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PERSONALIZED RACISM – on the poverty of diverse life

The police and the media did everything they could to make us believe that last year’s Brixton, Brick Lane and Soho bombs were the work of one lonely madman. Their efforts were more than just an improvised attempt to contain local fury after the Brixton attack (although that’s certainly one thing they were): the ‘deranged loner’ fantasy is still being promoted long after the second and third explosions eliminated any doubt about the bomber’s motive.
The treatment of ‘right wing’ violence as a psychological symptom rather than a political problem is no accident, it’s a new ‘multi-agency’ policy. Five or ten years ago racism was Britain’s dirty secret, only mentioned publicly at all when forced onto the agenda by a riot or a sensationally brutal murder. Now everything seems to have changed: the prime minister delivers homilies on the subject at every opportunity, and the word is all over all the front pages. But this sudden eagerness to ‘talk about it’ has an important condition attached: acceptance that ‘it’ is something wrong with individuals, a personal failing shared by millions of people. The portrayal of ‘racism’ as sin or sickness (Tony Blair likes to call it a ‘disease’) leaves those encountering it in their everyday lives helpless and isolated. The threat appears to be eternal and inescapable: instead of planning retaliation, ‘victims’ are made to feel reliant on the state for protection, or to look for symptoms of the ‘evil’ deep inside themselves.

The ‘Stephen Lawrence Report’ by deporting judge Sir Willam MacPherson of Cluny made a special contribution to this campaign. For the first time, ‘institutional racism’ is defined as a strictly personal problem. When the term ‘institutional racism’ was first used by Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers it referred to the systematically racist policies of a state apparatus. MacPherson, however, takes pains to emphasise that in this case ‘the contrary is true’. Rather, it is a question of unwitting bigotry in the ‘words and actions of officers acting together’, a matter of simple pig-ignorance, to be cured by hours of quasi-therapeutic training.
What this definition means in pratical terms is revealed in the recommendations, the only part of the report to be published in full in most newspapers and discussed in detail on television.
Recommendation 1 expresses the aim of the inquiry as clearly as anyone could wish. The first ‘Ministerial Priority’ is:
‘To increase trust and confidence in policing amongst ethnic minorities’.
Not to change what the police do, then, but what ‘minority ethnic individuals’ think. The problem is not the institution, but its victims’ and adversaries’ perception of it. This focus on PR is confirmed a little further on in recommendation 2 (v.): ‘performance indicators’ should be established ‘in relation to…achieving equal satisfaction levels across all ethnic groups in public satisfaction surveys.’
When MacPherson eventually gets around to talking about change within the police, what he proposes getting rid of is ‘racial prejudice’: not an established policy, but a defect in officers’ thinking. This explains his enthusiasm for training the police in ‘racism awareness and valuing cultural diversity’ (a phrase which appears five times in half a page), as if everything would be fine if unwittingly bad cops were only taught to see the error of their ways, led out of the darkness by ‘community leaders’ and professional mediators.
The serious side of this attitude is revealed by the report’s complete failure to deal with physical examples of institutional racism which can’t be reduced to mental prejudice. The number of black people who die in police custody or while being ‘restrained’ is a fact, regardless of speculation about what was going on in the minds of the officers doing the killing. This point was made during the inquiry, backed up with detailed evidence, by Movement For Justice and others. Yet MacPherson has absolutely nothing to say about it. Nor is it simply a question of deaths in custody, although there were 65 of these last year, more than one each week. Although it’s a reality for everyone (whether aware of it or not) and the factor of race cannot be separated from that of class, the threat of police violence weighs more heavily on black and Asian youth than, for example, for white professional adults, or even for their own children. This difference in experiences is so widespread that it can only be understood as systematic: the idea of an endless series of coincidences between unrelated cases of ‘unwitting prejudice’ is absurd. Yet here again, the report has nothing to say.
It seems the only examples of racism in institutions eligible for discussion are those to do with lapses, omissions, the system’s failure to work properly. Aggression following the letter and spirit of institutional policy is blithely ignored. For example, one of the most obvious links between standard police practice and prosaic, non-tragic everyday racism lies in the power to stop and search, which requires officers to use their ‘discretion and experience’ in selecting potential criminals, with well known results. Yet MacPherson specifically recommends that the stop and search powers ‘under the current legislation are required for the prevention and detection of crime and should remain unchanged.’ (Recommendation 60). Apparently the fact that this is a matter of policy rather than personal mental feebleness puts it outside the scope of an anti-racist inquiry.
The part of the report headed ‘definition of a racist incident’ is perhaps the clearest and most sinister example of what the new institutional ‘openness’ means in reality. Recommendation 12 reads:
‘A racist incident is any incident which is defined as racist by the victim or any other person’.
This definition tries to establish that the word ‘racism’ has no particular meaning: it means whatever anyone wants it to mean. On this basis, the full force of ‘anti-racist’ law can be used against troublemakers of whatever race. Anyone who doubts that this will happen should take note that it has already begun, before MacPherson’s recommendations have even become law. In July this year Andrew Wilson, a 37-year old black man, was fined £150 by Ipswich Crown Court for ‘racially aggravated abuse’, after allegedly calling a group of police officers ‘white trash’. According to the prosecution, the cops found Wilson sitting by the side of the road on a box containing a television, which he explained he was moving from a friend’s house. While the officers ‘conducted a check’, (as the court was euphemistically told), Wilson is supposed to have shouted: ‘You white boys, you arrest black people for anything, you’re only doing this because I’m a fucking nigger. Leave me alone, you fucking white trash, leave my black ass alone’. Not surprisingly, Wilson denies making this speech, which sounds like it comes from a ‘70s blaxploitation film, or a policeman’s incident report. But even supposing he did, it’s grotesque to put one man’s angry outburst at others with physical and legal power over him on the same level as, for instance, fascist lynchings in East London or video ambushes by police in Brixton. Without reference to relations of (social, economic and legal) power between the subjects involved, ‘racist incident’ is an empty concept, to be manipulated at the authorities’ convenience. It should also be remembered that ‘anti-racist’ legislation has always been used to reinforce white power in Britain. The first person to be prosectuted under the Race Relations Act (whch still doesn’t apply to the police) was black activist Michael X.
Once we see how a crackdown on ‘racism’ is likely to be applied, the effect of some of MacPherson’s ‘reforms’ becomes all too clear. Recommendation 38 calls for the abolition of the principle of double jeopardy, according to which a person can never be tried again for something s/he was acquitted of once. This would make it possible to bring Stephen Lawrence’s killers back to court, it’s argued. Yet Dobson, Norris, Knight and the Acourts aren’t free today because of the double jeopardy rule, but because the crime was never investigated properly in the first place. New evidence didn’t emerge after the trial, the facts were known and ignored all along. If double jeopardy is abolished, it won’t only be for racial crimes: the police and the CPS will be able to keep prosecuting any innocent person unitl they get the result they want.
Recommendation 39 would allow prosecution for ‘racist language and behaviour’ or possession of offensive weapons ‘otherwise than in a public place’. Two new categories of offence which reveals that the new legal meanings of ‘racism’ and violence have nothing to do with these things’ effects on other people’s lives: they represent moral, psychological evil, with no need of any victim. A crime without a victim, committed ‘otherwise than in public’, can only be detected if the private place where it happened was already being watched from inside beforehand. The police, therefore, are being invited to use their ‘discretion’ to select, enter and place under surveillance potentially criminal households, in which ‘offensive’ kitchen knives might be hidden or the words ‘white trash’ breathed.

