Civitas Institute for the Study of Civil Society

2 August 2012

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'Institutional racism' charge shackled Britain's police

Bureaucratic burdens have prevented Britain's police forces from protecting the vulnerable

Institutional racism is an unfair allegation to level at British police forces and its universal acceptance by public officials has led to harmful policymaking, according to a new Civitas report.


In Mind Forg'd Manacles, Jon Gower Davies outlines the history and influence of 'institutional racism' since the Macpherson inquiry, following the murder of Stephen Lawrence. He finds the evidence for institutional racism within British police forces to lack substance and describes how the resulting bureaucratic burdens placed on police forces have impeded their ability actually to serve the public.


A false accusation concealed by diffuse words


Davies, a former Labour councillor, examines the evidence that police racism played a role in the original failure to bring Stephen Lawrence's murderers to justice for 18 years. Notably, the Macpherson inquiry itself acknowledged that they found no evidence of overt racist beliefs or behaviour amongst individual police officers involved in the case:


Of the Metropolitan Police Service, [Macpherson] ... wrote that 'no such evidence [is] before us that the policies of the MPS are racist. Indeed the contrary is true' and 'we have not heard', he wrote, 'evidence of overt racism or discrimination'. [p. 9]

The report explains that it was this very lack of real evidence that made the charge of 'institutional racism' the only plausible conclusion for Macpherson. As a diffuse and abstract concept, rather than a concrete allegation, it could be assigned to anyone for almost any reason. It has the side-effect of reducing moral responsibility for individual racist behaviour as the fault is attributed to 'institutions' rather than people.


Police officers who queried the terms of this allegation were treated to a Kafkaesque response in which honest belief in one's innocence became the best evidence of guilt:


To the diffident demurral of crest-fallen MPS Commissioner Paul Condon that 'labels can cause more problems than they solve', Macpherson commented sternly that 'he [Condon] did not accept that there is institutional racism within the force'. [p. 9]

Against the actual evidence


The charge of institutional racism contrasts starkly with more methodologically sound evaluations of police behaviour. The respected British Crime Survey (now the Crime Survey for England and Wales) asks randomly selected members of the public about their views on the police. In 2009/10, the survey asked whether the police were doing a good or excellent job:


  • 56% of white respondents agreed
  • 60% of black respondents agreed
  • 62% of Asian respondents agreed

When asked whether the police would treat them fairly:


  • 59% of black respondents agreed
  • 65% of white respondents agreed
  • 72% of Asian respondents agreed

Interestingly, Guardian readers, as a group, rated the police lower than minority ethnic groups. Only 55% of them believed the police would treat people fairly.


When asked whether the police would treat them with respect:


  • 75% of black respondents agreed
  • 84% of white respondents agreed
  • 84% of Asian respondents agreed [p. xx]

Although black individuals are more likely to have concerns about being treated with respect by the police, still three-quarters of black people believe that the police will treat them respectfully. Importantly, the hard data suggest that minority ethnic groups have a broadly positive view of the police and that their experience of the police is similar to that of the white ethnic majority. Accusations of systematic racism made by political activists do not appear to reflect the views of minority groups living in Britain.


Harming those most in need of protection


The report follows the conviction of a gang of Muslim men in Rochdale for the grooming and rape of several girls, who were mostly white. Trevor Philips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, acknowledged that it was 'fatuous' to deny the relevance of the offenders' and victims' race in this case.


It is feared that the sex ring was not sufficiently investigated for several years because of the overwhelming pressures on police to demonstrate racial sensitivity. Davies notes that this was arguably a case of 'reverse' institutional racism, whereby concerns of vulnerable white girls from disadvantaged backgrounds regarding ethnic minority suspects were not taken sufficiently seriously:


When, in February 2012 the trial of a number of Pakistani men finally came to court, it seems that allegations of abuse by one (white) girl had been just ignored by the police… [p. 82]

Such a misguided approach could counter-productively put other members of minority groups, including South Asian women, at greater risk of victimisation. Davies concludes that, by seeking a racist explanation for police behaviour, Macpherson and other public officials have made matters worse while failing to address the very real weaknesses in police practice that too often lead to failed prosecutions:


Macpherson... not only obviated the need to make a realistic if less flamboyant analysis of the limitations of the policing of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, but also led an over-anxious police leadership to make a fool of itself by adopting policies which are neither operationally nor socially nor ethically sound and proper. [pp. 122-3]

For more information contact:


Jon Gower Davies 020 7799 6677


Civitas 020 7799 6677


Notes for Editors


i. Jon Gower Davies is former Head of the Religious Studies Department at the University of Newcastle. For 20 years he was a Labour Councillor on Newcastle City Council.


ii. Mind-Forg'd Manacles: Murder, Macpherson and the [Metropolitan] Police (RRP: £9.00) is available from the Civitas shop and by calling 020 7799 6677. A PDF copy (for press and media) is available on request.


iii. Civitas is an independent social policy think tank. It has no links to any political party and its research programme receives no state funding.