On Institutional Racism

Chapter 6 of Gillborn (2008) focuses on the Stephen Lawrence case, and I have commented on Gillborn’s analysis of this case in chapter 4 of this volume. I would just like here to make a comment on the definition of ‘institutional racism’ in the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report (Macpherson 1999), which Gillborn (2008, p. 152) suggests ‘clearly attempts to recognize the complex (sometimes hidden) nature of racism’. Institutional racism is defined in the Report 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 or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people (Macpherson 1999, 6.34).

This definition was given a formal seal of approval by its having been read in the House of Commons on 24 February, 1999, by the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw. It is interesting to note, however, that in repeating the definition verbatim in his speech to the House, Straw stresses the word, ‘unwitting’ (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/285553.stm— audio link available).

While the official acknowledgement of the existence of institutional racism is a most welcome development, and is a considerable conceptual leap from notions of personal prejudice, I disagree with Gillborn that Macpherson’s definition is complex. I believe that there is a need to situate the concept, historically, economically and politically. I have argued at length elsewhere that racism in British society may be viewed as a continuous process from the origins of the Welfare State up to the present, both in general terms (Cole 1992a; Cole and Virdee 2006) and with particular respect to education (Cole 1992a; Cole and Blair 2006), and that racism, institutional or otherwise, cannot be understood without situating it within historic, economic and political processes. There is a need, therefore, to incorporate these dimensions in a definition of institutional racism. The Marxist concept of racialization needs also to be included to move away from the nebulous and ahistorical definition of institutional racism provided by Macpherson. I believe such a definition needs also to include ‘common sense’, which I argued earlier in this chapter, connects racializa- tion with popular consciousness. Finally, in line with my definition of racism in chapter 3, I would also want to add intentional as well as unintentional or unwitting racism. Institutional racism is thus be reformulated as:

Collective acts and/or procedures in an institution or institutions (locally, nation-wide, continent-wide or globally) that intentionally or unintentionally have the effect of racializing, via ‘common sense’, certain populations or groups of people. This racialization process cannot be understood without reference to economic and political factors related to developments and changes in national and global capitalism.12

Corresponding with my definition of racism in chapter 3, Institutional Racism can include cultural as well as biological racism; intentional as well as unintentional racism; ‘seemingly positive’ attributes with probably ulti?mately racist implications as well as obvious negative racism; dominative racism (direct and oppressive) as opposed to aversive racism (exclusion and cold-shouldering); and overt as well as covert racism.

 
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