In the second of two articles, David Shepherd responds to Will Jones’ argument in the previous post:
For many people in the UK, any doubts about the existence of systemic racism were dispelled when, in 1999, after a two-year public inquiry, the highly respected retired High Court judge, Sir William MacPherson, published his eponymous report concerning the Metropolitan Police Service’s investigation of Stephen Lawrence’s murder.
That report provided what has become the enduring definition of institutional racism:
The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping which disadvantage ethnic minority people.
The term ‘institutional’ was apt because (as expert witness, Dr. Robin Oakley, testified) the inquiry heard incontrovertible evidence of a:
generalised tendency, particularly where any element of discretion is involved, whereby minorities may receive different and less favourable treatment than the majority. Such differential treatment need be neither conscious nor intentional, and it may be practised routinely by officers whose professionalism is exemplary in all other respects.
Another submission to the MacPherson inquiry explained how racism can be systemic:
Racism can be systemic and therefore institutional without being apparent in broad policy terms. Racism within the police can be both covert and overt, racism can be detected in how operational policing decisions are carried out and consequently implemented, and indeed how existing policy is ignored or individual officers’ discretion results in racist outcomes.
As evidence of this, here are a few examples from that murder case.
Contrary to standard police procedure and without any evidence, investigating officers on the scene assumed that Duwayne Brooks (Stephen Lawrence’s best friend and eyewitness to his horrific murder) had been in a fight with the victim. So, instead of treating him as a primary victim, the inspector completely dismissed his eye-witness description of one of the attackers.
Contrary to standard police procedure, at least five officers discounted statements by several informants and refused to follow up leads because they simply refused to accept that Lawrence’s murder could be racially motivated. Furthermore, the police liaison officers who were assigned to the family spent more time questioning visitors about why they needed to be at the family home than providing support to Stephen Lawrence’s bereaved parents.
A Detective Superintendent relied completely on police gossip as the basis for officially reporting that the Lawrence family were preventing the police from targeting suspects.
In each of these situations, instead of exercising the sensitivity and fair-mindedness that was mandated and appropriate to their professional role, various officers at all levels unwittingly relied on routinely negative assumptions and racially biased stereotypes. Their exercise of discretion was contrary to the organisations’ normative rules and processes.
The reason that such racism can be described as ‘systemic’ is that the organisation’s pervasive inability to scrutinise the exercise of discretion by its officers and staff results in a cumulative failure to challenge or counteract conscious and unconscious racial bias. This ultimately results in significant disadvantage and less favourable treatment of ethnic minorities.
Systemic racism is not prevented by the fact that “the system itself is based on rules and processes that expressly (or by design) favour or disfavour certain ethnic groups”. Instead, ‘systemic’ describes the pervasiveness of this inability to counteract racial bias because the rules and processes allow scope for discretion (as, to some extent, they must).
In fact, this scope for discretion means that racial bias can circumvent the very systems that are intended to “prohibit racial discrimination and encourage integration”.
While some of this bias arises from unconsciously harbouring negative racial stereotypes, there are three key hallmarks of this pervasive lack of critical scrutiny that allows bias to perpetuate:
- It may result from normative deference to official authority, e.g. chain of command;
- It is not necessarily confined to a specific race; and
- It is not necessarily intentional.
In the UK, this lack of critical scrutiny explains why constables are not reprimanded by their superiors for conducting nine times more checks on black people for drugs in comparison to white people. The lack of critical scrutiny also explains why US police chiefs largely connive at the clear evidence (from 20 million traffic stops) that their staff disproportionately target blacks and latinos (despite this tactic only yielding a 3% conviction rate)
Yet, when this evidence is presented, the reaction to it can be similarly prejudicial. For instance, it’s suggested that black people must bear the brunt of responsibility for this racial profiling (and the resultant disproportionate use ‘stop and search’ and police shootings of unarmed African-Americans) because it’s prompted by the disproportionately high black crime rate.
Dr. Jones says as much, when he states:
A disproportionate number of black people (compared with their numbers in the population) are also shot or injured by police. The reason for this appears to be a combination of disproportionately high crime rates in black communities and an associated assumption amongst police officers that black people are more likely to be involved in criminal or violent behaviour.
However, the peer-reviewed 2015 study by Harvard Professors Anthony A. Braga and Rod K. Brunson (The Police and Public Discourse on “Black-on-Black” Violence. New Perspectives in Policing) firmly rejects this view by clarifying that the black crime rate does not correlate to a greater propensity for crime among African-Americans. Instead, it is more related to the fact that they predominantly live in cities which, regardless of their racial composition, account for far higher levels of violent crime than suburban and rural locations:
Urban environments experience the largest proportion of homicides, and black Americans tend to make up larger shares of urban populations relative to suburban and rural areas. Between 1980 and 2008, nearly 58 percent of homicides occurred in U.S. cities with a population of 100,000 or more (Cooper and Smith, 2011). More than one-third of all homicides in the U.S. during that same time period occurred in cities with one million or more residents.
Principally, the inability or outright refusal to factor in this kind of hard evidence can lead to grossly unfair rationalisations about discrimination.
