How deep is Britain's racism problem?

How deep is Britain's racism problem?

Uncovering the UK’s Michael Browns and Eric Garners — After a number of high-profile racist incidents, Huck looks at the broader picture and explores the role of institutional racism.

A video appeared on Tuesday of Chelsea football fans preventing a black man from boarding the Paris Métro and chanting, “We’re racist, we’re racist and that’s the way we like it.” It follows a report that showed anti-semitic attacks at the highest level ever recorded and the continuing rise in Islamophobic attacks.

Racism appears to be alive and well on the streets, but to get a broader picture of situation in the UK, we spoke to Adam Elliott-Cooper, a PhD student at the University of Oxford and a visiting researcher at University College London, whose research covers policing, critical race theories and social movements. He argued that racism occurs on many levels in British society, and that while most people recognise overt bigotry (such as the Chelsea incident), institutional racism is far more important and damaging. It is far less obvious, but institutional racism affects the lives and opportunities of minority communities from their chances at school, employment prospects, representation in government and treatment at the hands of law enforcement.

While cities in the US saw huge protests last year against the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the lack of prosecutions for the officers involved, a British court cleared three G4S private security guards of manslaughter for their role in the death of Jimmy Mubenga who was restrained on a deportation flight and died after repeating – like Eric Garner – “I can’t breathe.” The guards were found to have numerous racist texts on their phones but these were excluded from the trial.

The UK also has its own Michael Browns. Jean Charles de Menezes, Azelle Rodney and Mark Duggan, whose death sparked the London riots in 2011, are among those killed despite posing no danger to police, yet only the officer involved in the Azelle Rodney case has been charged, becoming just the third officer in the last two decades to be charged with murdering a suspect in the line of duty.

London’s Metropolitan Police have come in for some of the most high-profile accusations of racism. After failing to properly investigate the racist murder of Steven Lawrence in 1993, the Macpherson Report labelled the Met institutionally racist in 1999. Gary Dobson and David Norris were eventually convicted of Lawrence’s murder in January 2012. However, on the twentieth anniversary of Lawrence’s death in 2013, the Metropolitan Black Police Association, the largest group representing minority officers in the force, announced their belief the Met was still institutionally racist and in 2014 it emerged the Met had spied on the Lawrence family during their campaign to bring their son’s killers to justice. Since 1993, the Met has increased minority recruitment from 2.3% to 10.4%, yet the minority population of the capital is more than 40%.

Killings are statistically rare, but one of the most polarising police tactics is stop-and-search. Statistics show that black people in London are now 12 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police. “The police power to stop and search has a disproportionate impact on black and minority ethnic communities and young people,” explains Natasha Dhumma, youth coordinator at Stop Watch, an NGO campaigning for greater police accountability. “Stopsearches are all too often conducted without reasonable grounds based on accurate and reliable intelligence. The absence of these creates deep mistrust and resentment in communities and is an ineffective use of police resources.”

The Met acknowledge that racism still exists in the force but highlighted the efforts made in recent years to stamp it out and sanctions for those found to be in breach of official policy. “All staff are aware that racism will not be tolerated and this is made clear when they join and throughout their careers. The MPS has a clear set of values for our staff to adhere to and the code of ethics reinforces standards of behaviour expected by our staff,” explains Met spokesperson Jenni North. “Our responses when a small minority of their colleagues are found to be guilty of racist behaviour can leave others in no doubt as to its total prohibition within the MPS. Indeed, in the last financial year nine members of staff were sacked or disciplined for racist behaviour.”

Just as in the US, disproportionate police use of force can attract the most media attention but racism exists in many forms in many different institutions, where it can be far less visible. To learn more about racism in the UK and put it in context, we spoke at length with Adam Elliott-Cooper.

Briefly, what are the roots of institutional racism in the UK? How pervasive is it?
Institutional racism is as old as the British Empire. It is through imperial policy that people were divided into the racialised groups we know today, and institutional racism is a legacy of this colonial construction. Over the centuries, race and racism became embedded in academic discourses, government policy and popular culture – today, it informs every institution in both Britain, and its former colonies.

