Less race, please

Contrary to the Lawrence inquiry, blacks and whites want to live in a society less aware of race, not more
April 19, 1999

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 people equal protection? Again, there is no way around the simple injunction: all persons, whether rich or poor, black or white, are entitled to the full protection of the law.

I see no useful purpose in trying to change the class or racial attitudes of ordinary policemen. I see every reason to insist, on pain of dismissal, that they understand the meaning of justice. A police recruit needs to understand that the morality of law enforcement turns on the idea of citizenship, not on the idea of group identity. This isn't complicated. It doesn't require advanced sophistication, compassion or understanding, merely the simple awareness that the purpose of the police is to provide equal protection under the law.

To the degree that the police treat people as individuals, their personal opinions about the religion, dietary habits or sexual orientations of the citizens they deal with are strictly irrelevant. They will rightly object to attempts to change their personal opinions. In reality, all they need to change is their behaviour on the beat.

Training the police is a matter of training them to treat individuals as individuals, and not as genders, races or classes. The point is to make them less "sensitive," less aware of difference, and more aware of one single identity: that the people they police are their equals, with rights and recourse.

Are we so balkanised into our racial and other group identities that we cannot see this? Commentators talked about their shame, as if it was appropriate for white people to feel shame at what was done to a member of the black community. The shame is for what happened to a fellow citizen, at the hands of a police force supposed to be accountable to us all.

We need a dose of liberal realism. Borrowing from Isaiah Berlin, let us distinguish between positive and negative tolerance. Negative tolerance is the minimum we require in a liberal society. It means protecting minorities from abuse and attack, it means equal treatment by public agencies, level playing fields for employment and so on. But we do not need to love each other, reach out to each other, or even particularly value our different cultures. A minority will practice such positive tolerance and, as time passes, that minority might become a majority. But for now most of us do not live together. We live in the same neighbourhoods, watch the same television programmes and visit the same shops, but the various class and ethnic groups often inhabit unfathomably different universes.

What is desperately needed, and still a generation away, is a happy indifference towards those collective identities and a genuine conviction that the differences that matter most are those between individuals. We do not need to police each other's thoughts and attitudes towards our differences. We simply need to master violence, to punish the kind of attack that occurred at that bus stop in south London, with all the determination we can muster. And insist-before another courageous mother has to remind us-that justice is indivisible.