How a Black Briton’s Murder Led to Change

Stephen Lawrence's death 20 years ago forced Britain to address racism. But Sept. 11 changed that.

From an order of service for Stephen Lawrence (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images Europe)
From an order of service for Stephen Lawrence (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images Europe)

(The Root) — Exactly 20 years ago today, Stephen Lawrence woke up like a typical 18-year-old student. Studying technology and physics, he was hoping to go to college later that year to realize his dream of becoming an architect.

By the end of the day he was dead, stabbed to death by a gang of white racists as he waited by a bus stop near his home in southeast London. But his story lives on: His tragic killing on April 22, 1993, and its aftermath, captured the attention of the nation and had a huge impact on policing, race relations and the country’s biggest institutions and corporations.

Stephen’s parents, Neville and Doreen, like any grieving family, wanted justice. The police, it seemed, were ambivalent. They treated Stephen’s friend Duwayne Brooks — who had fled for his life and managed to escape the gang — as a suspect. And though, in the following hours and days, many local people pointed fingers toward the same group of five people, officers took no meaningful action.

Frustrated, the Lawrences continued pressing for justice for years, including taking out a private prosecution against some of the alleged gang members. This failed because of lack of evidence (a subsequent investigation by British authorities would lead to the conviction of two men last year). The tireless campaigning by Stephen’s parents, however, gradually drew the attention of politicians, and when, in 1997, the Labour Party was elected into government, Home Secretary Jack Straw ordered a public inquiry.

This inquiry, led by Sir William Macpherson, heard evidence of incompetence and indifference by senior murder-squad investigators, who had failed to gather evidence against the main suspects in the crucial hours after the killing. But more than that, it revealed a deep-seated “canteen culture” within the police force in which casual racism was common. The British public was shocked by the revelations — which confirmed what black people had been arguing for years: that many officers saw black people primarily as suspects and had little interest in protecting them.

In February 1999, Macpherson concluded that even those officers who weren’t directly racist could be complicit in outcomes that discriminated against minorities. He used the term “institutional racism,” defined as “the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their color, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behavior which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

This definition, though, went beyond just the police force; it extended into the culture within Britain’s largest public institutions and private companies. And it explained why, despite so many token efforts to bring about equal opportunities for minorities, so little change had actually happened.

It ushered in an era of new legislation, with increased responsibilities for public institutions to root out discrimination. Private businesses themselves made far greater efforts to redress their racial imbalance, with a plethora of initiatives and diversity schemes. For a while, it seemed that a real breakthrough had been made — with the public, politicians and business leaders all buying in to the need for change.

Twenty years later, though, some are wondering what happened to that feeling of optimism and energy, and whether the gains of that period are being lost. In fact, Britain’s golden era lasted just under 1,000 days. It was brought to an end by the destruction of the twin towers in New York City in September 2001. After this, a new sense of suspicion started to hang over Britain’s minorities: Are they Muslim? Are they extremist? Are they terrorist?