Racism in Great Britain

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Although the killing of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 was one of the few racist murders in British history to result in extensive media coverage, a public investigation and a change in the law, the reporting of black youth crime in the United Kingdom has remained subject to distortion and moral panic, especially in the conservative tabloid press. Since Lawrence and his family were portrayed as aspiring members of the middle class, the media in general did not really regard him as part of black youth culture at all, at least as the media has defined it over the last thirty years: guns, drugs, gangs, street crime, poverty and school drop outs. Therefore, despite much sound and fury, there is no evidence that Lawrence's murder and its aftermath led to fundamental change in the systematic racism of the British media, and other institutions such as the police and education system, or the racist ideology as applied to blacks, immigrants, Muslims and asylum-seekers has disappeared as a result—far from it. This essay will first consider the definition of racism as socially and historically constructed, and part of the institutions and ideology of society, and then examine how it has applied to the treatment blacks and other ethnic minorities in the UK since the 1940s, focusing on the Lawrence case and its aftermath. Finally, it will consider whether racism in the media has gradually been transferred to other targets in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001 and July 2005, with less emphasis on street crime, gangs, drugs and the crack wars of the 1970s-90s. This does not mean that young black males are no longer the target of racist stereotyping in the media, since as late as 2007 even a committee of the House of Commons agreed that they still were, only that racist impulses and ideologies seem to go through phases in which certain targets receive more attention than others.


Postmodern and critical theories hold that ideas about race are socially and historically constructed rather than race being some immutable biological or natural characteristic, and that racist ideologies and practices take on a life of their own and become incorporated into the structures and institutions of society, beyond simply the personal hatreds, prejudices and discriminatory practices that occur every day on the personal, individual level. Postmodernists sometimes sound like Gunnar Myrdal, who called racism a “moral dilemma”, but it is also “myriad of practices that are designed to subjugate a large segment of the population” (Murphy and Choi 1997: 3). At times, the changes in the law that have occurred in Britain and the U.S. since the 1960s lead to a sense in the media and among politicians that racism is no longer a problem, and “postmodern racism assumes the guise of tolerance only to be usurped by relativism, a proliferation of differences rather than a leveling of power relations” (Leonardo 2009: 216). Hardt and Nergi described postmodern racism as “a form of segregation, not hierarchy, in which cultural difference comes in to fill the role that hierarchy and ethnicity once played.” It accepts differences “so long as we act our race” (Bewes 2002: 76). Ideologies are a distinctive worldview, a “set or chain or meanings; they are collective rather than “the product of individual consciousness or intention” and “form part of the determinate social formations and conditions in which individuals are born”. Ideologies construct “knowledge” for individuals and groups which ‘allow them to ‘utter' ideological truths as if they were authentic authors” (Hall 2000: 271-72).

In Race and Racism: Essays in Social Geography (1986: 864), Peter Jackson established “the contemporary geographical understandings of race as a social construct—with both historical and spatial contexts.” Jackson wrote that racism was “structured and institutionalized” and bound up “with the very notion of English nationalism” Audrey Kobayashi and Linda Peake (1994: 225) demonstrated “the ways in which geography has been part of a system of domination through its work related to the construction of Empire” with white privilege “established along certain boundaries.” Well into the 20th century, geographers endorsed ‘scientific racism” and the “understanding of race as scientific, natural and biological phenomenon”, even up to the present-day manipulation of census data. Only in the 1970s and 1980s did geographers begin to view race as a “social construct with different relevance to different peoples in different places and at different times” (Skelton 1999: 228). In his 1995 book, Geographies of Exclusion, David Sibley described the “ways in which processes of exclusion and inclusion construct our spatial environments, our geographical imagination and indeed the very subject of geography” (1995: 137).

Studies of discrimination in jobs and employment in Britain, based on the use of white and black actors showing identical qualifications, show widespread patterns of racism. A 1977 study found that white actors were hired “ten times more often” than blacks when applying for the same jobs, while a similar study in 1997 found that “at least a third of employers discriminate against minority ethnic groups”, as did one-third of landlords. In fact, “discriminatory attitudes and practices were so pervasive as to be part of everyday, routine culture of social institutions” (Abercrombie and Warde 261-62). In the recession of 1982, 60% of black 16-20-year olds were unemployed, and were “marginalized by age, school, experience, space, place, and employment. They were sent to Educational Subnormal Special Schools fare out of proportion to their actual percentage of the population, and were hurt more than any other single group by the deindustrialised economy of the 1970s and 1980s. From 1971-81 the number of black males age 16-18 in custody doubled (Webster 2006: 33). In a 1993 survey, “almost half of white people sampled disagreed with the statement ‘Immigration has enriched the quality of life in Britain' and “racism of this kind is constantly experienced by black people at all levels of society” (Abercrombie and Warde: 255). In 1987, a black, middle-class man reported that “professional blacks are treated as rare specimens by most of their colleagues” and often subjected to racist humour and harassment. If they complain, they are called “over-sensitive to racial issues” and carry ‘chips on their shoulders”. In 1997, a black police officer described being sent to a domestic dispute and being greeted at the door by a white man with “What do you want, nigger?” and “I don't want a nigger policeman dealing with my family, send a real policeman.” Anti-Muslim sentiment was also “particularly strong” in Britain (Abercrombie and Warde; 257).

For the British media, especially the conservative, mass market tabloids, blacks have been defined by images of black youth crime for decades, especially as the economy began to decline in the 1970s as unemployment, poverty and social pathology increased in the declining industrial cities. If black crime has always been defined as a “social problem” in the media, racist attacks by whites against minorities almost never was before the Stephen Lawrence Family Campaign (McLaughlin and Murji: 263). From a purely capitalist view as well, “crime reports are among the most headline-catching of news commodities” and media everywhere in the world follow the somewhat cynical principle of ‘if it bleeds, it leads'. Crime journalists almost invariably take their cue from the police as “experts” on the subject and also depend of police contacts for their very livelihoods, providing them “a routine and predictable source of ‘newsworthy' stories.” Naturally, crime journalists never want to alienate that source and end up “left out in the cold”, for the economics of the news business is a particularly raw, competitive form of capitalism (McLaughlin and Murji: 264). Van Dijk studied 2,755 headlines in the British press in 1985-86 from The Times, The Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Mail and Sun, and found that except for The Guardian, almost all the reporting about blacks and other minorities was “seldom positive, occasionally neutral, and often negative” (Van Dijk 1991: 52-59, 69).

