Stephen Lawrence Day 2024: Why it’s time to stop paying lip service to tackling racism

Today is Stephen Lawrence Day 2024. This year’s theme is The Power of Learning. 31 years after Stephen’s murder, and 25 since the publication of the Macpherson Report which identified how institutional racism in the police had marred the subsequent investigations, our lived experience members N and C reflect on their experiences as a Black man and woman dealing with racism in policing and society.

Not enough has changed 31 years on from the murder of Stephen Lawrence to tackle the racist and discriminatory systems that still exist in our society. Too often, we are forced to accept that casualties of systemic racism are an inevitability.

There have and will continue to be many Stephen Lawrences out there – many we will not even hear about. Because who will go to the police if they have no confidence or trust they will be helped?

The 1999 Macpherson Report into the death of Stephen Lawrence suggested the case had been dealt with in an institutionally racist way by the police, because the investigation had not been handled with the same care as it would have had the case involved a white person. It gave black/ethnic minorities an opportunity for their voices to be heard at a time when a lot of black/ethnic people were suffering in silence.

However, despite the Macpherson Report, 31 years on from Stephen Lawrence’s murder we do not feel that much has changed. Racism within the police force and society still exists today as it did then, and many people from Black and minority ethnic minority backgrounds still have no trust or confidence in the police. That silence and suffering continues to go on, and we are not making enough progress against an institutionally racist system.

The long shadow of racism in public services

The first point of frontline public service Black society members encounter is often the police force.

As a Black man and woman, we have experienced racism from police officers on numerous occasions: as a single black mother reporting domestic violence, getting responses from police officers such as: “I thought that’s what you people do”, with a smirk to their colleagues, or the police coming out 7/8 hours after calling for help. When getting racial abuse for almost a year, but the police not acting until a violent, nearly fatal, attack.

A 2002 report by Harmit Athwal looked into deaths in public services, including information dating back to 1978 from young offenders’ institutions, remand centres and psychiatric hospitals.

Michael Ferreira; S. Singh Grewal; John Eshiette; Winston Rose; Franklin Lee; Simeon Collins; Cynthia Jarrett.

These are just a few of the names of those who have died in police custody. This is not to take anything away from the horrific racist murder and slack policing in the Stephen Lawrence case. But there’s a bit of Stephen in all of us. Anytime, any day we worry something could happen that results in an end to our life like this.

We can remember Christopher Alder who died cuffed, undressed, fighting for life on the floor of a police station, to the sound of monkey chants. Evidence was lost and the family received a gagging order, but: “Well it happens doesn’t it?” Or that’s what every young person from an ethnic minority is told – we can feel conditioned to accept this as if it’s a norm.

Diversity in policing

We need diversity and not just tokenism in policing. There has been a good amount of Black people who go into the police force to make a change to this racial system, only to face racism from their very own counterparts or pick up the same mentality themselves.

This is a historic issue. People from a Black or minority background have been underrepresented in policing for decades.

A 2015 report from the Home Affairs Select Committee laid the issue bare. In 1999, 2% of police officers in England and Wales were from a Black or Minority Ethnic (BME) background, compared to 6.5% of the population and 9.5% of the UK workforce. 16 years later in 2015, 5.5% of police officers were from a BME background, compared to 14% of the population, and 11.4% of the UK workforce. No police force in England and Wales has BME representation which matches its local demographic.

Black officers also struggle to progress in high-ranking positions. In 1999 the Macpherson Report itself gave the shameful fact that not a single Chief Constable was Black or Asian. Yet, as of 2015, only two Police Chief Officers self-identified as BME. Four police forces—Cheshire, North Yorkshire, Dyfed-Powys and Durham—employed no Black or Black British police officers at all, and a further 11 forces had no BME officers above the rank of Inspector.

What should change?

We need to start with more education in our schools and young adults. Things need to change in society, starting with the youth. The whole country needs to get their heads around this and educate throughout school, working on acceptance and changing mindsets. It’s not going to be easy – but it is key.

We should have more diversity within the police force, from recruitment and by employing people with lived experience that can relate to and represent all the people within their community. There is a dramatic difference between knowing and knowing of: it is hard to relate to or represent what you have not lived through.

We need to better equip the police through people with knowledge and experience, not just on race issues but others like neurodiversity. There also has to be a faster way of holding failings, racism and brutality from public service workers to account, including through prosecution.

There needs to be more transparency and accountability and this is not happening enough. Things need to change – not just in policing but across all the systems we need the most, including social services, housing, and the justice system. We can’t just keep having papers with no follow up. How can you make change if you don’t act on recommendations? This doesn’t benefit anyone, including the police. It is time to stop paying lip service and take action on systemic racism, once and for all.