When Police Racism is Denied, Does it Go Away?

The Macpherson Report remains a touchstone in and a flashpoint for debates on institutional racism within the London Metropolitan Police. Twenty years after its publication, how well does the capital’s police force fare today in the face of accusations and denials of racism? This article casts a critical look at the evidence to expose how institutional racism within the “Met” remains an uncomfortable reality that cannot be denied without denying the facts, ignoring the truth, or remaining willfully blind to it.

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Dr. Lambros Fatsis is currently Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Southampton and the winner of the British Society of Criminology’s ‘Blogger of the Year Award’. In September 2019, he will join the University of Brighton as a Lecturer in Criminology.

 

Amid a plethora of Home Affairs Committees, events, debates, and impassioned commentaries that interrogate the legacy of the Macpherson report and muse on the current state of the London Metropolitan Police, as far as institutional racism is concerned, recent statements by the Met Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, do much to spark further interest in and controversies around the issue. During a Home Affairs Committee session on the Met’s progress in implementing the recommendations of the Macpherson Report, including steps taken to address that report’s findings on institutional racism in the police, Cressida Dick reportedly said that the Metropolitan Police is no longer ‘institutionally racist’ and stressed that the label itself is ‘toxic’ and ‘unhelpful’. Insisting that the force has been ‘utterly transformed’ since Macpherson’s time, the Met Police chief added that: ‘The label now does more harm than good, it is something that is immediately interpreted by anyone who hears it as not institutional but racist – full of racists full stop, which we are not. It is a label that puts people off from engaging with the police. It stops people wanting to give us intelligence, evidence, come and join us, work with us’.

The Met Police Commissioner, therefore, seems confident that: (a) institutional racism in today’s Met is a thing of the past, (b) that it harms the reputation of the force, and that (c) when the term is used we hear the word “racist” louder than the word “institutional”; thereby thinking that the police is populated by racists. She then reassuringly claims that not only is the Met not ‘full of racists’ but that this misperception damages the relationship between the public and the police and undermines citizens’ confidence and trust in the force, while also discouraging potential recruits to join. As a result, institutional racism is suddenly pronounced dead, the definition and meaning of the term becomes misunderstood, and we are left to consider the reputational damage of institutional racism on the Met, instead of worrying about its impact on those who suffer from its consequences. On all three counts, this is a deeply unsettling statement which denies the facts, distorts what words mean, and prioritises the public image of a civil force of the state over its accountability to the public that it ostensibly serves and protects.

Starting with the premature obituary of institutional racism within the Met, it should be read against the latest evidence which clearly points to its existence today. Relevant research findings unambiguously demonstrate racial disparities and disproportionality in the use of stop-and-search, the Gangs Matrix, or the policing tactics used to tackle knife crime and clamp down Black music genres like grime and drill. Last year alone, an influential report for Stopwatch and Release by LSE academic Michael Shiner and his colleagues did much to demonstrate the discriminatory effects of stop and search, echoing earlier evidence from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a Criminal Justice Alliance briefing, and other oft-quoted academic research (here, here, and here). The Met’s gang database (the Gangs Matrix) fares just as badly with two damming reports by Amnesty International and Stopwatch exposing its racist logic, as did the Information Commissioner’s Office which noted ‘the potential to cause damage and distress to the disproportionate number of young, black men on the Matrix’. Buttressing claims of the effectiveness of stop-and-search as a vital tool for fighting knife crime, a report by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies condemned the overall approach as ineffective, unjust and damaging to the people that it (cl)aims to protect, as did the Youth Violence Commission which advocates for a public health alternative. As for the policing of UK grime and drill music, my own research demonstrates how the discriminatory policing of both genres serves as a unique case study of institutional racism within the Met today.

