Institutional racism: lessons from the U.K.

05 December 2000

Robin Oakley1

On February 24, 1999, a major step forward was taken in the fight against racism in the UK, with the publication of the Report of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. This report led to official recognition of a concept that activists had been fighting to establish for more than twenty years: the concept of "institutional racism". Why has this been considered so important, and why has securing recognition of it been so difficult? And what are the implications for tackling the massive racism and discrimination that affect Roma, especially in the transition countries of Central and Eastern Europe?

Stephen Lawrence was a young black student who was brutally murdered late one night in 1993 on the streets of South London in a racist attack by a gang of white youths. It was an unprovoked attack on Stephen and his friend Duwayne Brooks who were on their way home by bus, and it was accompanied by racist verbal abuse. Despite several attempted prosecutions, and the naming of the alleged murderers in the national press, no one has yet been convicted of Stephen's murder.

Virtually from the start, his parents, supported by community groups, expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the police investigation and general handling of the case, and have fought continuously by legal and other means to try to secure justice for their son. Their view (like many before them) is that the failure of the police to deal effectively with the case has been because Stephen and his family are black. An initial internal review of the investigation by the London Metropolitan Police generally found it to be in order. A subsequent review conducted by the neighbouring Kent County Police into the investigation identified some serious shortcomings, but concluded that there was no evidence of racism on the part of the Metropolitan Police.

In 1997, four years after Stephen's murder, a Labour Government replaced the Conservative Government that had been in office for 18 years. The new Home Secretary met with Stephen's parents, and subsequently established an independent inquiry with wide terms of reference entitled "The Inquiry into the Matters Arising from the Death of Stephen Lawrence". The Inquiry was conducted by a senior judge, Sir William Macpherson, who was assisted by a panel of three lay advisors: a senior white police officer, a black bishop, and a medical doctor of Jewish background active in anti-racist work. The Inquiry was held in public in South London through much of 1998. It was legally empowered to call witnesses, who could be cross-examined by lawyers representing the victims, police and other interest groups. Sixty-one police officers who had significant connection with the investigation were called as witnesses, as were the accused youths, Duwayne Brooks, the parents of Stephen Lawrence, and other persons involved.

The Inquiry provided a unique opportunity for the conduct of police work in the UK to be examined in minute detail and made publicly visible. Never before had it been possible for the routine handling of an incident and its subsequent investigation to become so transparent, and for the specific details of what the police did or did not do in a particular case to be revealed. In place of the usual allegations and denials, the Inquiry thus allowed a microscopic examination of the extent and manner in which racism and discriminatory treatment might be present in one specific incident. There could be no reason to suppose the police handling of this incident would be any different from others involving black members of the community.

Significantly, the Inquiry found no evidence of overt racism on the part of any police officer involved in the incident. No police officer used any overtly racist language or expressed any racist views, and there was no evidence of deliberate differential treatment of the victims or their families because they were black or of African-Caribbean ethnic background. This should not be surprising in the UK, given that legislation and programmes designed to tackle discrimination have been in operation from the 1960s onwards. Whatever may be their personal views, all police officers today are well aware that such behaviour is professionally unacceptable and is liable to severe sanctions. This is not to say, of course, that incidents of overt racism by police officers never occur, nor is it to say that they are always dealt with effectively and to the satisfaction of victims.

The Inquiry did hear, however, extensive evidence that police behaviour was affected by racial considerations in rather more subtle ways. These included: initial police suspicion that the youths had been victims of a drug-related attack; police suspicion that Duwayne Brooks himself might have been the killer; lack of initial consideration that racial motivation might have been a factor in the attack; lack of action when Duwayne Brooks stated that he had heard the word "nigger" being shouted by the white youths; hostility towards Stephen's parents when family and friends rallied to their support; poor quality communication and support for Stephen's family; and lack of effort in the conduct and progression of the investigation in general. Although many such claims were contested by the police as unproven, or at least not racial in character, they were strongly affirmed as having a racial dimension by the victims and the black community.

Such evidence pointed towards a very different form of racism from that which is usually the focus of public attention. Not only is this subtle in its manifestations, but while sometimes conscious, it may be often unconscious, unintended, and resulting not from action but from the failure to act - or to act in appropriate ways. It may be the unconscious result of feelings and preconceptions relating to particular racial or ethnic groups that quite unconsciously influence - to a greater or lesser degree according to circumstances - a person's behaviour. It is a form of racism that reflects the fact that ignorance, misunderstandings and even stereotypes about minorities are widespread throughout society, and may unwittingly be reflected even by well-intentioned people in their behaviour.

