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Mistaken Mantra: the declining significance of racism and the Stephen Lawrence case

Despite the assertion that Britain is ‘much more at ease with its racial diversity than it was two decades ago’ (Mark Easton BBC News 3 January), in the UK 90 people have lost their lives in attacks with a racial element since the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, and racist attacks regularly take place on the street, in people’s homes, in taxis and taxi offices, in takeaways, restaurants, pubs and bars, as well as shops and religious institutions (Athwal et al 2010). Entrenched patterns of racist hostility and interconnected racist violence continue to be a significant dimension of both urban and rural life both in the UK and Europe despite increasing understanding, evidence and official commitment to challenge these trends. This indicates both the failure of anti-racism as an institutional project and the paradoxical nature of this racial crisis (Law 2009). A recent research report which examined the response of public authorities commitment and action to eliminate targeted harassment and violence, in England, Scotland and Wales, has confirmed that decreasing numbers of authorities are taking action, working on prevention, supporting victims and working with perpetrators (Chakraborti et al, 2011).

The perception that the post-Lawrence environment is somehow post-racial and that there has been a ‘sea-change’ in levels of racist hostility, institutionally racist practices and in patterns of news media reporting makes sense to many people and the recent guilty verdict is likely to strengthen that perception. Britain has changed, we can feel better about ourselves and racism is of declining significance. This mistaken mantra partly results from a wider underlying shift where there has been a move from the politics and law of identities to the politics and law of human rights (Hepple 2010) together with the demise of institutionalised anti-racism. The logics of the post-racial incorporate a denial of the contemporary significance of racism and global racialisation beneath the rhetorics of liberal democracy, individualism, meritocracy and progress.

Research in Leeds by the Centre for Ethnicity and Racism Studies (Hemmerman et al 2007, Law et al 2012) identified very high levels of racist hostility, set out a new ‘Racism Reduction Agenda’ with key messages for action and documented some successful local work in 2008-9. But it also identified that the current climate amongst some local agencies in 2010-11 in relation to racist hostility and violence was still one of denial, or ‘racism fatigue’, with a move to deny explicitly racist elements of incidents as ‘it’s all just ASB’ (anti-social behaviour), and the incorrect ‘branding’ of racism as a ‘cohesion issue’. This was partly because tackling racism was seen as ‘job done’. The move away from a focus on racist violence to hate crime generally was also seen as indicative of this wider shift in agency perceptions. Cuts were also impacting directly on some support services for victims. But, there was still evidence that strong commitment to acting to tackle racist incidents was a mainstream professional value amongst a range of staff from local agencies.

Despite the Lawrence verdict, traditional criminal justice approaches have failed to reduce underlying racist hostility and associated racist violence. Even the US supercop, Bill Bratton, who has been advising Cameron to assist in tackling gang crime and street crime in the wake of the recent riots in the UK, has acknowledged that it is not possible arrest your way out of these problems and that underlying racial tensions need to be addressed (UK riots: police should tackle racial tension, says ‘supercop’ Bill Bratton Guardian 13 August 2011).

But, these embedded tensions and antagonisms can begin to be challenged, as evidence from our Leeds case study has demonstrated, and doing so can reduce such harassment and attacks. But, in the contemporary climate of austerity and cuts in services, together with prevailing post-racial thinking, the likelihood is that such concerted action is not going to happen in the UK.

By Professor Ian Law, Director of the Centre for Ethnicity and Racism Studies at the University of Leeds


Athwal, Harmit, Bourne, Jenny and Wood, Rebecca (2010). Racial Violence: the buried issue. London: Institute of Race Relations.

Chakraborti, Neil, Gray, Paul, Wright, Sam and Duggan, Marian (2010) Public authority commitment and action to eliminate targeted harassment and violence. London: EHRC

Hemmerman, L., Law, Ian, Simms, Jenny and Sirryeh, A. (2007). Situating racist hostility and understanding the impact of racist victimisation in Leeds. Leeds: Centre for Ethnicity and Racism Studies, University of Leeds.

Hepple, Bob (2010) Equality, the new legal framework. Oxford: Hart.

Law, I. (2008) The Racism Reduction Agenda Leeds: CERS

Law, I. (2009). Europe’s racial crisis in G. Huggan and Ian Law. (eds.) ‘Racism, Post-colonialism, Europe, Liverpool’ Liverpool University Press.