Sooner or later, the notion that ‘racism’ is individual sin or sickness, even in its institutional form, is likely to be enshrined in law. This definition is more than just a wretched misunderstanding of what’s at stake: it allows harsh ‘anti-racist’ laws to be used at the authorities’ discretion against anyone perceived as a threat, as it ignores the relations of power in which racial ‘prejudice’ is institutionalised. This cynical trick will have serious practical consequences, but it will come as a surprise only to those who look to the state to represent them and judges (retired or otherwise) to solve their problems. For everyone else, it confirms what we already knew: the legal system can’t be forced to represent us, and it won’t ‘correct’ its own shortcomings. Directing the crackdown on individual racists exclusively against white police and fascists wouldn’t have solved the problem; neither would a call for more ‘radical’ institutional reforms. MacPherson’s inquiry couldn’t recognise the source of ‘racist incidents’, as doing so would have cast doubt on the legitimacy of the institutions it represents. Not their good intentions or professional competence or appreciation of cultural diversity, but their very reasons for existing. The police and the courts administer racism not when they’re corrupt or incompetent, but when they’re doing their job properly.
This is why ‘institutional racism’ can only be fought effectively by those who experience its effects directly, people whom the judicial system seeks to control rather than to represent. We who stand to gain from the withering of the state apparatus have no option but to act directly and locally to oppose its power. A first step is to intervene again and again to stop the police trying to control our movement through tactics like Stop & Search, video stalking and common, old-fashioned assault. Another involves information-sharing and counter-observation: working with other witnesses to defeat spurious charges against ‘troublemakers’ in court (or in work, education etc.) Another is to refuse the spurious agenda of ‘social issues’ imposed through the media, eg. the idea that London faces a sudden crime wave created by ‘Yardie’ drug dealers.
These methods can only succeed in sapping hostile institutions’ authority if they’re applied consistently and collectively by thousands of people. Anger let out privately, however lucid, has the same effect as consent to things the way they are. A ruling class aware of the threat posed by autonomous action knows how to take full advantage of the fantasy that ‘racism’ is eternal, like ‘evil’ or disease.

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