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Twenty years after the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, what has changed?

The Institute of Race Relations examines racial violence in Britain since 1993.

Twenty years ago today an 18 year old waiting for a bus with his friend was brutally murdered by a gang of white youths shouting racist abuse.

Since Stephen Lawrence was killed, 106 people have lost their lives in known or suspected racist attacks – five per year on average. Black people are twenty-eight times more likely than white to be stopped and searched by the police (using Section 60 powers).

In the year 2009/10, black people were over three times more likely than white to be arrested. Black people and those of mixed ethnicity are over twice as likely as whites to be unemployed. Three quarters of 7-year-old Pakistani and Bangladeshi children are living in poverty compared to one in four whites. Those classifying themselves as ‘Other Black’ are six times more likely than average to be admitted as mental health inpatients.

Yet as a society we are in denial about racism. The 1999 Macpherson report into Lawrence’s death and the police investigation, for the first time, acknowledged institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police. The Race Relations Amendment Act followed. For many politicians, that is enough. They regard the issue as over, declare our society ‘post-racial’. But the kind of mechanistic, box-ticking equality measures being implemented leave intact the laws which discriminate, the power of the media in fomenting hatred and the shocking levels of racial violence.

Worse, multiculturalism itself is now held responsible for racial tension; think-tanks redefine ‘the problem’ in terms of individual attitudes, identity and willingness to belong. Local anti-racist structures are being decimated. As research by the Institute of Race Relations has shown, however, racial violence does not impact on all communities equally. As racism is shaped by factors such as military intervention abroad and the resort to nativism in social policy as austerity measures bite, its nature changes, as does its manifestation in towns and cities undergoing swift demographic change. 

The twenty years since the unprovoked murder of Stephen Lawrence reveals not the end of racism, but the fact that it is deeply entrenched and infinitely adaptable. And as austerity measures begin to bite and politicians compete over restricting immigration and benefits, the fall-out may be an increase in racist attacks and abuse. 

About the author

Dr Jon Burnett works at the Institute of Race Relations, where he carries out research into racial violence, domestic race policy in the UK and the economics of migration. 

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