How does the UK compare to other similar countries?
The UK differed from its closest imperial competitor, France, in that France has always adopted a ‘colour-blind’ approach – all people are officially defined as either French or non-French. This differs from the UK, as it has adopted a race relations approach, which has identified people as belonging to different racial categories. Nonetheless, the outcomes of both the French and the British model are largely similar. In Paris, people of African or Arab heritage are largely marginalised in the deprived suburbs, whereas those of African, Caribbean or South Asian heritage in London are marginalised with its deprived inner cities. The institutional racism within schools, employment, criminal justice and other areas of life reflect this racialised pattern of housing.

In the US, we see again see similarities and differences. As a settler colony, the US has racialised the social, political and economic spheres on its own soil from its inception, whereas Britain and France mainly used race to divide and subjugate people in their colonies until the middle of the 20th Century.

Moving the indigenous people onto reservations, regulating South American migration and only being one generation away from formal apartheid means that race and racism in the US often appears more stark than in Europe. At the same time, African Americans make up a significant proportion of the US population, and the legacies of the civil rights movement means there is a black middle class which is far more visible in popular culture, politics and business, than their counterparts in Europe. Nonetheless, the legacies of formal racial apartheid in the US are still very much a reality for the overwhelming majority of the African-American population, and levels of poverty, unemployment, incarceration and other socio-economic ills are far worse in the US than in Europe.

Institutional racism is a very abstract term. How are people likely to perceive or experience it in their daily lives?
Institutional racism is different to the overt bigotry that most people recognise as racism, but it is the racism that really matters. For example, a study was carried out comparing the SATS results of 11 year olds, with their teacher assessments. The study was carried out on the results of every state school in the UK, and was published in 2007. SATS results are blind marked, meaning the examiner does not know the racialised identity of the student, whereas teacher assessments are not. The study found that, overwhelmingly, black students do far better in their SATS results, than their teacher assessments. Conversely, white students did better in their teacher assessments, than their SATS results. Similar studies have been carried out by submitting similar CVs to employers, but with some having African (or in the US, African-American) or Muslim names. These studies have yielded similar outcomes.

What is important about institutional racism, is that it can dictate your life outcomes: your educational achievement, or your career prospects, rather than just the offence of an overt racist slur. The problem, is that it can only be detected when we carry out highly empirical and large scale studies – it is almost impossible to detect in our day-to-day lives without such studies.

How extensive is racism within the Met and what does this mean in practice to people on the street?
An interesting study was carried out by LSE and Release on how our drugs laws are used by the police and courts in Britain. It found that, not only are black people more likely to be stopped and searched for criminalised drugs (despite all studies indicating that black and white people use criminalised drugs at roughly the same rate), but if they are found with criminalised drugs, they are more likely to be arrested. Not only that, but when arrested for being in possession of criminalised drugs, black people are more likely than white people to be charged. In courts, black people are more likely than white people to be found guilty, are more likely to receive a custodial sentence, and that custodial sentence is likely to be longer than their white counterparts. This evidence suggests that there is institutional racism at every juncture of the criminal justice system.


These spoof posters produced by Strike! Magazine reflect how many London communities perceive the police. Current statistics suggest that black people are actually 12 times more likely to be stopped in London.

What lessons should the UK could learn from events in Ferguson and elsewhere in the US?
I think there are two, very basic demands being made by families and communities campaigning against death at the hands of the police. The first demand is legal justice: if a police officer is responsible for the death of a member of the public, they should be arrested and a criminal investigation could be carried out. They should not be able to write their statements together, just as other suspects are separated, and trials, rather than “inquests” should be carried out.

Secondly, the police should be made democratically accountable to the communities they serve. Rather than the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Commission), which is made up of former police staff, there should be local bodies, with real powers, made up of lawyers and members of the community, who should be able to hold the police to account.