There is no reason to suppose that police would be exempt from this tendency. Indeed, the nature of police work, which brings them into contact with a skewed cross-section of members of minorities with whom they may be unfamiliar, is highly likely to exaggerate it. There is also the tendency, not peculiar to the police but found among any group with a strong corporate or professional culture, for such attitudes to be routinely sustained as part of the normal world-view of the group, by means of jokes, stories and other mechanisms of informal communication. Discriminatory treatment that results from factors such as these cannot be understood adequately as personal or individual racism, since it derives from the structures and processes of institutions and groups within which those individuals operate.

It was recognition of these features, which persuaded the Inquiry Panel to identify, on the basis of the evidence presented to it, the presence of "institutional racism" - not at the level of overt policy, but as a covert tendency built in to the operation of the organisation. And it identified this as present not only in the Metropolitan Police, but in the operation of police organisations and public institutions in Britain generally.

In its Report, the Inquiry therefore defined "institutional racism" as:

"The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority groups."

The important features of this definition are as follows: firstly that racism can be unconscious and unintended; secondly that the focus is on behaviour and effects; and thirdly that it focuses on the performance of whole organisations and groups rather than just individuals. It allows that the discrimination might be direct against people because of their ethnic or racial group; or it might be indirect, in that routine operating procedures simply have the effect of disadvantaging certain groups.

This definition offers a very different perspective on racism from that provided by the classic concept of racism as a pathology of the individual. It enables us to understand discrimination as an outcome that is routinely generated by the operation of established agencies and organisations in our societies, without them being necessarily aware of the processes which are going on. They may even be organisations which have explicit policy commitments against racism - and their staffs who operate these policies may also share this commitment to equality and believe they act fairly in their work. Without measures to identify and combat this more subtle and systemic form of racism, however, such commitments may not merely be declared in vain, but may be counter-productive since they conceal the real problem.

Following the publication of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, the British Home Secretary stated that he accepted both the definition, and the fact that institutional racism affects not only the police service, but all institutions in British society. He endorsed the Report's statement that:

"It is incumbent on every institution to examine their policies and the outcome of their policies and practices to guard against disadvantaging any section of our communities…. There must be an unequivocal acceptance of the problem of institutional racism and its nature before it can be addressed, as it needs to be, in full partnership with members of minority ethnic communities."

What are the practical implications of acceptance of this concept of "institutional racism" for governmental bodies and other organisations in a world in which all our societies are multi-ethnic to some degree?

The first is the need for every organisation to acknowledge that institutional racism is a normal tendency that must be investigated, and dealt with where appropriate, and that measures must be introduced to combat and prevent it. Regular monitoring, and transparency are both essential.

The second implication is that such measures should not just be targeted at individuals, but at the mode of operation of the organisation as a whole: its goals, its procedures, its informal culture, its personnel policies, its customer relations, and so on. Organisational change is likely to be needed, and this must be approached in a strategic way. Vision, image, standards, training, discipline, recruitment and many more aspects of the organisation will need to be addressed in an integrated manner. Tackling institutional racism is fundamentally the responsibility of management at the senior level.

The third implication is that the relations between the majority and minorities, both internally and externally, need to be addressed. Majorities dominate institutions, and in all kinds of unconscious but established ways they exercise this dominance with the result that members of minority groups suffer disadvantage. Minorities need to be empowered both internally and externally, so that they can act as partners to tackle and rectify the unintended and established institutional biases.

These kinds of changes cannot be achieved simply by legal means, though they may need to be forced by legal measures and the outcomes of cases. Rather they must be achieved by leaders with vision, and supported by managers with the ability to implement organisational change, who themselves must be supported by effective programmes in fields such as staff training and development. Without this type of back-up, there is a danger that legal action alone can result in increased resistance to change, because organisations and their staffs become pushed into defensive positions in which they cannot see any alternative way forward. Legal action and organisational change strategies must therefore complement each other, and be guided and supported by minority participation at all times. Extensive experience internationally shows that only the active presence of all three will achieve the outcomes desired.

What then are the implications of the UK experience around the Stephen Lawrence case for combating "anti-Gypsyism" and integrating Roma in Europe, and in particular in the transition states of Central/Eastern Europe?

The first implication is that while combating the overt forms of racism against Roma (especially racist violence by skinheads) is of great importance, there is also danger in governmental bodies focusing their efforts too narrowly in this field. Constructing the problem as one of skinheads and racial bigots makes it tangible and targetable. But it also diverts attention from the normality of pervasive racism, which needs to be addressed and on which extreme racist groups and individuals feed. Blaming skinheads is not only easy: it may be dangerously comfortable for the remainder of the majority, allowing them to avoid examining their own attitudes and actions regarding racism.

