Stephen Lawrence was a young man murdered by rascists. We’ve known this for 18 years. Many of us have looked at the Lawrence family and been inspired by their dignity in the face of such horror – again and again and again.
It seems that we should reflect on rascism as a result of the court case and the conviction of two of up to six people responsible for Stephen’s murder.
Thanks to the dedication of his mother and his father, Stephen’s death has impacted upon the Metropolitan Police (and rightly so) and it’s certainly made me think about how rascism can creep up on you. Watching the BBC’s Panorama revealed a little of that in the behaviour of investigating officers immediately following Stephen’s death. What initial actions would have been taken if a white youth had been stabbed to death?
I, for one, am very glad that some members of that awful gang have been convicted and I hope a situation arises when others can face the same justice. However, let’s face it, their lives have been haunted by Stephen and his family these past 18 years. And that’s not going to end any time soon. Good.
But are we really any less rascist today? Or is it simply more hidden? Or simply directed elsewhere?
As a journalist, I’ve encountered rascism on numerous occasions. Often I’ve been shocked and saddened. But equally I’ve encountered such sentiments from acquaintances and that’s equally shocking. I try so hard not to be rascist – but it would be naive of me to think that I’m totally free of it.
I have many friends whose skin colour is different than mine, whose nationality is different to mine and whose culture and belief system is different. I adore all of those friends and feel enriched by them. A good friend of mine who is French recently reminded me how good our care system for the elderly is here compared with France – it was a sobering reminder of how we stack up against other countries.
But there are a few incidents I recall which I have found shameful. One was many years ago when a friend of mine (I won’t be too specific) lived in the East End of London. On visits, if you went out into the garden there was a delicious smell of curry cooking, of spices and exotic aromas. Many people living in that area were (or their parents, grandparents) from Asia. I also remember going on a bus with that friend and we were the only white faces on board and I did find it strange. It gave me a brief insight into what it must be like to be ‘the only black in the white village’.
But the most shocking thing about this was that this friend’s brother was so rascist as to be unbelievable. Always using rude words about people of colour and talking about what he’d like to do to them. Soon after my friendship ended, this brother became (yes you’ve guessed it) an officer in the Met. I’ve often worried about someone who was so meek on the outside but so rascist on the inside, could get into a police force. This all took place a couple of years after Stephen Lawrence’s death. So when the Met was found to be institutionally rascist – I wasn’t surprised.
More recently though, another friend went through a bad time which meant he had to claim benefits for a while. He had real trouble getting it sorted, while at the same time having a family to feed. He shouted out loud about it and I understood. It was a difficult financial time.
And then he went on to say something about ‘if his skin had been a different colour, he’d wouldn’t have had this trouble’ and ‘if he’d come from Eastern Europe, he’d have been given money hand over fist’. He lost me at these comments, I’m afraid. All of my sympathy drained away. Because these broad sweeping statements are simply not true, apart from being offensive to me.
In Swindon we do have an influx of people from Eastern Europe at the moment – often from Poland. They’ve come into the more middle class area of West Swindon. But the reality is that a large number of people from Poland have come here for many, many years – they’ve just lived in different areas of the town. We also have people coming from Afghanistan, Iran and many other places. Welcome, I say. All of these people enrich our town, hardly any of them are lazy, unwilling to work – in fact often the opposite.
The lesson of Stephen Lawrence for me is that rascism is still there – just below the surface and we must destroy it, one tiny drop at a time.