In general, both news and fiction media have been portraying more sex, drugs and violence in recent decades than compared to the 1945-64 period, in part simply because these images and stories generate more readers and viewers. Conservatives regard this as part of the general “moral decline and fall” of Western civilisation since the 1960s, while for liberals and the left, “the media representations unduly accentuate fears of crime, hence bolstering public support for more authoritarian forms of criminal justice, policy and practices” (Reiner et al 2000: 107). According the Richard Sparks (1997), the media “have consistently been seen by policy-makers as a regular source of the problem, stimulating unrealistic and irrational fears by exaggerating and sensationalising the risks and seriousness of crime.” Content analysis of movies, television and print media “suggests that media representatives exaggerate the extent and seriousness of crime and the success of the police and criminal justice system in combating crime” (Reiner et al 108). Crime stories increased as a percentage of total stories in both the The Mirror and The Times from 2-3% in 1945-51 to 6-9% in 1985-91 (Reiner et al: 110). In newspapers, homicide was the most common crime story in all periods since 1945: 20% in 1945-64 and 28% in 1965-79 and 1980-91, although at no time has murder ever been the most common violent crime, certainly not even close to the level at which the media covers it. Terrorist crimes also got more newspaper coverage in recent time, up from less than 1% in 1945-64 to 5.3% in 1965-79 and 8.8% of stories in 1980-91, while there “was a clear shift from stories featuring property crimes (such as burglary and car theft) to offences against the person, including homicide, assault and sexual offences”—even though property crimes are of course far more common than violent crimes. Newspaper reporting on these fell from 20% of stories in 1945-64 to 12% in 1965-79 and 8% in 1980-91, while “almost half of all crime-related stories are now about violence and/or sex” (Reiner et al: 114).

Homicide was also the most common subject in fictional crime films in 1945-91, including 50% of all movies in 1945-64, 35% in 1965-79 and 45% in 1980-91. Films featuring property crimes fell from 32% to 5% in the same period while those depicting sex crime, rape and prostitution increased from 3% to 15% and drugs from 2% to 15% in the same time period. Movies also became far more graphic and explicitly violent, with 74% of films having little or no violence in 1945-64 and only 5% significant levels of violence, compared to 1991 when only 16% had little or no violence and 47% significant levels of it, and 80% of all movies “featured multiple offences unrelated to the central narrative” especially violent, drug and sex crimes (Reiner et al: 114). Police were the heroes in 9% of films in 1945-64, 50% in 1965-79 and 40% in 1980-91, while ‘amateur investigative heroes” like Miss Marpole appeared in only 5% of films in 1965-79 and none afterwards. Overall, the shift in film representation of crime made it seen “as an ever-present, ubiquitous threat, not as a one-off disturbance in a generally ordered existence” as it was in the 1945-64 period (Reiner et al: 115-16). Criticism and negative images of the police and authority figures also increased greatly in both films and news stories, and there was also “a slight tendency to portray young offenders more frequently” with “the proportion o ethnic minority offenders increasingly slightly in both fiction and news stories.” Even so, during the entire 1945-91 period, white males, middle aged or older, were still the majority of offenders portrayed in both fictional and news accounts. Criminals of all types were “overwhelmingly portrayed unsympathetically” (Reiner et al: 116-17).

After the major shift in both fictional and news coverage of crime in the 1960s and 1970s, there were increasing complaints from the elderly, minorities and young people in general about how they were depicted. Elderly citizens were shown as “muggable” and disempowered, while the young and minorities “felt like they were continually portrayed as ‘dangerous youth', potential perpetrators of crime, and thus welcomed films and news stories with “a civil rights focus and the questioning of police authority.” On the other hand, young women were more “aware of their possible victim status, particularly their vulnerability to male violence, and so welcomed coverage of such crimes”, which had been mostly ignored before the 1960s (Reiner et al: 120). In general, the cultural shift of the 1960s and 1970s has not been reversed in films and news accounts in the more conservative era of the 1980s and 1990s: there is still far more depiction of sex, drugs, violence, corrupt and “tarnished” authority figures than before 1965, and also an increasing tendency toward more anarchic and nihilistic violence or “a Hobbesian war of all against all”, mixed occasionally with more reactionary and nostalgic themes. Overall, the post-1960s media and film culture has remained “less deferential and more de-subordinate” and demystified than it was before 1965 (Reiner et al: 121-22).

For decades the British media portrayed Britain as a white society with a minority and immigration problem. Accordingly, the” coloured population is seen as some kind of aberration, a problem, or just an oddity.” One of the most popular BBC television programmes in 1958-78 was The Black and White Minstrel Show, supposedly set in the Deep South of the U.S., featuring actors in blackface. As late as 1998, only 2% of journalists in England and Wales were Arab, Asian or black even though these minorities made up 5.26% of the population, and the media often remained “blind” to ethnic minorities (Wilson et al 2003: 21-21). According to the British Social Attitudes Survey of 2003, 31% of white admitted to being racist, about the same percentage as 1987, and many people also practised “aversion racism” in which they believed intellectually in equality but at the same time felt aversion toward minorities with negative stereotypes, and thus avoided interaction with them if possible (Crisp and Turner 2007: 162-65).

In the media, blacks became synonymous with drugs, gangs and street crime, and misleading police statistics asserted that young black males were the majority of street criminals, generally unemployed and on welfare. Equally untrue in the standard media portrayal, their victims were “often white, female and elderly” (McLaughlin and Murji: 265). Abercrombie and Warde agree that “a conception of the black community as particularly crime-prone took hold” in the 1970s “in press treatments of attacks on and thefts from, innocent people in the streets.” In 1983 The Sun actually ran a headline “Black Crime Shock” and stated falsely that “blacks carried twice as many muggings as white sin London last year” (Webster: 32). In general, the media conveyed the image “that the attackers were predominantly black and the victims predominantly white”, no matter that there was no evidence for this. Just the opposite, the British Crime Survey of 1988 and 1992 showed conclusively that “ethnic minorities are much more likely, in fact, to be the victims of crime than white people”, and these crimes are under-reported “because it is believed the police will not be interested and will not follow up a complaint.” According to a 1981 Home Office report, “victimization rates for Asians were 50 times, and for blacks 36 times, higher than for white people”, but the media treated this information like it did not exist and almost never reported “the extent and seriousness of racially motivated attacks on black communities” (McLaughlin and Murji: 268-69). Nevertheless, into the 1990s, young black males continued to be profiled and targeted for stop and search policing, especially in high crime areas. Studies of police attitudes found that they generally regarded blacks as “trouble-makers, drug dealers, robbers and nothing else” (Abercrombie and Warde: 258-59).

This moral panic against crime in the streets was also fuelled by Conservative politicians, particularly in the Winter of Discontent against the Labour government in 1979. In the Thatcher years, the Tories presided over an era of high unemployment and increasing poverty at the bottom end of the social scale, and knew that they could divert attention “by promoting a law and order discourse that put the blame on the most socially and economically depressed sections of the community” (Holohan: 104). In Britain, as in the U.S. and many other countries from the 1970s to the 1990s, conservative and right-wing populist ideologies reflected a “broadly right-wing consensus which, in many news channels (especially the tabloid press)…justified as encapsulating the ‘British way of life'”. This law and order consensus supported “more police, more prisons and a tougher criminal justice system”, particularly in response to the youth and minority rebellions of the 1960s and 1970s--and indeed, as part of a white backlash against these (Jewkes 2004: 58). For over twenty years, conservative “populist punitiveness” represented the main attitude of the British government to crime, poverty and the social problems associated with them, and there was no major opposition to imprisoning larger numbers of youth and younger ages, to prosecuting them as adults, more curfews, prohibition of “unauthorized gatherings” of young people, as well as “harsher measures against immigrants, protesters, demonstrators, the homeless and young unemployed”, particularly if any of the above were from minority groups. Newspapers like The Sun and Daily Mail have always had a vigorous “intolerance towards anyone of anything that trangresses an essentially conservative agenda” (Jewkes: 59). Socially, economically and culturally, this era was a throwback to the late-Victorian period at the end of the 19th Century.

