(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?
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.