A trial and a conviction shows that public attitudes to racially-motivated crimes are changing.
Nearly 19 years after the appalling murder in London of the 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence in 1993, two men, David Norris and Gary Dobson, have been convicted of the crime and sentenced to long periods of imprisonment.
That bare statement provides only a suggestion of the significance of the case. The attack on Stephen Lawrence, a black youth, was completely unprovoked. It was a racist crime, which occurred at a time when racism in London was rife.
The initial handling of the investigation by the Metropolitan Police was incompetent, and widely recognised to be so. This led to a major inquiry — the Macpherson inquiry — which reported in 1999. The Macpherson report did not pull its punches. It accused the Metropolitan Police of institutional racism.
Over the following years, various attempts, led by Doreen and Neville Lawrence, the parents of Stephen, were made to reopen the inquiry. The recent trial, of two men who had been tried many years ago after the first stage of the investigation, was possible only because the “double jeopardy” rule, which prevented people from facing trial twice for the same offence, was abrogated in 2005. (This followed one of the Macpherson recommendations, that a new trial should be allowed if new and compelling evidence emerged.)
In its handling of the new inquiry, the Metropolitan Police demonstrated that many of the institutional failings of which it had been accused by the Macpherson inquiry have been remedied. There was no question, for example, of failing to recognise the racist nature of the Lawrence murder, as there certainly had been at the time that it occurred.
It is also true to say that many of the racist attitudes that were prevalent nationally at the time of Stephen Lawrence's murder are no longer nearly so widespread. There have undoubtedly been changes for the better in this aspect of British society.
That is not to say, however, that all is as it should be. There have recently been serious failings in the police, failings not of racism but of unethical behaviour, which led to the resignation of the then Commissioner and another senior officer in July (Cambridge Letter, July 31).
It can also be argued that far more ought to have been done to ensure that the police, throughout the country, reflects far better in its staffing, and particularly in its staffing at the most senior levels, the ethnic diversity of society. This point has been made strongly in recent days by Dr. Richard Stone, who was one of the members of the Macpherson inquiry team. Dr. Stone has been critical of the fact that there are very few black senior police officers.
He is also critical of the continuing approach to “stop and search” by the police, who use this power far more against black people than others. Latest figures show that black people are about seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. This has been for many years a major factor in inducing a lack of confidence by many black people in the police, and the use of stop and search powers has been widely criticised.
Dr. Stone has spoken bluntly about this in the past few days, arguing strongly that police officers who target suspects on grounds of their skin colour alone should be charged with misusing public resources.
Media coverage of the Stephen Lawrence murder trial has been full and thorough. Real efforts have been made to set it in context. There have been no attempts to underplay the dreadful failings which marked the original investigation and trial. The media coverage has undoubtedly reflected genuine public interest, in the murder, the trial, and the context which has made it a matter of such deep significance.
Has all this been exaggerated? Would it have been more appropriate simply to cover the trial and not rake over the racist embers?
That would certainly be a more comfortable approach — but it would ignore the fact that there are still many things wrong in our society, notwithstanding the undoubted improvements in public attitude. If we need a demonstration of the truth of that, we can find it in the dreadful murder by shooting in Salford, on Boxing Day, of the 23-year-old Indian student Anuj Bidve. A young man of 20 has been arrested and charged with murder — adding to the shock caused by calling himself a “psycho”. Sadly, the signs are that, like the Stephen Lawrence murder, this was a racially motivated attack.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: email@example.com