The second implication, therefore, is that there is a need to address the routine ways in which institutional anti-Gypsyism, in the sense indicated by the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, may pervade the thinking and everyday operation of organisations and professional groups in cities and local areas throughout each individual country where Roma live. Even in localities where positive initiatives and plans are being developed for the benefit of Roma, the perspective may remain that of "the Roma as the problem". The need rather is to change the way governmental and other agencies are operating in what must be acknowledged as a multi-ethnic environment. For example, the role of Romani Advisers, now adopted in some countries in the region, should be focused primarily on promoting organisational change - instead of protecting agencies from such pressures by dealing with problems of Romani individuals and families directly.

The third implication is that legal case-work and campaigning groups, while continuing to perform such functions, must also find ways to work constructively with and help to promote change in the organisations they criticise. This is not easy, because there is a conflict of role that public organisations such as police and local government find difficult to understand and work with. It can also be difficult for the minority communities to accept that campaigning NGOs can also work in co-operation with organisations against which they fight. Many examples from different parts of Europe show, however, that where the necessary skills are present, and where there is genuine commitment from the leaders of government and other organisations to change, then such co-operation is possible and can produce necessary results. The work of the Sofia-based non-governmental organisation Human Rights Project and its Romani NGO partners in developing the "Framework Program for Equal Integration of Roma in Bulgarian Society" provides a good illustration of this point.2

The test, however, lies in the outcomes, and Roma/minority participation is an essential means. Without genuine power-sharing, through participation and partnerships, institutional racism - or anti-Gypsyism - is likely to remain intact or even strengthened. This inequality of power between the institutions and the minorities must be recognised and addressed. Institutions, however, usually find this power dimension hard to acknowledge. Unlike the minorities, they do not experience their own power, which because it is "legitimate" and "institutionalised", does not usually have to be exercised nakedly. Moreover, much of this power is exercised by means of the capability the institutions have to "define the situation", e.g. to define what is the problem, what the law means, who is criminal, what statistics will be collected, and so on. The way this is done may be expected to reflect the perceptions and interests of the majority group. The institutional dimension of racism is therefore not readily visible to the majority. Only the minorities are likely to have the awareness and interest to challenge the everyday assumptions about "normality" of that stereotype and maybe criminalise them. The empowerment and participation of Roma and other minorities in the operating systems of institutions is therefore the essential condition for tackling institutional racism.

Across Central and Eastern Europe, there are many initiatives which are now making headway in tackling the institutional processes that maintain the discrimination and disadvantage affecting Roma across the region. The question must still be asked, however, as to whether alongside the major efforts in the fields of legal action and Roma empowerment, enough is yet being done to promote institutional change in the major public organisations that dominate our lives, such as the police and municipal government. The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in Britain has highlighted the importance of tackling this relatively hidden, institutional dimension of everyday racism in the modern world. It has also highlighted the difficulty of prising out this powerful dimension of racism, and the resistance that emerges against addressing it.

A new programme, the RrAJE Programme (Roma Rights and Access to Justice in Europe) is currently being developed by a UK-based NGO team and Central/Eastern European Roma/NGO partners to focus on this and related issues, and to share UK experience as well as that throughout the CEE region generally. The new programme follows the successful holding of a European Workshop on Roma-Police Relations in the UK in 1999, and is supported by a range of sponsors including the ERRC, OSI, Council of Europe, OSCE and the UK Department for International Development. The RrAJE Programme will initially have a strong focus on policing and security issues, but will also work in selected cities or other localities to help develop integrated strategies "on the ground" to combat Romani exclusion. Working locally in this manner, the institutional focus will be broadened out to address other areas such as education also. The aim is to identify and support models of good practice, covering institutional development, Romani empowerment and integrated strategies at the local level, and to then disseminate these both nationally and transnationally across the CEE region.


  1. Robin Oakley is a sociologist who has worked extensively on issues of racism and minorities with NGOs and public authorities both in Britain and across Europe.   He gave influential written evidence to the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry on the subject of institutional racism and the police.  He is currently working with Peter Mercer and the NGO European Dialogue on the development of the “RrAJE Programme (Roma Rights and Access to Justice in Europe)”.
  2. See Council of Ministers of the Bulgarian Government, “Framework for a Program for Equal Integration of Roma in Bulgarian Society”, available in English from the Sofia-based non-governmental organisation Human Rights Project:

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