This article has been cross-posted to the Culture Craft blog –

Posted in ethnicity, inequality, race.

Institutional Racism – job done?

Yesterday 2 men where found guilty of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence 18 years ago, April 1993, in Eltham, south east London. Although several people were arrested the evidence was found to be inconclusive and the cases dropped. For a variety of reasons including an inquest that returned a verdict of unlawful killing “in a completely unprovoked racist attack by five youths” and the evidence that the police had not investigated the murder properly, the MacPherson Report was commissioned. The report, published in 1999, identified ‘institutional racism’ in the Metropolitan Police as a fundamental factor in the bodged investigation. For a full time line of the story see the BBC website

On the radio this morning, BBC 4 Today, the concept of institutional racism was explained by asking the question; did the police give the murder the time, resources and serious consideration it warranted? The answer was no. Was this because the victim was black? The answer was yes. The police always have to make decisions and judgements about how to allocate scarce resources and if they routinely take the colour of victims into account when making these decisions, this is institutionalised racism. It is a matter of a pervasive culture that provides the background to individual choices on procedural matters. If we take this as the meaning of institutionalised racism, then it still boils down to racist attitudes and decisions by policemen, police staff and police managers and leaders. The institutional culture provides the recipes for thinking and acting, and also for relatively unthinking routine engrained behaviour, language, attitudes and so on.  The thinking and unthinking acting reproduces and reinforces the culture. It is institutional racism as it permeates the whole institution and provides it with its taken-for-granted common-sense view of the world. In an interesting piece today in the Independent  (The killing of Stephen Lawrence ended Britain’s denial about racism), particularly on the initial coverage of the murder of Stephen Lawrence by the media, Brian Cathcart defines institutional racism using a quote from Jack Straw, the then Home Secretary, on the day the Macpherson report was published:

“The very process of the inquiry has opened all our eyes to what it is to be black or Asian in Britain today… and the inquiry process has revealed some fundamental truths about the nature of our society, about our relationships, one with the other. Some truths are uncomfortable, but we have to confront them.”  Chief among these truths was the existence of institutional racism, and Straw was clear that it went beyond the police: “Any long-established, white-dominated organisation is liable to have procedures, practices and a culture which disadvantage non-white people.”

However, there are other aspects of institutionalised racism that the discussion on the radio did not bring out. An example of another dimension to institutionalised racism is the 1981 British Nationality act. This act created a number of different bands of citizenship and importantly removed the ‘right of abode’ in the UK  from many commonwealth citizens who previously had it. The Act defined a category of full UK citizenship with the right of abode that systematically excluded the majority of ‘new’ commonwealth citizens – predominately black –  but retained it for the majority of individuals in the ‘old’ commonwealth countries, for instance Australia and Canada. To have full British citizenship with the right of abode it was now necessary to have had a UK domiciled relative who was a British citizen prior to 1949.  The Act therefore had a disproportionate effect on black and Asian commonwealth citizens – not by accident including, for instance, Hong Kong. Once this law was in operation and applied by border controls, it matters not whether the individual immigration officers are personally racist of not. The application of the racist law produces racist effects independently of the individuals applying the law equally to all who present themselves at the border control, or issue passports at the passport offices in commonwealth countries.

In the case of the institutionalised racism of the Metropolitan Police we have an example of  colour-blind criminal law being distorted by the discretionary decisions and practices of racist personnel. In the case of the British Nationality Act we have the example of institutionalised racism of a different sort where racism is embedded in the structure of the law and is equally consequential whether its operatives and officers are personally racist or not. This latter type of institutionalised racism does not depend on personal racism. One implication of this is that institutionalised racism cannot be solved simply(!) by race awareness training and tackling the cultural issues. Colour-blindness must be built into the process of making laws, rules and regulations as well as in there subsequent application and enforcement.

This post was originally published at

Posted in ethnicity, inequality, race, sociology.

Histories of Violence web site

Dr. Brad Evans in the School of  Politics and International Studies (POLIS) at the University of Leeds has created as part of a project on violence a multi-media web site with a selection of videos on some of our leading thinkers about violence including Zygmunt Bauman. This is a fantastic resource and well worth a visit.

Posted in politics, sociology, videos.

On the Nature of Capitalism by Zygmunt Bauman

This is a new article by Zygmunt Bauman published in the Social Europe journal on the 17th October and reproduced in the Guardian on the 18th. A couple of extracts are copied below. Visit either of the links above to read the whole short article.