Dr, Jones writes:
While it may also be a result of simple racial prejudice, the fact that it is evident among black and ethnic minority police officers as much as white officers suggests it is primarily linked to higher crime rates and a psychological generalisation from them.
Certainly, systemic racism doesn’t mean that, when a multi-racial group of police officers is deployed, the white officers are more inclined to harm unarmed black people. Instead, it means that when, due to racial profiling, police departments authorise a greater presence (of officers from all races) in predominantly black neighbourhoods than in white neighbourhoods, then that policy will lead to a disproportionately higher proportion of blacks being targeted and fatally shot by police.
The charge of systemic racism is certainly not that, in such situations, white police officers are more ’trigger happy’ in dealing with black suspects than their black or minority ethnic colleagues.
In fact, I agree with Dr. Jones that we’re all capable of psychological generalisation. However, on this basis, he rejects phrases, such as ‘white privilege’ and ‘white supremacy’, which he describes as “obviously inaccurate and unhelpful”.
However, even though privilege and belief in supremacy are not exclusive to a particular race, the prefix ‘white’ is appropriate, if the specific privileges and notions of superiority particularly accrue to white people.
Research conducted by Nuffield College’s Centre for Social Investigation has demonstrated that, across a range of job opportunities, compared to White British applicants, people of:
- Pakistani heritage had to make 70% more applications
- Nigerian and South Asian heritage 80% more applications
- Middle Eastern and north African heritage 90% more applications
How is such an unearned advantage, which primarily accrues to white people, not white privilege?
Also, last year, white law graduates with a first in their undergraduate degree and an ‘Outstanding’ grade in the bar exam were granted pupillage in 84% of cases. By comparison, only 72% of ethnic minority graduates were granted pupillage, despite having the same grades. This racial disparity, which is not merit-based, holds across all grade levels.
Again, this unearned advantage primarily accrues to white people, albeit not to all white people. So, how is that not white privilege?
And consider the current CoVID-19 crisis, and the fact that BAME workers were dying in disproportionate numbers as a result. Before adequate evidence could be amassed, the unwarranted assumption that it was due to a range of genetic and cultural factors was perpetuated by the media and went largely unchallenged by government officials. While specific NHS guidance was issued in writing to those belonging to all other vulnerable groups, such as over-70s, pregnant women and diabetics, no similar official guidance was published to confirm or address the exceptional vulnerability of BAME people.
Alongside the previous examples affecting education and work, the life-and-death healthcare impact of this particularly glaring omission on so many BAME people makes Dr. Jones’ question about the “real scale of the problem” appear almost impertinent.
Yet, despite this clear evidence of racial bias, Dr. Jones warns that protests will only exacerbate the issue:
To magnify the issue, as is now very much in favour, has the opposite effect. It foregrounds racial difference in the public space, encourages thinking in racial terms, and promotes the idea of the ethnic majority as somehow privileged or even oppressive with ethnic minorities as their permanent victims. It increases racial tensions, divisions and resentment which is not conducive to building common citizenship.
I’m particularly curious to understand why this threat of divisiveness is peculiar to protests against racial bias.
I mean, when, as Christians, we exercise our democratic right to protest peacefully against abortion, does that (to paraphrase Dr. Jones): “magnify the issue…foreground religious difference in the public space, encourage thinking in religious terms, and…increase religious tensions, divisions and resentment which is not conducive to building common citizenship”?
Nevertheless, it is imperative that public policy is even-handed in addressing these issues. For instance, the educational challenges experienced by white children are as important as the disproportionate use of exclusion to discipline black school children. We should avoid the zero-sum thinking that assumes that any fairly applied benefit bestowed on one ethnic group will result in an equal and opposite detriment to all other groups.
I also wholeheartedly endorse Will’s concern that: “any lawlessness associated with discontent will only reinforce negative generalisations about violence and crime risk…” However, that’s equally applicable to protests against poverty, inadequate healthcare, or even Brexit. And, all such protests, are similarly susceptible to being hijacked and discredited by extremist ‘hangers on’.
The fact that Brexit protests resulted in violence, which I deplore, doesn’t make it inherently wrong to exercise the democratic right to campaign and/or protest in public for or against Britain remaining in the EU. The same is true for protests against racism.
Nevertheless, it’s an unnecessarily negative and alarmist characterisation to declare that: “the use of these racially charged terms as epithets by those who are violent towards people considered representative of them demonstrates that the danger is not only hypothetical.” Any benefit, right or immunity which primarily accrues to people on account of their race, rather than through merit is, by definition, a racial privilege.
White privilege is just a specific expression of racially biased advantage. It explains why Stephen Lawrence’s murderers escaped prosecution for so long. Just as tragically, it explains the four long days of inordinate delay and official reluctance before Chauvin and his fellow officers were arrested (and eventually charged) for George Floyd’s murder.
I make no apologies for using the terms. They’re certainly no more inflammatory than the claim that, rather than being founded upon “simple racial prejudice”, the police’s use of racial profiling is, instead, “primarily linked to higher crime rates”.
David Shepherd is an IT professional, currently working on systems supporting the House of Commons in London. He is a member of Beacon Community Church in Camberley.
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?