Stephen Lawrence was attacked because he was black. Eighteen years after his murder two of his killers have been sentenced to life in prison. His murder and the inquiry that followed not only highlighted the level of hatred some white people directed towards black people but that police intentionally or not treated black people differently. Black people were treated with suspicion and assumed to be more likely the perpetrators of crime rather than the victims. Black youths were stereotyped as violent gang members, drug dealers and drug users. The Macpherson inquiry gave a name to this unthinking prejudice based on ignorance and negative stereotypes it called it institutional racism and said it could be found throughout our society. The point was emphatically made that racism was not just about the extreme behaviour of a few wicked people nor was it limited to unprovoked assaults, abuse shouted in the streets or outright discrimination.
As a result public sector organisations reviewed their recruitment practises and set targets to employ more black people. They provided staff with training to make them more aware of the experience of black people, the need to address their under representation in the workforce and the opportunity to examine negative stereotypes. But most of all to make it clear to staff that they should not use language that was offensive to black people, they should not make so called jokes about peoples colour or race and they should not discriminate against black people as colleagues or service users.
It is worth reminding ourselves of this because it is clear that some people have never understood the concept of institutional racism or have steadfastly refused to accept that it exists. This organisation is not racist they say. I am not racist nor are any of my colleagues they say. Just because there aren’t any black senior managers doesn’t mean it is because of racism. We don’t care what colour someone is we treat everyone the same.
There have been changes over the last eighteen years the casual racism in which people would refer to the “Paki” Shop on the corner or made offensive jokes linking race and intelligence have become socially unacceptable. However black people are still underrepresented in senior posts, a male black manager is still likely to be described as aggressive when the same behaviour from a colleague is called assertive, black staff are more likely to describe their manager as unsupportive, in many organisations black staff are disproportionately subject to disciplinary action. Perhaps as a consequence black staff have less faith in the organisations disciplinary and grievance procedures.
After the energy, enthusiasm and commitment to change following the Macpherson report there is a general feeling that the reality for black staff doesn't match the rhetoric. There is also a feeling that senior managers have moved on that austerity has brought a new set of challenges and priorities and that whilst individual’s personal commitment remains their time and energy is directed elsewhere.
Blair McPherson author of An Elephant in the Room-an equality and diversity training manual published by www.russellhouse.co.uk