The news of the capitalism’s demise is (to borrow from Mark Twain) somewhat exaggerated. Capitalism has an in-built wondrous capacity of resurrection and regeneration; though this is capacity of a kind shared with parasites – organisms that feed on other organisms, belonging to other species. After a complete or near-complete exhaustion of one host organism, a parasite tends and manages to find another, that would supply it with life juices for a successive, albeit also limited, stretch of time. [….]

Capitalism proceeds through creative destruction. What is created is capitalism in a “new and improved” form – and what is destroyed is self-sustaining capacity, livelihood and dignity of its innumerable and multiplied “host organisms” into which all of us are drawn/seduced one way or another. I suspect that one of capitalism’s crucial assets derives from the fact  that the imagination of economists, including its critics, lags well behind its own inventiveness, arbitrariness of its undertaking and ruthlessness of the way in which it proceeds.

Posted in sociology.

Interview – Zygmunt Bauman on the UK Riots

An interview with Zygmunt Bauman on the UK riots has been published in Social Europe – Interview – Zygmunt Bauman on the UK Riots (full article) 15 August 2011.

Thus far reaction of the British government to the mutiny of the humiliated is bound to deepen the self-same humiliation that caused their rebellion – while leaving untouched the sources of their humiliation, namely the rampant consumerism combined with rising inequality. The hard-line, high-handed measures taken by the government will most probably terminate this explosion here and now, but will do nothing to defuse the minefield that caused it and pre-empt further outbursts. Social problems were never solved by imposition of curfew – they were only left to rot and fester… The reaction of the British government was a misguided attempt at one-off, instant solution to a long-term affliction of society. To really tackle that kind of affliction would require nothing short of a serious reform of the ways society works, and a genuine cultural revolution.

Posted in sociology.

Cannibal Kids – Kate Tempest

Ed Miliband and various others have responded to the recent riots and looting by saying we should listen to the voices of the people. This remarkable video has been much linked to on Facebook and Twitter over the last few days.

Thanks to Fiona Williams for suggesting we post this video here. If you are not aware of the phenomenon that is 25 year old Kate Tempest this review article in the Independent will fill you in – A life of rhyme: Kate Tempest’s poetry-music fusion. At the bottom of the article there is a link to a slightly clearer studio recorded version of Cannibal Kids.

Posted in class, inequality, politics, sociology, videos.

Reflections on the 2011 English Riots

Should we be so surprised that the death of young black man at the hands of police in London ultimately led to the violent disorder in London, to be followed by similar scenes in other parts of the capital and other cities? We have been here before for instance in 1981 and 1985. Part of the context is also similar with the increased use of stop and search powers by the police over the past decade that have disproportionately affected ethnic minorities. Between 2004-05 and 2008-09 stops and searches of ethnic minorities increased by over 70 per cent to more than 310,000 (, although a review in 2007 had led to a significant reduction in its use at the beginning of 2010 ( Journalists speaking to young people in London and Darcus Howe’s account of his grandson’s experiences on the BBC news suggest that stop and search remains a major issue. However, since Saturday things have moved on considerably.

How might we make sense of these waves of public disorder that periodically occur in the UK? Contrary to what John Brewer President of the BSA asserted in a letter to the Guardian ( crowds are not irrational. Crowds don’t have minds so they are neither rational nor irrational nor do they express emotions. Rather crowds are aggregates of individuals, who have often gathered there with friends, sharing some characteristics, motivations and identities, but differing radically on other dimensions. Their feelings, motivations and rationalities will differ according to their views about what is unfolding before them, and change in the light of what they see and hear. Crowds are complex differentiated and evolving entities, they are the effects of many individual and group actions and interactions. This does not mean there is no pattern, but that once we get beyond the surface and the newsworthy actions that pattern is often complex and dynamic. What is the most important general pattern in this case is the shift from a conflict with the police in Tottenham to looting in several locations around the country so that looting became the dominant tactic. The key question becomes looking at the reasons for this. Very quickly these riots developed from a community’s grievances about the police to a more generalised pattern of disorder.

