Why did the Stephen Lawrence story catch the public imagination so dramatically? There are countless miscarriages of justice every year, some of them just as serious, which most people have never heard of. Lawrence stuck mainly of course because it was a racial morality tale. Indeed from that day in 1993 when the original racially motivated attack took place, right up to yesterday’s verdict, the Stephen Lawrence story has provided a kind of running commentary on the politics of race in Britain. And I would venture to say that there is something both to celebrate and to regret in that unfolding story.
One obvious thing to celebrate is how long ago 1993 now seems in attitudes to race. Already by the early 1990s Britain was becoming more relaxed about racial difference and overt racism was becoming rarer, though not as rare as it is today. But there were certain places, like the working class suburbs of south London, and certain institutions, like the police force, where the liberal tolerance of metropolitan Britain was not embraced. That is probably still true today, though one of the great achievements of the Lawrence case—and the Macpherson inquiry that it gave rise to—is just how much attention the police now pay to racial violence. (And contrary to the usual claims, there is no longer a disproportionate number of ethnic minority deaths in police custody.)
This matters enormously because of the “original sin” of post-war British immigration—the often appalling way that African Caribbeans were treated in the 1950s and 1960s by the place they identified with and admired as the “mother country.” The anger and failure that came to be associated with African Caribbean life in Britain is partly derived from those early years. And the experience lived on in every racial slight or bad encounter with the police, including in Tottenham at the start of the riots last year. It resonated in a collective memory and reinforced a negative stereotype of white authority. The murder of Stephen Lawrence resonated particularly strongly, because he seemed to be the best of young black Britain—bright, ambitious—brought down by the worst of England, the delinquent, criminal, end of the white working class. The stereotype of the young, criminal black man undermining respectable white society was reversed.
So when black Britons heard of the murder, then heard of the police bungling the inquiry, they would have most likely had…