Were this not enough, on her visit to the UK last year the UN Special Rapporteur on racism, appeared ‘shocked by the criminalisation of young people from ethnic minorities, especially young black men. They are over-represented in police stop and searches, more likely to face prosecution under the country’s joint enterprise provisions, and are over-represented in the prison system’. None of this is secret knowledge and even a cursory glance at the government’s Race Disparity Unit ‘ethnicity facts and figures’ on stop-and-search and arrests would suffice to convince anyone of the discriminatory treatment of Black people by the police and other UK criminal justice system institutions.

Factual evidence aside, the Met Police Commissioner’s comments are also striking for the way they misrepresent what institutional racism actually means. In Macpherson’s famous formulation, institutional racism ‘consists of the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people’. The institutional origins of racist behaviour and discriminatory outcomes are not separated in Macpherson’s definition, as they are in Cressida Dick’s interpretation of the term. Yet, she argues that people somehow mentally uncouple the two when the term is used, while also claiming that the term implies that the Met is ‘full of racists’ instead of pointing to a collective failure of an organisation whose processes and attitudes are to blame. The difference between Macpherson and Cressida Dick is that the former points to racism as a feature of the institutional structure and collective mentality of the Met, whereas the latter misunderstands racism as individual prejudice alone. In so doing, a structural characteristic of an entire organisation is denied, and attributed instead to a few individuals who independently act out their own prejudicial attitudes as individuals. Individual officers therefore appear unaffected by their socialisation into an institutionally racist mindset, nor do they act as a team in line with that institution’s logic and unwritten rules. Since racism, according to the Met Commissioner, is an individual trait it has nothing to do with the institutional make-up of the organisation, and since it does not characterise the entire force it cannot exist. The term institutional racism, however, refers to racist attitudes that are built into organisations by design, with the assumption being that individuals take on the prejudices of an organisation and do not act independently of it, especially when they work in groups.

What makes all the above so difficult to stomach is not a logical fallacy, which mistakes something structural and systemic for something individual or (co)incidental, but a dangerous argument which shows little regard for the casualties of such structural arrangements. To perceive institutional, structural, systemic racism merely as a ‘toxic label’ is to deny how toxic the reality of it is for the people and communities that are disproportionately affected by it. Worse still, it reveals a denialist logic which refuses to admit the existence of institutional racism, thereby discounting the relevant evidence. Such a stubborn stance contradicts the Met’s self-understanding as a professional police force which acts on the basis of evidence in order to oversee public safety. On the contrary, such statements give the impression that the Met chooses to defend itself instead of protecting the public to whom it is accountable, and that it chooses to tackle crime by strangling the facts that should guide its mission, its ethos, and its conduct.

Pretending that institutional racism is a thing of the past, is to fail to see how and why it is present today. Yet, the Met chief seems either unable to see all this or willfully blind to it all. If it is the former, she could be dismissed as inadequate. If it is the latter, she might be suspected of being dangerous. Either way, she seems disconcertingly vulnerable to the siren call of hawkish policing and deaf to the evidence that renders it illegitimate. Her pledge to ‘relentlessly’ pursue gangs through increased stop and search doesn’t simply clash with evidence that this police power is ineffective, discriminatory and unjust, but also jars with the lack of concrete evidence to link knife crime and gang membership. Such a stance does chime well, however, with the government’s recent promise to increase stop and search powers and relax rules of conduct to make criminals ‘literally feel terror’. Similarly, the Met chief’s refusal to acknowledge institutional racism as a reality within the force that she leads, eerily echoes statements by the new head of No. 10’s Policy Unit, who famously dismissed institutional racism as a ‘myth’ and decried the establishment of the Race Disparity Audit as serving a ‘phoney race war’ that is ‘dangerous and divisive’.

Twenty years after Macpherson diagnosed the Met with institutional racism steadfast refusals to see it, point to a reluctance to see what is evident through facts. We should, therefore, be reminded that when ‘racism is how the world is seen’, as Sara Ahmed brilliantly put it, ‘it remains possible for racism not to be seen’.

This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the institution he works for.

 

Contact

Lambros Fatsis, University of Southampton

Twitter: @lfatsis

Copyright free image courtesy of Pexels

 

 

 

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