Contrary to the Lawrence inquiry, blacks and whites want to live in a society less aware of race, not moreby Michael Ignatieff / April 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
For days no one could talk of anything else. The papers were full of editorials saying “Never again.” The Lawrence inquiry was, we were told, a turning point in attitudes towards race in Britain. Now everything has gone quiet. The cuttings are already yellowing. William Macpherson, chairman of the inquiry, has returned to his castle in Scotland. Mr and Mrs Lawrence have gone their separate ways. Stephen Lawrence’s killers are still free.
As with the Scarman report after Brixton, we seem unable to come to any awareness of these issues without a convulsion of guilt-ridden confusion. What is most dismaying, looking back on Lawrence, is that it became a story about just one thing-race. But the central issue was not race, it was justice. Why were we talking about institutionalised racism, when the issue was institutionalised incompetence? Why were we talking about “race awareness,” when the issue was equal justice before the law?
Everyone talked as if the Lawrence family and a larger fiction called “the black community” had been “let down.” The “black community” is no more of a reality than the “white community.” To suppose this is to believe that skin trumps all other identities, that we are only our surfaces. In reality the Lawrence family were denied justice, and because they were denied justice, all of us have good reason to feel anger and shame that we cared so little about institutions which operate in our name.
Looking forward, justice is what is needed, not race awareness training. Blacks and whites surely want to live in a society less aware of race, not more. What conceivable good is served by Macpherson’s definition of a “racist” incident? He says it is “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.” If racism is in the eye of the beholder, we will never be finished with it. The Macpherson definition will “racialise” every encounter between the police and the non-white public to the benefit of neither, while the white public, often badly treated by the police too, will feel that they have no recourse for the indignities they suffer-and will resent the perceived “positive discrimination” towards non-whites.
Do we seriously suppose that only black people face injustice at the hand of the police ? Are we so na?ve as to forget that class can count just as much as race in denying…