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)

In 2002 a so-called ricin plot by a group of Muslims to attack the London Underground was uncovered, serving to fuel these fears. Years later it was revealed that there had been no ricin and no plot, but by then the story had done its damage. And after the London bombings in July 2005, fears directed toward those with brown skin (including Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian gunned down by the police on the Underground) grew almost uncontrolled.

The political debate was no longer about opportunities denied to minorities but about how to control minorities. The sentiment was, “If they want to be accepted here, they must give up their religion, give up their language, give up their culture.” This was backed up by increasingly tough talk on immigration.

Despite the fact that only a handful of people had been responsible for the London carnage, whole communities were labeled as sympathizers and suspects. It was a new take on the “black crime shock” headlines of the 1970s and ’80s, when African Caribbeans were reported as muggers and looters.

As racial equality began to fall down the agenda, the Commission for Racial Equality, or CRE — the government body set up to enforce anti-discrimination laws — was scrapped. Some commentators in the white-dominated media even claimed, after President Obama had been elected, that Britain was “postracial” — ignoring the fact that the scapegoating of minorities was continuing daily in the popular press.

And when the Conservative-led government was installed in 2010, with its core policy of austerity and public-spending cuts, many of the organizations that had been campaigning for equality had their spending slashed — including, ironically, the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, set up in the murdered teenager’s name as a way to encourage disadvantaged youngsters to enter creative-industry careers.

In recent months, Doreen Lawrence herself; a former chair of the CRE; and Britain’s largest black newspaper, the Voice, have pointed out how race is being ignored by the government despite persistent inequalities. Last year it was revealed that unemployment among young black men in Britain has reached 56 percent. Black people are still far more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by police. And the riots of August 2011 — sparked by the shooting death of a black man in north London by the police — show the dangers of ignoring this running sore.

Yet, lacking both power and resources, Britain’s black population faces uncertainty as to whether it can regain the initiative and have its issues taken seriously. The need is obvious. An elected Conservative councillor was forced to resign today for comments he made Sunday after he objected to a boarding school being set up in the local countryside that would take in minority pupils from inner London.

“Ninety-seven percent of pupils will be black or Asian,” said John Cherry of Chichester District Council. “There are certain nationalities where hard work is highly valued. There are certain nationalities where they are uncertain what this hard work is all about. If the children are not allowed out of the site, then it will make them want to escape into the forest — it will be a sexual volcano.”

All the evidence shows that negative racial attitudes persist in Britain. Twenty years on, it is more vital than ever that the legacy of Stephen Lawrence, and his courageous, determined parents, is not squandered.

Joseph Harker is assistant comment editor at the Guardian newspaper and a former editor of Black Briton newspaper. Follow him on Twitter.