What what n*****?
Suspects’ racist taunting and fatal stabbing of Stephen Lawrence in London: 22 April 1993
I can’t breathe
George Floyd before his death during police restraint in Minneapolis, US: 25 May 2020
More than a quarter century apart and occurring on opposite sides of the Atlantic, Stephen Lawrence and George Floyd’s murders remind us of the violent brutality of anti-black racism. The initial police response to Stephen’s Lawrence’s murder was to ignore the racist motivation and to frame it as a fight between young men, with Stephen Lawrence and Duwayne Brooks positioned as protagonist offenders rather than victims: the usual default in the link made between race and crime.
In the horrific video depicting the death of George Floyd we hear police officer Chauvin, in an irritated tone, mocking George Floyd saying, ‘What do you want?’ as if he is a child interrupting an adult conversation, as Chauvin nonchalantly kneels on Floyd’s neck with his hands in his pockets.
Both deaths can be understood through what Gail Lewis calls the ‘social language of the skin’. Black and brown skin, consciously, subconsciously and unconsciously signifies inferiority, dangerousness, animalism, savagery, and lesser intelligence. Black and brown lives are regarded as undeserving of dignity, worth and humanity.
In liberal democracies such as the UK, we assume full protection of the law for all citizens including protection from abuses of power by the state through the illegal actions of police and immigration officers. We can never be assured of this, however. It seems likely that not all of Stephen Lawrence’s white racist murderers will be brought to justice even with the potential of joint enterprise so frequently used for violence involving black individuals. While the outcome of Chauvin’s trial was a relief, the odds are rarely in favour of justice for victims of violent racism.
Policing matters more broadly for as Stuart Hall put it, ‘[t]he state of black/police relations thus gives us an unwelcome glimpse into how racialized difference is actually being negotiated at a deeper level, where unreconstructed attitudes find a sort of displaced but systematic expression in places which the Utopian language of ‘multicultural Britain’ cannot reach’. This is why the disproportionality of stop and search matters. Eight times as many black people as white people were stopped and searched in 2016/17, most often for low-level recreational drug possession (not typically a public concern for policing priorities).
Driving while black outside of Britain’s cities also places you in a vulnerable position as a middle-aged black Cambridgeshire resident found in 2015. The video clip of the stop heard the white police officer say the stop occurred ‘not because I’m racist because in this area we have a number of people that come to this area that are young black males that deal drugs’. The epitome of racial profiling; denied by the police officer as racist behaviour he tells the black driver ‘that’s why we’ve pulled you over, just to see what you’re up to… if I don’t stop people how can I do my job?’ Not dissimilarly, the criminalisation of trespass in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, against senior police advice, is a barely disguised, cynical ploy to win favour among Home Counties’ voters who reject the lifestyles of Gypsies, Travellers and other nomadic ethnic groups who often find themselves unable to access lawful stopping places. It remains to be seen whether this represents an unlawful breach of Articles 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Ethnicity and Social Policy
Regular and immigration policing touches fewer lives than those being educated in our schools, those who seek health care, or who attempt to enter the labour market, but adverse outcomes in these policy areas can increase crime victimisation risks and offending pressures. The core data we use in Social Policy has revealed for decades that multicultural Britain is riven with unfairness and inequality. Maternal morbidity and mortality, infant mortality, child poverty, overcrowded housing, physical ill-health, mental ill-health, lower educational attainment (for some minority ethnic groups), discrimination in access to employment and barriers to accessing health and social care are all racialised. Poorer outcomes are variable across different minority ethnic groups, but this data underlines the cumulative and longstanding effects of direct and indirect racial discrimination from cradle to grave.
It is a complex picture that does not lend itself to easy summary, but this constellation of inequalities should not be shorn of its racist content through the positivist magic trick of disentangling class and socio-economic position. Racism is directly implicated and inextricably linked to class and socio-economic status and not independent of it. Is it really meaningful to maintain that the experiences of the black woman whose baby dies, the Gypsy man who lives on average 10 years less than a white majority ethnic man, and the Pakistani woman with greater vulnerability to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Covid is only about poverty and has nothing to do with race and racism?
We are in the midst of a perfect storm. Increased risks of Covid infection, hospitalisation and mortality vividly illustrate cumulative and intersecting vulnerabilities which are exacerbated by racialisation and racism. Chronic physical health conditions, occupational exposure in often small-scale, low-paid, and precarious retail, transportation, hospitality, health and social care roles, dense and overcrowded housing within multigenerational households, may all have their roots in racist experience or through barriers in accessing related financial support and welfare services. Likewise, vaccine hesitancy evinces longstanding trust issues between the state and its minority ethnic populations.
If we were in doubt, we know where we stand. The politicised disregard of statistical and empirical evidence on the depth and breadth of racism in our society was recently displayed in the government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (2021) report. Positively re-envisioning the ownership of black people as chattel slaves by white people as about cultural transformation strains credulity. It is also dangerous at a time when political and populist racism is on the ascendancy – as Stephen Lawrence’s mother Lady Doreen Lawrence noted of the report, ‘You are giving racists the green light’.
Black musical artist Dave has also captured well the deluded belief in British multicultural tolerance. Dave forcefully yet poetically rapped in his live performance at the Brit Music awards in 2020, ‘They say – ‘you should be grateful, we’re [Britain] the least racist, I say the least racist is still racist’. Our lives matter less. Stephen Lawrence, George Floyd, Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo, Mohamud Mohammed Hassan, and literally countless others, could easily be us or one of our loved ones.
Coretta Phillips is Professor of Criminology and Social Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research interests lie in the field of race, ethnicity, crime, criminal justice and social policy.
22nd April is Stephen Lawrence Day, and the Stephen Lawrence Day Foundation website has lots of information including how to make a donation, take action, or use their educational resources.