Racism in the Met has been well publicised, but are there other areas where it has received less publicity but is still just as widespread and damaging?
I think the problem is bigger than the Met, or even the police – crime is socially constructed. Acts that are associated with the poor are criminalised, whereas comparable acts associated with the rich are not. For example, if you try to sell a handgun in Tottenham, you’ll probably be arrested. You may even be shot dead by police if they suspect you of carrying a firearm. At the same time, one of Britain’s most profitable industries is the arms trade, where weapons are sold to states and their armies all over the world, making far more profit, and causing far more damage. Despite this, only one of these acts is criminalised.

You could make a similar argument with theft, or fraud. If you steal from a shop, or commit petty credit card fraud, you will be arrested. But if the US and UK illegally invade Iraq, kill the head of state, cancel all oil contracts (most of which were with German and French oil firms), and resign new contracts with UK and US-based oil firms, the police will not be knocking on Tony Blair’s door. Similarly, if toxic assets with our financial system leads to the economy collapsing, this type of fraud will not lead to any bankers being arrested. Quite the contrary, they will be bailed out by the taxpayer.

It is important we understand these issues as being systemic, rather than pointing fingers just at the police – the police are a target for many campaigns because they are the organ of the state which must physically enforce its racist and classist policies. But the problem does not end with the police.

How much do you feel racism played a role in the killings of Mark Duggan, Azelle Rodney and Jimmy Mubenga, and the lack of prosecutions for the officers involved?
I think the social construction of crime, as I have already mentioned, is the primary impetus. The sale of weapons is something I’ve already mentioned, but the idea that some people are “illegal” and must be removed from a country is totally racialised. Despite British corporations breaking environmental, labour and human rights laws across Africa and Asia, none of their expatriate staff will ever be deported for being “illegal” – the very idea that this could happen is almost inconceivable.

Institutional racism therefore never operates in isolation, it always intersects with class, nationality, gender and other tools of domination used to categorise people.

Could you comment on the verdict of the Jimmy Mubenga trial and the not guilty verdict for the G4S private security officers who killed him? Particularly, the decision not to allow their racist text messages to be shown in court.
I think what the Jimmy Mubenga case tells us, is that the courts represent the same interests of capital and the state. The overt racism of the officers adds further insult to injury, but I think what is important is that a criminal justice system which enforces laws which are structured to only punish a certain sector of society, will defend those whose job it is to enforce those unfair and unjust laws. The system would collapse if these overlapping institutions did not support each other.

Do you have a call to action? How can people challenge institutional racism? How can people reading this get involved in positive actions in the UK?
There are a myriad of organisations across the UK addressing issues of institutional racism – policing and education are probably the two most well-organised and widespread at this point in time. Activists in the US (such as Ferguson) and groups in the UK fighting police racism and deaths in police custody, recently organised a Ferguson Solidarity tour that included a series of open meetings that took place across the country. I encourage anyone interested to attend future events.

Are there any developments you’ve seen over the last few months that give you hope for the future?
I think people often mobilise when they feel threatened, and the intensification of police violence that we have seen has led to a lot of organising. Taking action to the shopping streets is an interesting new tactic – as we know big money funds elections and political policies, hitting corporations in the pocket at shopping centres appears to be a tactic which may force the powerful to listen. My only fear is that the increase in police powers, and the new weaponry they are using (tasers, and the possibility of water canons), in addition to the expansion of the prison population, may mean things get worse before they get better.

Ensuring that campaigns are organised enough to grow, while being able to defend participants from the violence of the police or bias of the criminal justice system will be an important challenge going forward. But we are seeing more and more young people graduating from university, with the analytical skills to navigate legal and political institutions, but with fewer prospects for gainful employment than the generation before. This new socio-economic terrain may lead to a generation of organisers who can defend themselves and each other from the attempts to repress their calls for a more democratic, accountable and fairer place to live.