I welcome the imminent appointment of Doreen Lawrence to the House of Lords. She has fought bravely for justice for her murdered son and supported many campaigns for race equality for 20 years. She will be an asset to the Upper House and will hopefully continue to speak up on the issues.
Doreen is also just one of countless bereaved mothers who have lost their sons, whether that be to racist attacks or deaths in custody. I hope in Doreen’s maiden speech she will say that she represents the many others who we do not see in our newspapers and on our TV but who nevertheless deserve justice and truth just as she does.
Just as importantly I sincerely hope she fights for the return of the Stephen Lawrence Agenda, the need for ‘race’ to be placed back on the political agenda and for the focus on institutional racism and cultural change across Britain’s public services and private businesses too.
Doreen, Neville, and many anti-racist campaigners made history by creating a movement to bring Stephen’s killers to book but the case came to represent much more than justice for Stephen, his murder symbolised what was wrong with Britain; the everyday conscious and unconscious racism that held Black communities down, denied them equal treatment, equal opportunities and at times valued Black life as being worth less than a White life.
The 70 recommendations of the Sir William Macpherson public inquiry began to try and unpick this and suggest solutions. It didn’t go as far as it could but many campaigners were nevertheless pleased at the progress the inquiry report did make and it led to the groundbreaking Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 which enshrined the ‘Lawrence Agenda’ in law and was supplemented with a range of departmental advisory groups in Whitehall and Scotland Yard.
However the Lawrence Agenda was quietly ditched around 2005 when, aided by former Commission for Racial Equality chairman Trevor Phillips, an agenda of merging equalities strands together took hold. The abolition of the CRE and formation of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the scrapping of Governmental working groups effectively declared that the problem of endemic racism in society solved, that all 70 recommendations were fulfilled and that it was time to move on from race equality.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. Equality Impact Assessments did not bring about equal access to services, equalities workforce monitoring did not prevent Black workers being disproportionately dismissed or inequalities in unemployment growing, and neither did police independent advisory groups tackle rising disproportionately in stop and searches or continuing Black deaths in custody.
Policy and procedures improved but racism remained stubbornly unchanged. We knew more about what was going on but were still a long way off changing the outcomes. Yet Labour, in the second half of their time in office, effectively declared themselves satisfied with their new tickboxes and tables and saw no need to build on the 2000 Act with new legislation or action plans to deal with the reality of discrimination revealed by the data.
Professor Gus John, speaking at a recent Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrat race equality conference, scorned the “canonisation” of Doreen Lawrence and the separation of Doreen the Icon from the grassroots movement for justice that helped her campaign for justice for her son. After the award of various gongs, numerous honorary doctorates and now a Lordship that canonisation is now complete.
In fairness Doreen has spoken frequently of the need for ‘race’ to be put back on the political agenda but her voice has only resonated in the media when she speaks for her own son. The political leaders who gathered at the 20th Anniversary church service earlier this year to remember Stephen’s murder all mouthed platitudes about ‘more yet to do’ safe in the knowledge the pressure did not exist to make them to honour their words.
Doreen, despite her best efforts, had been effectively separated from campaigners for justice in the eyes of the establishment; there was Doreen and then there was everyone else. The families of Sean Rigg, Christopher Alder, Roger Sylvester, Ricky Bishop, Kingsley Burrell and many others; they were over there and Doreen was over here.
The issues of hugely disproportionate Black unemployment, youth-on-youth murders, mental health and prison deaths, and immigration and asylum were all subjects that could have easily been part of a Lawrence 2.0 public inquiry but instead they were ignored as attention refocused on the specific question of prosecuting Stephen’s killers and investigating whether police attempted to smear the Lawrence family two decades ago.
I recently blogged that the time was right for a new Stephen Lawrence public inquiry, not limited to smears but reassessing how far Britain had come since the last inquiry. An investigation into the state of race inequality today, and what new strategies were required to tackle it, was needed. In short, the revisiting of the Stephen Lawrence Agenda.
These issues are bigger than any individual regardless of their symbolic status. Whether Doreen has any success in reviving these questions in the Lords remains to be seen. I suspect she will continue to be revered as a brave mother who never gave up hope of bringing her son’s killers to book and the woman who changed Britain.
The reality is that she has succeeded only in the latter not the former. The state of race relations may have changed over the past twenty years, more as a result of the evolution of multiculturalism, but as studies show the state of race inequality in terms of outcomes remains extremely dire for Black Britain today. Only revisiting the Stephen Lawrence Agenda, as opposed to remembering Stephen Lawrence or honouring his brave mother, will make progress.
In that sense while I welcome Doreen’s new peership if anyone will make an impact in reviving this agenda is it Professor John. If he was a Lord he would stand up for the Stephen Lawrence Agenda and articulate the arguments with intellectual force, passion and a conscious spirit in a way that would shake the Upper House to its’ foundations. He would not invite sympathy for himself but would instead make demands that are impossible to refute.
Labour described Doreen today as a heroine of modern Britain. In a way she is, but so is every Black person in Britain who fights against racism and injustice. I wish Doreen well and I’m sure she will make pertinent interventions that do indeed speak for the struggle that Black Britain faces. But for these sentiments to reverberate most effectively across Westminster and society we need a movement to demand change and voices who can express this without fear or favour.
By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway