CONCEPT OF INSTITUTIONAL RACISM
The search for a definition
from the report of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, 1999.
The concept of institutional
is generally accepted, even if a long trawl through the
work of academics and activists produces varied words and phrases in
pursuit of a definition.
The Metropolitan Police Service Black
Police Association's spokesmen, in their written submission to the Inquiry,
racism permeates the Metropolitan Police Service. This issue above
all others is central to the attitudes, values and beliefs which lead
officers to act, albeit unconsciously and for the most part unintentionally,
and treat others differently solely because of their ethnicity or
The Commission for
Racial Equality in their submission stated:
racism has been defined as those established laws, customs, and practices
which systematically reflect and produce racial inequalities in society.
If racist consequences accrue to institutional laws, customs or practices,
the institution is racist whether or not the individuals maintaining
those practices have racial intentions.
Dr Robin Oakley
submitted two helpful Notes to our Inquiry. It is perhaps impudent to
cite short extracts from his work, but these passages have particularly
unlike most other professional activities, has the capacity to bring
officers into contact with a skewed cross-section of society, with
the well-recognised potential for producing negative stereotypes of
particular groups. Such stereotypes become the common currency of
the police occupational culture. If the predominantly white staff
of the police organisation have their experience of visible minorities
largely restricted to interactions with such groups, then negative
racial stereotypes will tend to develop accordingly.
In Dr Oakley's view,
if the challenges of 'institutional racism' which potentially affect
all police officers, are not addressed, this will:
result in a generalised
tendency, particularly where any element of discretion is involved,
whereby minorities may receive different and less favourable treatment
than the majority. Such differential treatment need be neither conscious
nor intentional, and it may be practised routinely by officers whose
professionalism is exemplary in all other respects. There is great
danger that focusing on overt acts of personal racism by individual
officers may deflect attention from the much greater institutional
challenge ... of addressing the more subtle and concealed form that
organisational-level racism may take. Its most important challenging
feature is its predominantly hidden character and its inbuilt pervasiveness
within the occupational culture.
He goes on:
It could be said
that institutional racism in this sense is in fact pervasive throughout
the culture and institutions of the whole of British society, and
is in no way specific to the police service. However, because of the
nature of the police role, its impact on society if not addressed
in the police organisation may be particularly severe. In the police
service, despite the extensive activity designed to address racial
and ethnic issues in recent years, the concept of 'institutional racism'
has not received the attention it deserves.
We are also grateful
for the contribution to our Inquiry made by Dr Benjamin Bowling. Again
it must be said that summaries of such work can be unhelpful. But we
hope that he will forgive us for quoting here simply one important passage:
racism is the process by which people from ethnic minorities are systematically
discriminated against by a range of public and private bodies. If
the result or outcome of established laws, customs or practices is
racially discriminatory, then institutional racism can be said to
have occurred. Although racism is rooted in widely shared attitudes,
values and beliefs, discrimination can occur irrespective of the intent
of the individuals who carry out the activities of the institution.
Thus policing can be discriminatory without this being acknowledged
or recognised, and in the face of official policies geared to removal
of discrimination. However, some discrimination practices are the
product of uncritical rather than unconscious racism. That is, practices
with a racist outcome are not engaged in without the actor's knowledge;
rather, the actor has failed to consider the consequences of his or
her actions for people from ethnic minorities. Institutional racism
affects the routine ways in which ethnic minorities are treated in
their capacity as employees, witnesses, victims, suspects and members
of the general public.
Taking all that
we have heard and read into account we grapple with the problem. For
the purposes of our Inquiry the concept of institutional racism which
we apply consists of:
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.
It persists because
of the failure of the organisation openly and adequately to recognise
and address its existence and causes by policy, example and leadership.
Without recognition and action to eliminate such racism it can prevail
as part of the ethos or culture of the organisation. It is a corrosive
As Dr Oakley points
out, the disease cannot be attacked by the organisation involved in
isolation. If such racism infests the police its elimination can only
be achieved 'by means of a fully developed partnership approach in which
the police service works jointly with the minority ethnic communities.
How else can mutual confidence and trust be reached?'
Given the central
nature of the issue we feel that it is important at once to state our
conclusion that institutional racism, within the terms of its description
set out above, exists both in the Metropolitan Police Service and in
other police services and other institutions countrywide.
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