A 1992 book Beneath the Surface: Racial Harassment described a detailed study of racism in the London borough of Walthem Forest in 1981-89. It found that racial harassment was a “fact of life” there, including verbal and physical abuse, graffiti and fire bombings of houses of ethnic minorities. In July 1981 a Pakistani woman and her three children died in one of these attacks when petrol was sprayed into their house and set alight. The police did not seem interested in any of these crimes, and were even suspicious of the minorities who reported them. In 1998, The Observer reported that “little has changed” in the years since and described how one Muslim man was regularly “threatened with stones, guns, knives, fire-bombs and death threats over a seven-year period. In 1992-94 alone, there were at least 45 deaths in Britain from “what are believed to be racially motivated attacks”, but none of them received nearly the same publicity as the Lawrence case (Abercrombie and Warde: 260-62). After the riots of 1980-81, Lord Scarman's report “emphasized the role of racial discrimination” and acknowledged that “there was a problem of racially discriminatory policing”, as was still the case twelve years later in the Lawrence case. After the report came out, the police gave “off-the-record” interviews to the effect that “London was experiencing a dramatic increase in muggings” (McLaughlin and Murji: 266).

Jamaican immigrants had begun to arrive in the UK in 1948, although even the Labour government of that era preferred white European immigrants if it could find them, even if they could not speak English and understood little about Britain. Indeed, government officials went out of their way to discourage immigration from Africa, Asia and the West Indies, which was not unusual at the time, given the whites-only immigration policies in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States that had been in place for decades—and did not finally change in the U.S. until 1965. The British government even tried to divert a ship carrying 492 Jamaicans to East Africa in 1948. Given the shortage of white immigrants, Britain had no alternative except to obtain most of its cheap labour supply from its colonies, semi-colonies and former colonies in Asia, Africa and the West Indies, although with much bad will on both the governmental level and in (white) public opinion (Skelton: 232).

Blacks had been in Britain long before this wave of immigration, of course, but it seems to have made little impact on historical memory or popular consciousness. Britain had slavery during the 17th and 18th Centuries at least until Lord Mansfield abolished it in 1772. To be sure, only 10-20,000 slaves had lived in the country during any given year compared to millions in Brazil, the United States and West Indies and the number of free blacks was never large (Segal 1996: 264). Prior to the post-1945 immigration, few whites in Britain would have ever encountered many blacks at home, except of course for American soldiers in World War II. At that time, however, many white Americans were actually surprised to find that the British press was generally sympathetic to blacks whenever racial conflicts, brawls and other ‘incidents' took place on British soil (Katznelson 2001: 203 n38).

Jamaicans were the largest group to arrive in Britain from the West Indies during this unwelcome ingathering from the colonies. While the “majority of White British were antagonistic to all those from the Caribbean, it can be said that the deepest resentment was toward the Jamaicans” (Skelton: 232). Initially, they settled in Lambeth, Brixton, Clapham and Camberwell in South London, which was considered “ideal” for blacks and other minorities since it had suffered “extensive “ bomb damage and was full of “vacant, old and dilapidated Victorian houses”. In other worlds, it was an instant, ready-made ghetto. Black immigrants were “crowded into these run-down houses, charged unreasonably high rents, and/or faced housing discrimination.” They only got the jobs that British workers would not take and called “slave labour” or “shit work”, and often could not even get that. Like many such ghettos in the past, theft, fencing of stolen merchandise, prostitution and drug dealing were common—with many shops offering illegal goods and services “under the counter” to supplement their incomes and others acting as fronts for gangs and organized crime. In short, like similar ghettos in the U.S. and many other countries, it had a large “informal” or “underground economy” which existed in tandem with the mainstream economy and society—although minority young people were mostly cut off and alienated from this (Sanders 2005: 33-37). Mainstream media reported the crime but not the historical, social and economic context of this ghetto society.

From the start, the police and media associated young Jamaican males with street crime, which became an idea “so pervasive and powerful that soon everyone who saw a young Black man on the street was convinced they were about to be robbed.” In the 1970s, it was “not uncommon to see young Black men being taken to the side of public pavements and being forced to empty their pockets by two of three police officers at a time.” Parliament passed ‘sus laws” that allowed the police to stop and frisk anyone acting in a “suspicious manner”—an early example of racial profiling, and arresting and harassing ‘suspects' from crimes like shopping, walking or driving while Black. In the media, there were virtually no “counter-representations” of young, black men, while in the civil disturbances of the 1980s and 1990s it ran the most sensationalistic stories claiming that “Britain was becoming a riot-torn society” caused by an “alien disease” and angry young blacks who “did not share the values of ‘law-abiding society''. Certain geographical areas like Brixton in London, Toxteth in Liverpool and Handsworth in Birmingham were “racialised” in the media and always “associated with danger, destruction and lawlessness” (Skelton: 234).


Identifying a ‘sympathetic victim' is a well-known strategy of civil rights movements, and one of the best known was Rosa Parks, whose arrest on December 1, 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to a white person on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama was the spark that lit the modern civil rights movement in the United Sates. E.D. Nixon, the head of the Alabama National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and chief organizer of the Montgomery Voters League had been looking for a test case against the segregation laws for quite some time. He knew that it would have to survive legal challenges all the way up to the United States Supreme Court, and for this purpose the right type of victim was essential (Hare 2005: 3-4). It was no accident when Rosa Parks, the secretary of the local NAACP and member of Martin Luther King's church, was arrested as part of the long-planned test case. Jonnie Carr, head of the Montgomery Improvement Association for thirty years, had invited Parks to join the NAACP and “the two women started a friendship that would last a lifetime.” Carr, who would later challenge Montgomery's segregated school system I the courts and win the case in the Supreme Court, said that Parks “was so quiet that you would never have believed she would get to the point of being arrested”, but she did. Once she was committed to this course, she did not look back, and was famous for her quiet courage and determination. She continually received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan during the bus boycott and the legal case, and had to move to Detroit, Michigan in 1957. Even so, she continued to work with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, helping to organize the March on Washington in 1963 and the election of John Conyers to Congress—one of the first blacks elected in the 20th Century (Hare: 25-26).

Other blacks had been arrested before Parks for refusing to give up their seats, but Nixon, Carr and the other organizers did not regard them as the right kind of victims to generate exactly the right kind of publicity they required, or to stand up to the ordeal that was certain to follow, including the very real possibility of death. On March 2 1955, fifteen-year old Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white person, and when she was convicted of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, the “young straight-A student burst into tears.” Eighteen-year old Mary Louise Smith was arrested on October 1, 1955 for refusing to give up her seat as well, but Nixon and his fellow organizers did not believe she was quite right for the campaign, either, because of her age and some issues in her background (Hare: 4). In Rosa Parks, they found their ideal candidate: a mother, gainfully employed, regular churchgoer, mature and ‘respectable', someone Martin Luther King could proclaim as “one of the finest citizens: of Montgomery (Hare: 30). She could play the role of innocent victim of injustice very well, and be the wife and mother that a white audience could identify with, even though as a civil rights movement activist and organizer, she knew from the start that she was part of a legal test case and media campaign.

