Theresa May announced that the 22nd April would be marked every year as Stephen Lawrence day in honour of the murdered teenager. There were some who felt that this was merely a cynical gesture by a PM under pressure. A sop to distract us from the horrific (and entirely predictable) effects of her hostile environment policies. I want to suggest that the truth might be worse than that. I think she might have been genuine.
There is a tendency to divide racism into two sorts. One is the wrong kind. It uses the N-word unironically and outside of hip hop, it sieg heils in public and stabs black teenagers to death at bus stops.
The right kind is much more polite. The right kind would never identify itself as such. The right kind of racism would never dream of using a racial epithet. But it requires constant performative displays of British Muslim’s loyalty. In France it bans the Burka, whereas in England it frets vocally about the rights of Muslim women, at the same time it slashes funding for refuge centres again and again. The right kind might never use a racial epithet but it does assume that brown people are likely to be illegal immigrants and will send vans to BME areas to deliver just this message. The good racism doesn’t stab anyone, but it does deport them, and intern them in detention centres. It deports now, and only allows appeals later. It destroys landing cards. It legislates that teachers, doctors and landlords must continually survey their students, patients and tenants in case any of them are an illegal immigrant. It doesn’t specify they have to target non-white people, and those with a foreign accent but well, it is the most efficient way.
The thing about the right kind of racism is that both relies upon and fuels the wrong kind.
It relies upon the wrong kind of racism to provide an alibi, a permanent exculpatory comparison. Racism just means the wrong kind. How dare you accuse the proponent of the right kind, of racism?
We can all agree that the wrong kind of racism is bad. It’s repugnant. People from across the political spectrum and every parliamentary party can unite to condemn it as such. Thus Richard Littlejohn can engage in performative outrage at being associated with the “knuckle-scraping scum” of the BNP, and still have published a book like Hell in a Handcart, a “400 page recruiting manual for the British National Party”. It allows the Daily Mail to proudly campaign for justice for the Lawrence family on the one hand, and continually fearmonger about Muslims, migrants and Ed Miliband’s foreign father, on the other.
More importantly, it allows a politician who pioneered the hostile environment, to declare her admiration for Doreen Lawrence and dedicate a day of remembrance to her son. Proponents of the right type may be cynical but I think are also often blind to the link between the right and the wrong. While at the Home Office Theresa May was more vocal on the issue disproportionality in stop and search than any of the Home Secretaries I remember from my lifetime. Part of this was tied to an on-going conflict with the police but in part I think she was genuine. Eye-wateringly disproportionate stop and search figures came to be seen as the bad kind of racism.
One effect of the Lawrence case and the Macpherson inquiry was that forced the country, and parties of all political stripes to accept that racism was a live issue in the police. The riots in 2011 reinforced the idea that the mistrust and resentment engendered had serious effects not just on communities affected but on the ability of the police to carry out their duties. So clear had this lesson become, that eventually even a Conservative Home Secretary had to acknowledge it.
But of course, the right kind of racism doesn’t only rely on wrong kind. It fuels it. The constant drip feed of stories and editorials, and laws and edicts that call into question the position of minorities in the country means people start to view them as an unwelcome intrusion. Continually dehumanising migrants in legislation and print tends to reduce the extent to which people view them as humans. So they shout racist names in the street, vote for racist parties and stab people.
And those in a position to do something about this, the people who print the headlines and make the laws well of course this is nothing to do with them. This is (the wrong type) of racism. They don’t do that, they only do the right type, and so they do nothing.