance of racism and global racialisation beneath the rhetorics of liberal democracy, individualism, meritocracy and progress.

Research in Leeds by the Centre for Ethnicity and Racism Studies (Hemmerman et al 2007, Law et al 2012) identified very high levels of racist hostility, set out a new ‘Racism Reduction Agenda’ with key messages for action and documented some successful local work in 2008-9. But it also identified that the current climate amongst some local agencies in 2010-11 in relation to racist hostility and violence was still one of denial, or ‘racism fatigue’, with a move to deny explicitly racist elements of incidents as ‘it’s all just ASB’ (anti-social behaviour), and the incorrect ‘branding’ of racism as a ‘cohesion issue’. This was partly because tackling racism was seen as ‘job done’. The move away from a focus on racist violence to hate crime generally was also seen as indicative of this wider shift in agency perceptions. Cuts were also impacting directly on some support services for victims. But, there was still evidence that strong commitment to acting to tackle racist incidents was a mainstream professional value amongst a range of staff from local agencies.

Despite the Lawrence verdict, traditional criminal justice approaches have failed to reduce underlying racist hostility and associated racist violence. Even the US supercop, Bill Bratton, who has been advising Cameron to assist in tackling gang crime and street crime in the wake of the recent riots in the UK, has acknowledged that it is not possible arrest your way out of these problems and that underlying racial tensions need to be addressed (Guardian 13 August 2011).

But, these embedded tensions and antagonisms can begin to be challenged, as evidence from our Leeds case study has demonstrated, and doing so can reduce such harassment and attacks. But, in the contemporary climate of austerity and cuts in services, together with prevailing post-racial thinking, the likelihood is that such concerted action is not going to happen in the UK.


Athwal, Harmit, Bourne, Jenny and Wood, Rebecca (2010). Racial Violence: the buried issue. London: Institute of Race Relations.

Chakraborti, Neil, Gray, Paul, Wright, Sam and Duggan, Marian (2010) Public authority commitment and action to elimintae targeted harassment and violence. London: EHRC

Hemmerman, L., Law, Ian, Simms, Jenny and Sirryeh, A. (2007). Situating racist hostility and understanding the impact of racist victimisation in Leeds. Leeds: Centre for Ethnicity and Racism Studies, University of Leeds.

Hepple, Bob (2010) Equality, the new legal framework. Oxford: Hart.

Law, I. (2008) The Racism Reduction Agenda, Leeds: CERS

Law, I. (2009). Europe’s racial crisis. In G. Huggan and Ian Law. (eds.), Racism, Postcolonialism, Europe. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.


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