To be sure, Stephen Lawrence had never planned to become a victim in this way, but civil rights and anti-racism organizers in Britain knew that they could portray him and his family as respectable, middle class people who were really not so different from the white readership of the Daily Mail, and thus generate the type of media interest and political pressure that racist attacks and murders had almost never received in Britain before—or since, for that matter. In addition, long experience also shows that the more vicious, ignorant and brutal the white racist attackers are—or can be portrayed to be—the better for the media campaign. Lawrence's case had the ideal elements of both an upstanding middle class victim and white killers, generally shown as troglodytes from some prehistoric swamp who simply felt like killing a “nigger”. No Southern, redneck sheriff or police chief in the American civil rights movement could have done the antiracist cause better service.

Prior to 1997, the Mail had shown little interest in the Lawrence case and only the announcement of a public inquiry seemed to get its attention. On February 14, 1997, however, it “ignored legal and ethical guidelines and controversially printed the names and photographs of the five white suspects”, and pronounced them guilty of murder under the blazing headline “If We Are Wrong Let Them Sue Us”. From 1997-99 it published at least 530 stories on the murder and Macpherson investigation, which some cynics always regarded as a ploy to boost circulation or the result of Stephen Lawrence's father Neville once having worked as a plasterer for Paul Dacre, the Mail's editor. In an editorial on February 15, 1999, the paper explained that it had “thought long and hard” before publicly naming the five white men, but “this was an extraordinary situation and demanded an extraordinary response” (Mclaughlin and Murji: 272-73). Many newspapers covered the Lawrence murder, but “the Daily Mail's high-profile campaign…set the agenda for the terms of the public debate about who and what was responsible for the murder.” This was unusual and unexpected because “never before had a racist murder been so graphically and repeatedly described and condemned by a right-wing newspaper in the United Kingdom” (McLaughlin: 163).

In the Stephen Lawrence case, the standard media portrayal of blacks as lazy, criminal and violent was inverted in order to present the victim and his family as clean, drug-free hard-working, educated and middle class, while his five white killers were shown as members of the unemployed underclass, living on welfare in public housing. In this way, the media could uphold the standard narrative of race and class while making Lawrence an exception to the general rule: a ‘good black' and an ‘innocent victim'. This was not the case for the other young black man attacked with him at the same time, Duwayne Brooks, described as a sort of marginal character perhaps involved with gangs and drugs, unlike Stephen Lawrence, who aspired to become an architect and join the middle class. As for Brooks, journalists generally did not approve of his “ragamuffin image and his angry denunciation of his treatment by the police” so he was “written out” of the story (McLaughlin and Murji: 276).

For both Conservatives and New Labour supporters, the media shaped Lawrence into a character they could identify with while still continuing the usual law and order themes about the dangers of the underclass—especially the black underclass. In the Thatcher era, media racism “had remained largely unchecked”, but the new socialism of Tony Blair was supposed to be different, both multicultural within a capitalist economy as well as law and order, tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. In contrast, the Thatcherite media had run openly racist stories like the Sunday Telegraph report of November 29, 1981 that “Brixton is the tip of the crisis of ethnic criminality which is not Britain's fault—except in the sense that her rulers quite unnecessarily imported it” (Holohan 2005: 101). Given this standard media narrative, had the killers not said “What? What, Nigger!” before murdering Lawrence, he probably would have “remained an anonymous victim of the kind of violence that is seen on our streets every day.” This crime was so blatantly and openly racist and the evidence so clear that he was killed because he was black, that it was impossible for even the right-wing press to put any other kind or spin or interpretation on the crime. Even so, the Anti-Racist Alliance (ARA) “felt that the lack of interest, by police, public and media, was conditioned by covert racism.” These were the kind of crimes the police usually ignored, while there was also “general apathy, if not prejudice, toward ethnic minorities in the press” (Holohan: 102).

Comparing the media image of Lawrence with that of Rolan Adams, who was murdered in the same South-East London neighborhood, is like a parallel universe. For the most part, the press and police linked his killing to drugs and a turf war between gangs, but “in truth, Adams died after twelve white men shouting ‘nigger' attacked him with a knife”, but he “never received the same kind of media rehabilitation that Lawrence did” (Holohan: 106). Adams' father tried to publicize the case with the help of the Socialist Workers Party, but “failed to generate support from the mainstream press.” He finally brought in Reverend Al Sharpton from New York, but for “a British audience he appeared too confrontational, too accusatory”, although he knew from long experience in the United States that killing of blacks was often not considered a crime at all unless someone took that type of provocative stance. Such crimes would normally go unnoticed and unnoted otherwise. For many years, anti-racism campaigners had been subjected to a “splenetic and mendacious campaign in many sectors of the British press”, and right-wing papers “favourite and incessantly reused epithet for anti-racists is the ‘loony left'” (Bonnett 1996: 4). On the other hand, the conservative media always enjoys a “black ‘quasi-rebellion' with its high news value”, but only for sensationalistic and racist purposes rather than given the rebels' critique of society serious consideration (Wykes 2001: 58).

Naturally, Nelson Mandela proved to be more successful in getting attention for the Lawrence family. At one point in the Macpherson inquiry, when the five white men were testifying, members of the Nation of Islam appeared and this caused the Daily Mail to opine on June 30, 1998 that they were “black supremacists…in many ways the mirror image of the white racism of the National Front, an equally repellent organization.” In the U.S. too, black militancy was often compared to fascism, Nazism and the Ku Klux Klan, although there was always a severe differentiation in power between the two sides. The Mail went on to claim that Louis Farrakhan had once mentioned meeting the Honorable Elijah Muhammad “on board a spacecraft”, which naturally made them all seem more than a little comical and ridiculous (Holohan: 109).

For this portrait of Lawrence to be plausible to a write audience, the other half of the equation had to show the white killers as ignorant “white trash” and hillbillies, rather the typical middle class whites. They had to be outsiders while the Lawrence's were insiders, or at least striving every day to become so, which is why the Daily Mail called them “bigoted white low-lifes”. One suspect even said on videotape that “I reckon every nigger should be chopped up, mate, and should be left with nothing but fucking stumps” (Gilborn: 125). This evidence was even more convincing because the killers did not know that the police had their houses bugged and were recording and videotaping them continually. Presumably they would have been more circumspect had they known, and not provided a show for all the television voyeurs (Cohen 2002: 197). While the campaign in support of Rolan Adams had come across as too radical, anti-Establishment and socialistic, too critical of white society and too far “past its sell-by date”, the Lawrence's could be framed in a way acceptable to Conservatives and New Labour. At the same time, the white killers had to be relegated to the dangerous underclass and thus symbolically deprived of their white status. This would excuse the “wider white society from blame”. There was a precedent for this, going all the way back to Victorian Britain (and the U.S., Canada and Australia as well) of portraying white Irish Catholics as lazy, vile, ignorant, drunken and uncivilised, even as they were used as “cheap, migrant labour” In the same way, the white killers of Stephen Lawrence were depicted as petty criminals and school drop-outs, living on welfare in public housing (Holohan: 120-21). In a word, they were losers. All five young white men were also “known to hold extremist racist views and to have a propensity for weapons.” Even so, the police were reluctant to accept that the “murder was racially motivated” and failed to follow up with witnesses and gather evidence until public pressure forced their hand. It took five years for the Lawrence family to get a public inquiry, which “became a catalyst for debate over the extent of racism in the police force, revealing widespread racism against victims from minority ethnic communities” (Abercrombie and Warde: 259). One senior police official later admitted to having suppressed evidence in the case “for fear of damaging police morale”, and evidently forgotten that suppression of evidence is itself a felony (Gilborn 2008: 122). In 1998, there were “19 tribunal actions in progress” against the London Metropolitan Police based on “allegations of institutional racism against officers from ethnic minority groups”, and the Home Office set up a National Black Police Advisory Group to combat structural racism in the police force (Abercrombie and Warde: 261).