The role of looting seems to have been distinctive becoming a standard tactic. Looting typically involves a more diverse section of people than those in direct conflict with the police. It is more opportunistic and seen as a lower risk activity than directly attacking the police. Whilst face-to-face attacks on the police usually involve young male protagonists, looting often involves women, children and older people as well. In the past food riots in the UK occurred in response to rapid rises in bread prices and local people responded to what they say as unfair prices rises. This looting is often of large chain stores as well as small local businesses that may not be seen as part of the local community. There are now many more small portable high value items that can be easily looted such as mobile phones and other portable electronic devices, although clothing, and large TVs have also featured, but people have also looted alcohol, cigarettes and bottled water. These are all strongly marketed and advertised, so this may be an opportunity for those who cannot normally afford to buy them or they may simply be taking the opportunity. What started as a riot around a death in the context of a police became a kind of ‘consumer society’ riot.

Who is involved has generated a lot of debate, but as in many previous riots it is a large cross-section of local communities ( Ages seems to range from children to adults in their 40s, men and women. Some of those appearing in court have been in employment including a 31 year old teaching assistant arrested for looting. The initial conflict in Tottenham appears to have been largely made up of people from the local Black community like Marc Duggan, but as the rioting and looting spread then it became more socially diverse. Hence one cannot easily read off the riots from the social positions of those involved in them. However, there are many themes repeated through some media accounts of these of a generalised hostility towards the police and the current government especially amongst the 50 per cent or so who seem to be aged 18-24 ( Nevertheless it would be wrong to take this as implying that there is some clearly articulated grievance or political agenda that is currently apparent. The prominence of young men aged in their late teens and early twenties is as readily attributed to ‘biographical availability’ as anything else if previous studies of riot participants are anything to go by. Young men in this age range are more likely to be on the streets in the places and times at which riots take place as they are more likely to be unemployed, and not to have family commitments or other urgent demands on their time.

Besides looking at what happened and why, who was involved and what their targets and tactics were, it is also important to begin to examine the response of the forces of law and order. Initially the police seemed both overwhelmed and using inappropriate tactics. I don’t think any blame can be attributed here as politicians have been trying to do. In contrast I think this was in some ways a new kind of urban riot phenomena for which the standard police operating procedures and tactics were not prepared to deal with. Most public order policing is managerialist. The police seek to manage crowds at political or sporting events where violence may occur and where the locations, numbers, composition and actions of the crowds are to some degree predictable. All of those characteristics were lacking in this instance. The crowds involved were smaller hence making use of many standard tactics like charges of mounted police irrelevant. They were more mobile, and where they would appear next was unpredictable.

The initial response of the criminal justice system has been swift and draconian. The kinds of sentences being handed out so far would be unthinkable and shocking to a European and even American audience. Sentencing someone with no previous convictions to six months in prison for looting £3 worth of water seems entirely disproportionate ( How does this compare with those MPs whose inappropriate expenses claims were dealt with simply by being asked to hand the money back. Only a tiny number have been prosecuted for fraud. However, the courts are not neutral they are under considerable political pressure and are merely continuing a long British tradition of handing out punitive sentences to those involved in riots. Interestingly no one has yet been charged with the offence of riot with most of the public order offences being dealt with under less serious categories.

One of the principal themes emerging in the political and media debate is the return of the underclass ( This is a theme from 1980s conservative thinking about poverty that blames the poor for their position due to the ‘moral degeneracy’, absent fathers, welfare dependency and routine criminality. Perhaps the problem is not the culture of the underclass but the degenerate culture of the upper class. From initial media reports it is clear that many involved in the riots and looting are not unaware of how bankers wrecked the world economy and were bailed out by tax payers, the apparent impunity by which MPs fiddled their expenses and mixed with senior News International staff who are now under arrest in connection with phone hacking and bribing police officers.

Posted in sociology.

The London riots and consumerism – a commentary by Zygmunt Bauman

The editors of the Social Europe Journal and Zygmunt Bauman have very kindly allowed us to repost his article published earlier today – The London Riots – On Consumerism coming Home to Roost. Readers are very welcome to comment here but you may prefer to read the comments on the original article and contribute there – or both perhaps!

The London Riots – On Consumerism coming Home to Roost Zygmunt Bauman 9/08/2011 published in Social Europe journal.

These are not hunger or bread riots. These are riots of defective and disqualified consumers.

Revolutions are not staple products of social inequality; but minefields are. Minefields are areas filled with randomly scattered explosives: one can be pretty sure that some of them, some time, will explode – but one can’t say with any degree of certainty which ones and when. Social revolutions being focused and targeted affairs, one can possibly do something to locate them and defuse in time. Not the minefield-type explosions, though. In case of the minefields laid out by soldiers of one army you can send other soldiers, from another army, to dig mines out and disarm; a dangerous job, if there ever was one – as the old soldiery wisdom keeps reminding: “the sapper errs only once”. But in the case of minefields laid out by social inequality even such remedy, however treacherous, is unavailable: putting the mines in and digging them up needs to be done by the same army which neither can stop adding new mines to the old nor avoid stepping on them – over and over again. Laying mines and falling victims of their explosions come in a package deal.

All varieties of social inequality derive from the division between the haves and the have-nots, as Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra noted already half a millennium ago. But in different times having or not having of different objects is, respectively, the states most passionately desired and most passionately resented. Two centuries ago in Europe, a few decades ago still in many some distant from Europe places, and to this day in some battlegrounds of tribal wars or playgrounds of dictatorships, the prime object setting the have-nots and the haves in conflict was bread or rice. Thank God, science, technology and certain reasonable political expedients this is no longer the case. Which does not mean though that the old division is dead and buried. Quite on the contrary… The objects of desire, whose absence is most violently resented, are nowadays many and varied – and their numbers, as well as the temptation to have them, grow by the day. And so grows the wrath, humiliation, spite and grudge aroused by not having them – as well as the urge to destroy what have you can’t. Looting shops and setting them on fire derive from the same impulsion and gratify the same longing.

We are all consumers now, consumers first and foremost, consumers by right and by duty. The day after the 11/9 outrage George W. Bush, when calling Americans to get over the trauma and go back to normal, found no better words than “go back shopping”. It is the level of our shopping activity and the ease with which we dispose of one object of consumption in order to replace it with a “new and improved” one which serves us as the prime measure of our social standing and the score in the life-success competition. To all problems we encounter on the road away from trouble and towards satisfaction we seek solutions in shops.

From cradle to coffin we are trained and drilled to treat shops as pharmacies filled with drugs to cure or at least mitigate all illnesses and afflictions of our lives and lives in common. Shops and shopping acquire thereby a fully and truly eschatological dimension. Supermarkets, as George Ritzer famously put it, are our temples; and so, I may add, the shopping lists are our breviaries, while strolls along the shopping malls become our pilgrimages. Buying on impulse and getting rid of possessions no longer sufficiently attractive in order to put more attractive ones in their place are our most enthusing emotions. The fullness of consumer enjoyment means fullness of life. I shop, therefore I am. To shop or not to shop, this is the question.

For defective consumers, those contemporary have-nots, non-shopping is the jarring and festering stigma of a life un-fulfilled – and of own nonentity and good-for-nothingness. Not just the absence of pleasure: absence of human dignity. Of life meaning. Ultimately, of humanity and any other ground for self-respect and respect of the others around.

Supermarkets may be temples of worship for the members of the congregation. For the anathemised, found wanting and banished by the Church of Consumers, they are the outposts of the enemy erected on the land of their exile. Those heavily guarded ramparts bar access to the goods which protect others from a similar fate: as George W. Bush would have to agree, they bar return (and for the youngsters who never yet sat on a pew, the access) to “normality”. Steel gratings and blinds, CCTV cameras, security guards at the entry and hidden inside only add to the atmosphere of a battlefield and on-going hostilities. Those armed and closely watched citadels of enemy-in-our-midst serve as a day in, day out reminder of the natives’ misery, low worth, humiliation. Defiant in their haughty and arrogant inaccessibility, they seem to shout: I dare you! But dare you what?

Posted in inequality, sociology.

Reflections on their careers by two sociologists

I refuse to be disillusioned by David Mellor, Bristol University, posted in the Sociology and the Cuts blog 12 April 2011

Sociology and me: the battle with the little red pill by Mike Ward, Cardiff University,  in the SocofEd Sociology of Education blog 21 June 2011

This has inspired me to write a brief account of my journey into and through sociology. If you have a story to contribute and would like to post it here pleas get in touch.

Posted in sociology.

Alan Bennett on Libraries

There is a witty and critical piece by Alan Bennett on his fear and love of books and libraries in the London Review of Books. Go to 

The final paragraph is especially good.

Armley Library, Leeds

Posted in sociology.