Toward the end of April 2013, the British press promoted the 20th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s murder, and examined its legacy on the British criminal system. Here are some of my own thoughts on the matter.
20 years on from the racially motivated murder of British teenager Stephen Lawrence, we seem more reluctant than ever to actually call the acts of verbal or physical violence towards black and Asian bodies “racist”. However, the increased racialised language within political debates and the media have provided a vocabulary for the public to condemn black and Asian Brits themselves as racist. Think for example, of the amount of effort it took to punish footballer John Terry for the racially motivated abuse of fellow footballer Anton Ferdinand, compared to how easily disciplinary action was issued to Rio Ferdinand for expressing an opinion on the case involving his younger brother. Arguably, Terry’s professional wrist-slap was more of an opportunity for the Football Association to make an example out of him and show that they were prepared to take accusations of racism seriously.
Perhaps more interesting is the way we as a society deal with violence between people of different ethnic backgrounds in the wake of the long-awaited conviction of Stephen’s murderers on the anniversary of his death. Take the recent tragic example of Aaron Dugmore, a nine year old from Erdington, Birmingham who committed suicide after being bullied by three classmates (who happen to be Asian), allegedly because he was white. West Midlands Police – who are investigating Aaron’s death – have refused to comment on the bullying allegations. Nonetheless, his death in February this year prompted a neo-Nazi inspired protest outside his school by the so-called “Infidels of Britain” (IoB), who passed out leaflets – which declare the taunting of Aaron as racist – and made flat-palmed salutes while holding a flag reading “White Pride Worldwide.”
In this article by the Birmingham Mail, there are both explicit and implicit references made insinuating the young boy’s bullies were racist. The article quotes the leaflets, which stated: “Aaron, aged nine, was bullied to death for being white.” Stories published for nation-wide media outlets such as The Daily Mail and The Sun have also followed this rhetoric. While many outlets are careful with how they phrase their headlines – for instance The Sun writes: ‘”bullied to death for being white”’ in quotation marks – the overall message that his bullies are therefore racist endures linguistic distortions. Like The Sun, The Daily Mail uses quotation marks in making this assertion, in addition to inflammatory quotes reportedly from the bullies such as “all white people should be dead.” Like IoB, the British National Party (BNP) have been able to exploit this tragic moment for their own anti-immigration rhetoric via their website, claiming that: ‘[L]ocal Councillors and police are quick to act if a black or Pakistani child says they are suffering from racist bullying’ while arguing the head teacher of Aaron’s school ‘is most likely an anti white scum bag.’
For their part, Aaron’s parents have been very vocal about the circumstances surrounding their son’s death, providing multiple interviews to the media, including one televised interview on ITV News in February, where is mother – Kelly-Marie Dugmore – asserts that he was bullied so severely that his character changed dramatically before his death. While the parents of Aaron neither supported nor had previous knowledge of the IoB protest, they indicated they agreed with the sentiments expressed by the demonstrators, with the Birmingham News article saying of Ms. Dugmore: “Her son had been the victim of racist taunts before his death,” and quoting her: “For him to have been bullied because of the colour of his skin makes me feel sick to my stomach.”
The demonstrators (one of them 24 year old Darren Clifft) – who align themselves with Anders Behring Breivik, the Ku Klux Klan and the English Defence League – are not referred to as racist once throughout the article. Although they are called “neo-Nazis” by the article and “extremists” by Labour MP Jack Dromey, no one in this version of events calls them, their politics or their intentions racist. Instead, these protestors are said to be “within their rights to attend and carry out a peaceful protest” regardless of the political violence inherent in their message, while three Asian children on the other hand are branded “racist”. The “Calling us racist means you are racist!” trope is thrown out quite a bit – usually by white individuals – in discussions of everyday racial discrimination and that is not what I intend to instigate here. However, even if Aaron’s classmates did make his life so miserable he was caused to end it, based on his being white, let us momentarily scrape the surface on power structures and crime in the UK before we begin condemning children in this way.
The use of the term “racist” here is problematic because clearly there is some discomfort calling someone “racist” if there are no obvious material consequences to the actions or words. Put another way, the three demonstrators and their “White Pride Worldwide” flag could be considered to be pretty harmless until they actually physically hurt someone, despite their endorsement of the fatal actions of others (such as the KKK and Breivik). On the other hand, as shown above multiple reporters, IoB and BNP alike proudly assert these bullies are anti-white racists, because their words led to a death.
So how did our rationalisations and use of racially charged language get us to this point?
As claimed by six prominent members of the black British community in this article by The Guardian – which marks the anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s death in April 1993 – his murder was a defining moment in the British criminal justice system. Five years later a public inquiry revealed a significant level of explicit bigotry as well as institutional racism and is therefore considered a pivotal social moment in which the British public were forced to become more comfortable with discussing race and racism.
Stephen was 18 years old when a (white) gang in southeast London stabbed him to death on 22nd April in 1993. Witnesses stated that the gang were chanting racist slogans prior to and throughout the attack. Five young men were arrested for his murder, however no one was convicted. Due to a campaign initiated to re-open the case by Stephen’s parents – Doreen and Neville – a public inquiry was held by Sir William Macpherson, who concluded that the Metropolitan Police Service were “institutionally racist” in 1998. Subsequently, in 2011, Gary Dobson and David Norris (who were two of the original suspects) stood trial with new evidence and were eventually found guilty and given life sentences for the murder last year.
While this conviction is a positive outcome – especially considering the Lawrence family finally have some level of closure on this horrific phase of their lives – one cannot marvel at the perversity that it took almost 20 years to close this case. After the death of little Aaron Dugmore, it has taken only a few weeks to regard his tormentors as racist. To some it might seem improper to compare these two cases, which feature children who apparently used verbal violence on one hand, and young men who used physical violence on the other. However, violent words and violent actions go hand in hand, and if we have truly learned from Stephen’s death and fully comprehend the meaning of institutional racism, then we need to think more clearly about when and how we use the term racist itself.
Racism is not merely implied by name calling or even bullying on the basis of skin colour. It is about the power dynamics between groups, i.e. those who are racialised as dominant or subordinate accordingly. Consequently, racism is about the political power attributed to certain messages. European imperialists racialised Africans as “black” in order to dehumanise and enslave them as well as socially construct whiteness as civilised and thus deserving of political and socio-economic power. This is the very basis of the white supremacy preached by the Infidels of Britain and the KKK. It is also the basis upon which racist institutions are able to thrive thus, murders of black and brown individuals are viewed as undeserving of punishment, while the imprisonment of minority individuals goes unquestioned. In 2010, the How Fair is Britain Report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission revealed that 15 per cent of all “stop and searchers” in the period 2008 and 2009, were carried out on black individuals, despite people self-identifying as “black” making up just 2-3 per cent of the total population in the UK. The report claimed that members of other minority groups had been targeted in the same manner.
Furthermore, the very power to call certain groups racist but not others (in this case three school children and white supremacists respectively) illustrates institutional and structural racism at work. For instance, the above article seems devoid of the possibility that threatening families of Asian descent with a sign reading “White Pride Worldwide” is itself a form of racist bullying. In this scenario, these white men have the right to protest and speak their minds, as long as they do not physically touch anyone. For almost 20 years Dobson and Norris benefitted from a system that boasts citizens are always innocent until proven guilty. So, why have three children been judged without any firm proof by the British media as well as members of their own local community?
Let us learn what racism is and how it is functioning around us; perhaps we will save more lives that way.