McLaughlin and Mujri agree that the campaign ensured that the Lawrence family came across to the white public as law-abiding and religious, living in a middle-class suburb rather than the inner city. A coroner's jury had ruled the killing a racist murder and videotape of the suspects showed them to be totally unapologetically “violent, arrogant, contemptuous, racist young men” (McLaughlin and Murji: 273). Nelson Mandela's visit to Doreen and Neville Lawrence in 1993 and his public endorsement of their campaign was especially helpful to their cause in a way that no other victims of racist attacks in Britain had ever had before, although in spite of the public inquiry, which received extensive coverage from “virtually every newspaper” in Britain, “the extent to which racist violence is regarded as a persistent, constitutive feature of everyday life in Britain is still open to question” (McLaughlin and Murji: 271, 274). Among the tabloids, only the Daily Telegraph opposed the Macpherson investigation, for the bizarre reason that it might increase racial tensions, which The Guardian praised it for “confronting racist Britain”, The Independent described “a police force disgraced and a nation shamed”, and the Daily Mirror called it a “damning verdict that shames the nation”. It also offered 50,000 pounds for information leading to the conviction of the killers, although of course they were all acquitted (Gilborn :125).


Even in the wake of the Lawrence case the British media—in particular the right-wing tabloid press, continued to portray young black males in the usual way, associating them with drugs and street crime. In April 1994, The Independent described “No-Go Britain” as places ‘taxi drivers refuse to serve, where doctors are advised to seek protection before making house calls, and which the police themselves will only visit in numbers.” In these ghettos, even the “majority of law-abiding residents lock themselves in their homes in fear of a lawless minority” (Walklate 2000: 51). Another example of racism in post-Lawrence journalism was The Informer, a “World in Action” documentary produced by Granada Television in 1995, which unlike the conservative tabloids actually has “a reputation for strong and incisive journalism” (Skelton: 225). This programme told the story of “Jamaican Yardies, criminal activities and the British police” and in such a way as to “do both violence and harm to both Jamaicans in Jamaica and those of Jamaican descent in the UK, and more broadly to Black people in the UK (Skelton: 226). In the 1990s, it portrayed a netherworld of drugs, gangs and organised crime, and showed “a Yardie on a sustained spree of crack-dealing, armed robberies and shootings”, and the ghetto of Kingston, Jamaica run by “gangs linked to the main political parties”. From Kingston to London to New York, the “Jamaican criminals are pushing crack-cocaine with unprecedented violence”, which is why Scotland Yard recruited paid informers in the gangs and tried to keep them out of prison as long as they provided useful information.

In and of itself, this is a routine activity among police agencies all over the world, although the documentary pictured all Jamaicans as violent criminals and drug dealers, no different from its main character. Yet The Informer framed this in sensationalistic language, describing Yardies as “the most ruthless criminals in Britain”, and “our” police seem powerless to stop them. Even worse, they “use Yardies as informers and even thwart the investigations of other police officers.” In “The Yard's Yardie”, The Guardian also reported that Eaton Green was an informer for Scotland Yard even while he “continued his criminal activities, most infamously being part of the largest armed robbery in British history”, in Nottingham. Scotland Yard attempted to shield him from investigation by the Nottingham police, although eventually Green went to prison for six years. While there is no doubt that Green was in fact a career criminal, the images and interviews in the documentary suggested that all Black males were criminals, which remains “part of the hegemonic discourses of Black masculinity and youth” (Skelton: 236).

Green had come to Britain from the Kingston ghetto already having served six years in prison, and having been a gunman since the age of twelve. The Informer “implies that all young men from Kingston will become ‘Yardies'” like him (Skelton: 237). Green was actually played by an actor, “set against a bright white background and is preoccupied with putting on gold rings” and “loading and firing a large, powerful gun”. In other words, he is a stereotypical ‘gangsta' rather than an actual person, and the only real images of him in the documentary are from security and surveillance cameras, mixed with sounds of gunshots and the arrivals board that keeps flashing throughout the show of planes coming in from Montego Bay, Jamaica. It is a warning that “dangers are coming into our country every day and walking through the arrivals hall and onto the streets of London.” In fact, it asserts that Green brought in two other Jamaicans who were convicted of multiple murder back home, although this was probably not true at all (Skelton: 239).

In January 2003, The Spectator ran a piece on “Thoughts and Thuggery” that was little different from the usual tabloid reporting of the 1970s and 1980s. It described black Britons as “the cause of crime”, “thugs, the sons of black thugs” who were “multiplying lie flies”. It praised the late-Enoch Powell, MP, who had always opposed the immigration of blacks and Asians, as “tough on the causes or crime long before crime had been Blaired” (Chigwada-Bailey 2003: 26). Once again, there is nothing ‘postmodern' about this type of open racism: it is the thoroughly old-fashioned kind and evidently the Lawrence case had had no impact whatsoever on this conservative tabloid. On February 21, 2003, The Mirror ran an eight-page story “revealing the true face of lawless, violent Britain” and describing the country as “drowning in a tidal wave of violent crime” while in March The Sun called the situation “anarchy” that had to be “smashed with an iron fist”. Adding to the familiar chorus, the Daily Telegraph called for the right of UK citizens to carry guns and The Sunday Times called Britain “Bandit Country UK”, even though the British Crime Survey had actually shown a 36% decrease in violent crime since the mid-1990s. This was just added proof, if any further proof were necessary at this point, that the “crime” reporting in the right-wing tabloids was always based on ideology rather than evidence, and therefore quite impervious to rational argument or debate. All the reports had the usual stories of cities “under siege from gun-wielding, drug-crazed gangs fighting for turf and mowing down innocent bystanders who get caught in the crossfire.” None of this reporting has changed since the Lawrence case, and even the Prime Minister's office—always quick to spin the media—put out a statement identifying the crack epidemic as a black problem, ignoring the fact that crack has always been the “poor man's cocaine” (Chigwada-Bailey: 25).

In the wake of the Lawrence case, most crime remains intra-racial, as it always was, and still remains a very under-reported subject. Also under-reported is the association of guns, gangs, drugs and violent street crime with poverty and the fact that “all but two of the 20 London boroughs with the highest incidence of gun crime feature on the government's list of the country's most deprived areas”—and so it has always been for as long as records have been kept on this subject. After the Lawrence case, the Metropolitan Police did attempt to change some of its tactics away from the usual racial profiling, such as Operation Trident in 2003 which featured the “involvement of community leaders to provide advice and support with witness appeals”, and actually managed to increase its solution of drug -related gun crimes from 24 to 70% in a very short time. It also managed to arrest three white men “for selling guns and ammunition destined for the inner city streets to undercover policemen”. White involvement in the drug trade on many levels is also commonplace, as the police have always known, although it never receives much media attention, either. As usual, politicians of both parties continue to exploit the law and order issue for their own ends. In 2002 the shooting of two black girls caused Home Secretary David Blunkett to embark on a “misguided attack on rap music” and claim “there was a direct link between gun violence, Class A drugs and such music” (Chigwada-Bailey: 26). From the point of view of Blunkett or any other politician, of course, such forays into law and order and cultural and racial politics may not seem “misguided” at all but carefully crafted and designed to appeal to a certain segment of the white population. There is nothing new about any of this and evidence indicates a continuation of business as usual in the media and political arenas after the Lawrence case.

