The Stephen Lawrence Case

The ‘supreme example of a contradiction-closing case in the UK’ is, for Gillborn (2008, p. 120) the Stephen Lawrence case. Gillborn (2008, p. 132) is right to describe this case as ‘one of the single most important episodes in the history of British race relations’, so it is worthwhile dwelling on this case for a while. The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report (Macpherson 1999) followed a lengthy public campaign initiated by the parents of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, murdered by racist thugs in 1993. A bungled police investigation means that there have been no convictions. The Report looked at racism in the Metropolitan Police and other British institutions, and acknowledged the existence of institutional racism in the police, the education system, and other institutions in the society (see chapter 6 of this volume for a discussion of institutional racism). While there was a massive public outcry following the Report, with its findings dominating the media, this was followed within weeks by sceptical comments from teachers unions’ leaders (Gillborn 2008, p. 126). There were also signs that the Education Department was not keen on pushing forward the recommendations of the Inquiry. While it formally claimed to accept the Report, it asserted that things were already in place to sort things out, with the then Education Secretary, David Blunkett, claiming that the subject of Citizenship was already there to ‘help children learn how to grow up in a society that cares and to have real equality of opportunity for all’ (cited in Gillborn 2008, p. 127).

Later, as Home Secretary, Blunkett was to suggest that ‘institutional racism’ was a slogan that let individual managers ‘off the hook’ in tackling racism (Travis 2003). He said that it was important that the government’s ‘diversity agenda’ tackled the fight against prejudice but also took on the long-standing need to change attitudes:

That is why I was so worried about people talking about institutional racism because it isn’t institutions. It is patterns of work and processes that have grown up. It’s people that make the difference (ibid.).

Questioned about his comments afterwards, Blunkett added: ‘I think the slogan created a year or two ago about institutional racism missed the point. It’s not the structures created in the past but the processes to change structures in the future and it is individuals at all levels who do that’ (ibid.).

As Gillborn (2008, pp. 130-1) explains, two significant events with respect to the abandonment by the state of the concept of ‘institutional racism’ happened late in 2006, and early in 2007. First, in December, 2006, the contents of an internal Education Department review were published in the Independent on Sunday newspaper which specified ‘institutional racism’ as the cause of black over-representation in exclusions from schools (Gillborn 2008, p. 130). The review also warned that ‘[i] f we choose to use the term “institutional racism”, we need to be sensitive to the likely reception by schools [but] if we choose not to use the term, we need to make sure that the tone of our message remains sufficiently challenging’ (cited in Gillborn 2008, p. 130). The relevant minister, Lord Adonis, was quoted in the same newspaper as arguing that ‘since the report does not baldly conclude that Britain’s entire school system is “institutionally racist”, the term—and the issue—could be quietly shelved’ (cited in Gillborn 2008, p. 144).

The second event happened early in 2007. The BBC reported that ‘the Department of Health now regards the term [institutional racism] as “unhelpful” and believes that “the solutions lie in the hands of individuals not institutions”’ (cited in Gillborn 2008, p. 131).

Gillborn (2008, p. 131) notes that ‘by 2007 “institutional racism” had been erased from the policy lexicon’. A final blow to state endorsement of the concept came when the Commission for Equality and Human

Rights (CEHR) (a body which oversees all equality issues) replaced the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) and the principle of ‘proportionality’ was introduced. This allows public authorities not to take any action ‘which might be disproportionate to the benefits the action would deliver’ (cited in Gillborn, pp. 131-2). As Gillborn (2008, p. 132) points out, this means that schools can now decide to focus on other issues (e.g. underachieving boys). A school could acknowledge persistent ‘race’ inequalities, but decide that the effort required to reduce them was out of proportion to any benefits, or it could take no action on ‘race’ because it had too few minority ethnic students (ibid.). Gillborn (ibid.) concludes that the ‘proposals signal a clear end to the period where equalities policy was drawn up with any meaningful reference to the Lawrence Inquiry’.

‘The mere fact’, Gillborn (2008, p. 133) concludes ‘of the Stephen Lawrence and David Bennett Inquiries [the Bennett Inquiry on institutional racism in the National Health Service]—and the attendant press coverage—is assumed by some observers to denote change’. Herein lies the essence of a ‘contradiction-closing case’:

This is exactly what Derrick Bell and Richard Delgado have warned about in relation to ‘contradiction-closing cases’. The fact that institutional racism has been named explicitly as a factor in Britain’s police, education and health services is not a solution, it is merely a diagnosis (Gillborn 2008, p. 133).

Gillborn (2008, p. 120) describes the Stephen Lawrence case as ‘a case that, after years of the most painful campaigning and mistreatment, was supposed to have changed Britain for ever but ... now seems to have left little imprint on the system in general, and education in particular’. However, he finishes on a positive note, arguing that the lesson from contradictionclosing cases ‘is not that change is impossible but that change is always contested and every step forward be must be valued and protected. A victory won is not a victory secured’ (ibid., p. 134). The whole case, he concludes, emphasizes ‘the importance of constant vigilance to maintain and build upon each victory’ (ibid.).11

No Marxist would disagree with this conclusion, nor with Gillborn when he insists that The Lawrence Inquiry was ‘not granted by a benign state’ that wanted to put right an injustice, but as a result of ‘high profile protests and public demonstrations’ (ibid., p. 135). As I have argued elsewhere (Cole 2008a, p. 75), unlike transmodernists for whom there is within the oppressor a latent ethical potential (Dallmayr 2004, p. 9),

Marxists argue that all progressive gains for the working class have been gained by workers’ struggle. Marxists believe that, in essence, benefits, which accrue to workers in capitalist societies, have, in general, throughout history, been won by such struggle, rather than capitalist latent morality, or basic kindness. Indeed as Marx (1862, p. 1) put it, referring to the working class as the main source of extra-parliamentary pressure:

No important innovation, no decisive measure has ever been carried through in this country without pressure from without, whether it was the opposition that required such pressure against the government or the government that required the pressure against the opposition. By pressure from without the Englishman understands great, extra-parliamentary popular demonstrations, which naturally cannot be staged without the lively participation of the working class.

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