In recent years, it has become almost fashionable to admit to institutional racism. The head off the BBC, for example, described his organization as “hideously white” and in higher education such “admissions of guilt with regard to racism in their institutions” is nor “routine” (Law et al 2004: 3-4). In 2001, Ian Law wrote that the media in Britain still ties “crime and race” together, while there is also a new “parallel narrative of anti-racism” in which the media has become “more sensitive to racial issues in line with the national move toward cultural pluralism and structural equality” Holohan was not so optimistic, finding that the shift was not so profound after all, and the packaging of Lawrence as a “good black” and “innocent victim” was represented more a “reinforcement of the dominant structural order than a critique of it” (Holohan: 111).

The Lawrence family and the ARA knew they had to challenge the dominant narrative to have even a slight hope of achieving justice. As Doreen Lawrence put it in a BBC interview on February 16, 1999 that the media “always stereotypes black people to be aggressive—always shouting and fighting for everything”, yet her family was not like that “so they had to put a label on it” They simply “re-coded Lawrence as ‘white' in order to present a sympathetic symbol to a mass audience”, and were shown as successful individuals rather than cranky outsiders and radicals challenging the social structure. The family could be made to appear that they accepted the “Thatcherite version of the work ethic, which states that a person's success is dependent on their willingness to accept the principles of market forces.” In the media, therefore, sympathy had “more to do with the apparent middle-classness of the Lawrence's than any profound multi-cultural sensibility” (Wykes 2001: 57). ARA spokesperson Marc Wadsworth was a former television producer, who knew the dominant narrative of the white news media and how to challenge it by “saying to white society, Stephen Lawrence was like you” (Holohan 113-14). In this way, the “racist structures of the dominant social order were temporarily inverted”, by showing Lawrence as almost white and the killers as depraved members of the lower orders rather than part of a much broader and deeper phenomenon. Lawrence became “synonymous with race relations in Britain” and his death “allowed him to escape the construction as a dangerous black man” (Holohan: 116).

Only on this basis could a conservative paper like the Daily Mail take up the Lawrence case, and thereby demonstrate that it was not really so racist after all, as long as the victim was ‘respectable' and his supporters to not seem too challenging to the status quo. Like the other conservative tabloids, it could support Lawrence as an exceptional case without once mentioning “structural injustice” and sill continuing its usual “law and order” and anti-immigrant stance, as indeed it has up to the present. Other conservative-Murdoch media like The Times and The Observer followed suit, although the broadcast media and the left-liberal press such as The Guardian, The Observer and The Independent did analyze structural racism, as they always have in the past. In no sense is the British media a monolith, and in the Lawrence case “television news and documentary coverage mirrored the approach of the liberal press, questioning both the effectiveness of the legal system in this particular case and race relations in Britain”, at least from 1997 when the New Labour government opened the public inquiry. For New Labour, in fact, which was both law and order and multicultural, this was “the perfect case” (Holohan: 116-18).

Every study over the past 30 years in Britain showed that young black males were far more likely to be arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated for longer sentences than whites for the same crimes, and this is not only the case in Britain, but even more so in the United States. None of this changed suddenly and dramatically after the Lawrence case. In 2001, blacks age 10-17 were 3% of the population of England and Wales but made up 9% of the 14-17-year old arrested and 15% of the 15-17-year olds incarcerated. In a 2004 Home Office survey, “black respondents, especially younger people, rated their trust in the police and the courts less favourably than all other ethnic groups.” This study confirmed that young black males were the group that was most likely to be arrested and prosecuted, and to receive the harshest sentences (Webster: 34-36). On the other hand, black females were not treated any more harshly than white females, so was the case before Lawrence, young black males were always singled out for the toughest measures of social control. Nor had the fact that ethnic minorities were far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators, and that ‘young people, particularly from minority ethnic groups, are disproportionately victimized compared to the general adult population.” Even more than blacks, young Pakistanis and Bangladeshis suffered from “repeated racist violence” (Webster: 38). Offender populations are “disproportionately drawn from among young people not engaged in education, employment or training”, and at least 9% of this group are young males from minority ethnic communities, with boys from the Caribbean still doing “less well than their white counterparts” (Webster: 40). As in the past, aggressive policing still “criminalises the poor”, even though they “strongly share the mainstream aspirations and values of the wider society” and “if anything…over-identify with the consumerist values around them” (Webster: 41).

Needless to say, the right-wing tabloid media does not reflect any of this reality today, no more than it did in the 1970s and 1980s. Testifying before the Home Affairs Committee in the House of Commons, Professor Ben Bowling sated that racist stereotyping ran very deep in Britain, and the view of blacks “as inherently evil, bestial, inferior, unintelligent, ruled by desire and prone to violence” dated back to Elizabethan times at least. In the United States, the same racist ideology already existed in the colonial period during the 17th and 18th centuries, when slavery was first established. It long ago took on a life of its own and became part of the culture and institutions of Britain, the U.S. and other countries, and the Lawrence case did not change that. Unlike the 1970s and 1980s, the era of 24-hour news has left the media with even more times on its hands, and even in 2006 and 2007, “many still felt that such stereotypes were perpetuated by over-reporting of black criminality” (Home Affairs Committee 2007: 26). As in the past, news stories in Britain continue to “present blackness in terms of crime, sexuality or physical prowess” (Lewis 2002: 156). Coverage of crime is always “cheap and popular” in the U.S. and British media, especially in times of great competition and economic difficulties like the present (Curran 2000: 140). Given that economic conditions are even worse than they were in the 1970s and early-1980s in the Thatcher era, “the discursive project linking minority youth to wider social and moral collapse provides a knowable (visible, familiar and institutionally coded) culprit. Minority youth have always been an easy scapegoat to blame for the social and economic failures of the capitalist system, and such diversions have always been effective with the white working class and lower-middle class (Forman 2002: 52).

Today, there is a granite stone memorial to Stephen Lawrence at the bus stop where he and Duwayne Brooks were attacked seventeen years ago, and it is regularly defaced by racist graffiti. David Gilborn compared the case to Brown v. Board of Education (1954) in which the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the schools desegregated with ‘all deliberate speed”. This decision certainly made liberals and the left feel good at the time, even though decades later the public schools remained segregated in many parts of the country, due to massive resistance or white flight. Tony Blair did manage to change the law as a result of the Lawrence case and the public inquiry, and had Parliament race the Race Relations Amendment Act in November 2000. This applied “existing race equality legislation to more than 45,000 public bodies, including all state maintained schools and universities.” They all had to have mandatory written policies against racism and plans to eradicate inequality, although the public schools—which in Britain and the U.S. have badly failed minority students for decades—were “lagging behind other public authorities in implementing antiracist plans. Only 20% of public schools had complied with this mandate compared to half of other public authorities and many had claimed they were “too busy” to do so (Gilborn: 128). For the curriculum guidelines in the primary schools “racism gets only one mention” (Gearson 2003: 48). Schools “fear negative publicity if the adopt anti-racist policies” even though “racialization continues to deform the educational institutions of society” (Cole and Blair 2006: 83). According to a Church of England study, “African-Caribbean pupils of both sexes suffer disproportionate levels of permanent exclusion from school”, far higher than any other ethnic group (Gordon-Carter 2003: 137). Since the 1970s, “millions of pounds have been on training to combat racism” in British society “yet it is clear…that the training has failed”. Even after the Lawrence inquiry, the responses were still “flawed by their failure to understand the pervasive and shifting nature of racism” (Bhavnani 2001: 97, 113).

In 2009, the Home Affairs Committee reported that the police had indeed made some progress in the ten years after the Macpherson report. The Home Office declared “that 67 of Macpherson's 70 recommendations have been implemented fully or in par”, such as the Hydra Leadership Academy, the Diversity Excellence Model, the Diversity Crime Survey, the Cultural and Communities Resource Unit, and the Staff Associates Meeting Up and Interaction. It all sounded as if someone in the police forces had actually read a textbook of postmodern ‘diversity' and multiculturalism theory. Hate crimes reporting had increased to 60,000 per years, compared to 9,000 in the United States, and “the hate crime detection rate has doubled to about 44%”. They credited the new Family Officers as “key to improving homicide detection rates” in London to 90%, “the highest of any large city in the world”. Black communities also expressed the same level of confidence of the police as white communities. On the other hand, blacks were six times more likely to be stopped and searched by police in 1999 and seven times more in 2006-07. In addition, 30% of all black males were in the national DNA database compared to 10% of white and Asian males, since the police took DNA samples from everyone stopped and searched. Nor had the police in England and Wales reached their 2009 goal of 7% minority employment, but had only increased it from 2% to 4.1% in 1999-2009 (Home Affairs Committee 2008-09: 2-5). In 2003, 24% of the male prison population in Britain were blacks or other ethnic minorities and 31% of the female prison population—far out of proportion to their percentage of the total population (Marsh and Melville 2009: 85).

For the police, the case of Anthony Walker, an 18-year old college student murdered in Liverpool in July 2005, was a sign that they had improved considerably in dealing with hate crimes since the Lawrence case. Walker had been murder by two white men after they had insulted him outside a pub, saying “walk, nigger, walk”, and then following him to a park and ambushing him. They embedded a mountaineering axe so deeply in his skull that even surgeons had difficulty removing it (Crisp and Turner 2007: 162). This time, though, the two white cousins were convicted and sentenced to a minimum of 23 and 17 years imprisonment. Even so, there were “literally thousands upon thousands of incidents of ‘hate crime' that occur each year that do not make the news, ranging from assaults to criminal damage, to verbal abuse and harassment” (Ignatski 2008: 15). In 2006, for example, the Independent Police Complaint Commission found that “unwitting racism” was a factor in the police investigation into the racist murder of Christopher Alder in Hull in April 1998, especially because the police persisted in believing that he was mentally ill or on drugs even though he had been fatally injured in a racist attack (Report on Christopher Alder Case 2007: 717). Similarly, with the 1997 murder of Michael Menson in a racist attack in North London, the police at first refused to consider it as anything other than a “suicide” although eventually the three killers were “tracked down and convicted” (Childs 2001: 330).

There were at least 124 racially motivated murders in England and Wales in 1970-2003, including fifty in 1991-2003, although the right-wing press reported on very few of these except for the Lawrence case. More liberal and left-wing media like the BBC, The Guardian and The Independent continued to support the anti-racist cause, but the conservative tabloids “took a very different public stance” and “deliberately sought to distance themselves and their readerships” from any such coverage (Cottle:111, 118-20). Of course, no newspaper “will accept even a moderate charge of being biased” and will “violently” reject any charge of racism no matter what the evidence (Van Dijk 2000: 549). Indeed, the evidence from the 1970s to the present that the tabloids reveled in portraying the “racialised masculinity of the dangerous street” and the “criminal otherness” of blacks and other minorities is beyond dispute (Keith 2005: 107). Gun-related violence in the 1990s and early-2000s “reinforced racialized stereotypes of young black men, whilst reflecting real; problems that have developed in some deprived areas” (Muncie and Wilson 2004: 83). In 2000, the government's Social Exclusion Unit reported that ethnic minority communities were more likely to live in deprived areas, to be poor and unemployed, to suffer from ill health, poor education and housing as well as racial violence and harassment (Osler 2002: 65). Even today, however, “open or overt racism…consistently finds expression on the pages of the popular or tabloid press”, and these papers still “circulate and popularize openly racist ideas, but they also actively legitimize their public expression via a populist mode o address”, as every study of the British media from the 1970s to the present demonstrates. Some tabloids like the Sun and Mirror may tone their racism down slightly as they attempt to move “upmarket” or simply use inferential racism instead of the more blatant variety (Allen 2004: 145). Moreover, they can always transfer racist vocabulary and ideology to other victims besides young black males.


In the conservative press, the standard racism toward young black males always went hand-in-hand with hostility against immigrants and asylum-seekers, and in the wake of the September 11th and July 2005 attacks, on Muslims in general. Going back to 1989, “British-born Muslims first became newsworthy when a fatwah or death threat was issued against Salman Rushdie…resulting in a great deal of unfavourable coverage, portraying all Muslims as fanatics and fundamentalists” (Jewkes: 59). In the 1990s and early-2000s, the right-wing media were drawn to the “race riots” in northern towns like Bradford and Oldham, which it blamed on young males of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origins (Muncie and Wilson 2004: 84).

Naturally this type of negative coverage increased greatly after the bombing attacks. If the focus of media attacks shifted away from an old and shopworn theme of gangs, drugs and inner city minority youth, it was partially because they had found a new and more appetizing target. In the conservative tabloids, foreigners never “arrive” in Britain, they “invade”, “swamp”, “flood”, “pour in” of “take over”, like “soldiers of an enemy onslaught”. A 2002 report from the Refugee Council found that terms like “bogus” and “illegal asylum seeker”, “asylum crime” and “illegal asylum seekers are draining millions from the NHS” are all standard fare in The Star, The Sun, Daily Mail Evening Standard and Daily Express. In 2003, the Cardiff School of Journalism found that “British media coverage of asylum seekers was overwhelmingly characterized by stereotyping, exaggeration and inaccurate language” and frequent use of “threatening young male” images. Such coverage should not be at all surprising at this point, nor should the fact that it led to “increased attacks on asylum seekers and refugees.” In 2004, the British Social Attitudes Survey found a “high correlation between those holding racist attitudes and those who were hostile to immigration”, and that the discourse of the media and politicians had led to “greater hostility towards all those from minority ethnic communities and heightened racial tensions” (Bhavnani and Mirza 2005: 39). As the War on Terror intensified “British broadsheet newspapers predominately reframe[d] Muslim cultural difference as cultural deviance and, increasingly it seems, as cultural threat” (Richardson 2004: 232). Although the “stereotype linking black skin may not be as obvious in the contemporary news accounts as it was in the 1980s” the ideology and racist discourse still exist and can always be deployed against a wide variety of ‘enemies' with only minor tactical adjustments (Wykes 2003: 119).

Anecdotal evidence also indicates the continuation of widespread racist attitudes and all levels of British society, which the Lawrence case did nothing to alter. In 2004, a member of royalty at eating in a New York restaurant told a group of African-Americans that they should all “go back to the colonies”, although she denied that it was intended as a racist comment (Bhavnani and Mirza: 41). That same year, a football commentator, unaware that the microphone was still on, was forced to resign after calling a black footballer “an ugly, lazy nigger”. He apologized saying “I am an idiot, but I am not a racist”, as though he had meant the word “nigger” only ‘in the best sense of the term', as Richard Nixon used to say. In British sport, of course, athletes are far more likely to be accepted if they downplay and finesse all questions of racism and make no mention of their colour (Carrington 2000: 143). According to a Daily Express article in January 2004 a media presenter asserted that Arabs had “contributed nothing to civilization” and “Arab countries are not exactly shining examples of civilization are they?” which meant that it did not matter if they were all destroyed in the War on Terror (Bhavnani and Mirza: 42). Two conservative commentators explained to The Observer in April 2004 that “we prefer our own kind” and that those who were “visibly different” were a drain on society and the welfare state (Bhavnani and Mirza: 45). None of these remarks exactly represent a new or ‘postmodern' version of racism, although the occasional apologies of those caught in the act do indicate a certain sense that they are less acceptable in an age of supposed ‘diversity' and ‘multiculturalism' than they might have been forty or fifty years ago. Even those with the most racist of views in private will sometimes pay lip service to tolerance, if only for public relations purposes. Nevertheless, when considered cumulatively, all of this is evidence that “older, more straightforwardly xenophobic and racist discourses are still in play” (McLaughlin and Murji: 276).

Politicians are well aware that there is still considerable racism and anti-immigrant sentiment in the media and public at large, and still pander to it as they did in the past. In 2004, the Home Secretary stated that immigrants and asylum-seekers would have to conform to “British values” and “British norms”, which he conveniently left undefined. After the London bombings July 2005, the Conservative Shadow Home Secretary David Davis blamed the attacks on “politically correct anti-racism which has resulted in allowing people of different cultures to settle in without integrating” (Bhavnani and Mirza: 47). In picking up on such official and semi-official remarks, “the media seek to polarise or understanding with the ‘clashes of civilisations', the ‘evil' Islamic fundamentalists, the West versus the rest, which place the two sides in opposition with each other” (Bhavnani and Mirza: 48). Crime in Britain has always been blamed on outsiders, foreigners and evil alien influences, going back to the 19th Century at least, although it has always been socially constructed (Phillips and Bowling 2007: 429-30).


British racism is evident in right-wing media coverage of blacks, immigrants, Muslims and asylum seekers who are portrayed are a threat to the country and its way of life. They do this to appeal to and manipulate the majority of whites who hold racist or anti-immigrant views, as do politicians in both the New Labour and Conservative Parties. In addition, there is considerable structural racism and discrimination in jobs, housing and employment, as well as institutional racism within the police forces, as documented in both the Lord Scarman and Lord Macpherson investigations. Blacks, immigrants and other minorities are far more likely to be the victims of crime than whites, and minority criminals are most likely to choose their victims among their own minority groups. The evidence that proves this is absolutely overwhelming and goes back decades, although the mass media does not cover the story that way, only young black males involved in gangs, drugs and street crime, preying on ‘innocent' white victims. Only very rarely does it show blacks and other minorities as victims of crime, especially of racist assaults or murders. In this respect, the Stephen Lawrence case was an exception, as was the Daily Mail's sympathetic coverage of his case, at least after the New Labour government announced a public inquiry in 1997 if not when the actual killing took place four years earlier.

Unlike the other young black man attacked, Duwayne Brooks, Lawrence and his family could be portrayed as ‘respectable victims': educated, church-going, middle class or aspiring to be, not ‘radical' or militant', always knocking the System and the Establishment. Lawrence had almost earned the right to be an honorary white person, at least posthumously, and so he was described in the conservative tabloids. His case was exceptional, however, and for the most part they continued their racist, law and order stories about young black males, as well as immigrants in general. After September 11, 2001 and the London bombings of July 2005, of course, a whole new universe of targets opened up for the media, to which the same racist and anti-immigrant ideology and stereotypes could easily be transferred, along with the familiar metaphors of the ‘enemy within'.

None of this is particularly new or even particularly ‘postmodern', and would have been commonplace fifty of a hundred years ago. Postmodern racism hides behind a vocabulary picked up from academia and the liberal-left media and covers itself with a smokescreen of buzzwords about ‘multiculturalism' and ‘diversity', but the reality on the ground is still the same. To be sure, the white men who murdered Stephen Lawrence were not that sophisticated: calling a black man a “nigger” and then killing him falls into the category of plain, old-fashioned 19th Century-style racism, as does much of the media coverage of black criminality. Britain's racism can be traced back to the distant past of slavery and colonialism, and the various ideologies, stereotypes and racist practices developed in that period long ago became part of British society and institutions. Within the old Empire, white settler states and Dominions like Canada, Australia, New Zealand—and even the United States—had a far more privileged status and were granted self-government long before India or other colonies in Asia, Africa or the West Indies. There is no other way to explain this except that those who ran the British government of the time simply assumed that white persons simply had greater capacities and capabilities than the ‘Others' and were probably naturally superior. Racism was part of the structure of the entire Empire, and by no means only the British Empire, and remained in place long after the Empire ceased to exist. At no time were immigrants from the West Indies of other nonwhite areas particularly welcome or well-received, and their portrayal in the British media has almost always been negative—often extremely negative. Britain has been more hospitable to white immigrants, of course, but that should come as no surprise, and nor is it any different from Canada, Australia and the United States in that respect.

Finally, it would be interesting to learn just how much of British racist media reporting is picked up from the United States versus the home-grown variety. In the U.S. the media has always portrayed blacks as dirty, lazy, violent, criminal, dishonest and promiscuous for as long as there has been a media to describe anything. These racial stereotypes were already commonplace in the colonial period. They were in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and—it goes without saying—South Africa. To be sure, the origins of American racism can be traced back to slavery and genocidal wars against the indigenous population that Britain itself never had, and the same racist ideologies were also a template that could be transferred to immigrants from Asia and Latin America or to Muslims after September 11, 2001.

As in Britain, racism, discrimination and ghettoization have long been part of the social fabric and institutions of country, including the media and police. In recent years, however, as the descendants of Asian and Latin American immigrants assimilate and gradually begin to join the middle class, they then become honorary white persons as well, and the same process has been happening in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This is far more difficult for blacks, though, which is why the Lawrence case is so unusual and atypical—first in showing blacks as victims at all, and then in a sympathetic light. It would almost certainly not have happened had the Lawrence family not had the support of a very adept public relations expert and spokesperson, who understood the history and the rules of the game as described above and how to manipulate the system effectively. They did a brilliant job in focusing attention on Lawrence and his family (‘people just like us') finally bringing about a public inquiry, although as in the past this has not really changed the structural racism in British media, society and the police.

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Racism in Great Britain. (2017, Jun 26). Retrieved September 25, 2023 , from

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