LONG READ – Macpherson, twenty years on: Diversifying the police won’t end institutional racism

In this article, Remi Joseph-Salisbury and Laura Connelly of the Northern Police Monitoring Project discuss institutional racism and the limits of calls to diversify the police force (estimated read time: 6 minutes).

It’s twenty years since the publication of the Macpherson report into the police handling of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Macpherson’s key finding was that the Metropolitan Police were ‘institutionally racist’, a charge that has been levelled at other forces, including Greater Manchester Police. Last month, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, lauded the ‘transformative effect’ the report had on policing but lamented that ‘we still have much more to do.’ But the truth is, little has changed.

At every level of policing, racism endures as a problem. From stop and search and inclusion in ‘gang’ databases, to the use of tasers and deaths following police contact, Black people are disproportionately likely to be harmed by the police.

One of the most common and seemingly well-meaning responses to police racism is to call for greater representation of Black and Brown communities in the police force. Given that none of the 43 police forces in England and Wales currently reflects the racial demographics of their communities, this seems like a logical and relatively uncontroversial response to a long-standing problem. Last week, the Police and Crime Commissioner for West Yorkshire, Mark Burns-Williamson, called for legislative changes to enable the police to attract, recruit and retain officers from ‘BAME’ backgrounds. And just a week or so prior, the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, Sara Thornton, suggested that new laws are needed to enable positive discrimination in police recruitment. However, to view the racial diversification of the police force as any kind of meaningful solution is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of racism. Such calls fail to take seriously the lessons of recent history, including those highlighted by Macpherson.

In recent years, we have seen a shying away from the idea that the police are institutionally racist. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, says that she doesn’t believe the police force is still institutionally racist, and Sara Thornton says the term is unhelpful ‘because it was misunderstood and taken as a slur on every officer’. Perhaps more surprisingly, despite finding racial disparities in policing, the 2017 ‘Lammy Review’ ‘avoids all mention of institutional racism’ and instead uses the more ‘palatable’ term, ‘unconscious bias’. While the concept of unconscious bias has gained traction recently, it ‘moves the centre of gravity from institutions and structures to the individual and, unfortunately, to the unconscious.’ It is by re-centring the concept of institutional racism that we can begin to understand the limits of calls for more Black police officers.  

As the term itself implies, the problem with policing should not be understood as solely the fault of individual officers. This is not to say that individual officers shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions but to recognise that racism also – and perhaps more perniciously – manifests at the level of the institution. It is, as  Macpherson put it, ‘the collective failure of an organisation’. Introduced by Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) and Charles V. Hamilton in their seminal 1967 work Black Power, the concept is important for anti-racism as it shifts our focus from the prejudices of individuals, to the systemic and embedded functioning of institutions. As Ambalavaner Sivanandan argued, ‘institutional racism is that which, covertly or overtly, resides in the policies, procedures, operations and culture of public or private institutions – reinforcing individual prejudices and being reinforced by them in turn.’ It is imbued within the very fabric of society and a defining feature of the state apparatus.  

In this respect, the concept of institutional racism allows us to challenge the dominant narrative  which constructs police brutality and racism as something that is exceptional. It helps us to see that the problem is not simply a ‘few rotten apples’ but a rotten apple cart. If we only replace the apples and not the cart, the new apples will simply rot too. Such an intervention would be fundamentally misdiagnosing the problem: treating the symptom, not the disease. This is not only a hypothetical or theoretical point but one that is supported by empirical evidence.

For example, a 2017 paper examined the correlation between police shootings and the racial demographics of police forces in the United States. The report concluded that ‘simply increasing the percentage of Black officers is not an effective policy solution’. In fact, the report found that fatal encounters between Black citizens and the police were more likely to occur in cities with higher proportions of Black officers. Based on the concept of ‘critical mass’, the authors tentatively suggest that a change in organisational culture might be possible when Black officers constitute at least 30% of a police force. But the authors are, quite rightly, reluctant to say whether or not this would reduce the number of Black deaths at the hands of the police.

Calls for more Black officers are flawed for a number of reasons. Firstly, they assume that racial solidarity exists between Black officers and the Black communities that they police. Yet as Forman argues in Locking Up Our Own, many Black officers don’t see their employment as racially significant. They do not take up their jobs in an attempt to rid the police force of racism. On the contrary, US research published in 2008 found that Black police officers were actually more likely than white officers to racially profile Black drivers. Findings like these expose the ‘more Black officers’ argument to be dependent upon an essentialist assumption that all Black people are inherently anti-racist. This fails to recognise the insidious nature of racism. An individual is not incapable of having racially-prejudiced attitudes simply because they themselves are racialised as black. Perhaps more importantly – given that racism can be perpetuated without individual intent – it certainly does not reflect an inability to reproduce institutional racisms.

Relatedly, the racial diversification of the police is not only likely to be ineffective in tackling institutional racism but it also operates to give legitimacy to racist policing. Without systemic change, replacing white faces with ‘BAME’ faces is mere tokenism: a superficial intervention that threatens to obfuscate the systemic nature of racism in the police. Like Trevor Phillips’ ‘work’ condemning Black and Brown communities, Sajid Javid’s role as Home Secretary shows all too clearly that Brown faces in high places can be used to disguise racist agendas. His appointment as part of Theresa May’s ministerial reshuffle in early 2018 enabled her to make the (false) claim that the government now “looks more like the country it serves.” But Javid’s staunch advocacy of the hostile environment agenda serves as a clear reminder that he should in no way be misconstrued as having the interests of Black and Brown people at heart. More Black officers would merely create the illusion of change, lending weight to the myth that we are on the path towards inevitable equality. We are not. More Black police officers might increase trust in the police for Black and Brown communities but, unless there is radical change, perhaps Black and Brown communities are right not to trust the police.

Thirdly, even if there was a way of ensuring that the critical mass of new Black recruits were all anti-racist individuals, the ‘more Black officers’ argument only becomes thinkable when we significantly underestimate the endemic nature of institutional racism in the police. Policing fosters an insular occupational culture which can operate to deter Black (potentially anti-racist) officers from straying outside of established norms. Given the role that policing has played in protecting capitalism and maintaining colonial regimes, it should come as no surprise then that, as Alex Vitale puts it, the ‘police exist primarily as a system for managing and even producing inequality’. In this sense, even if anti-racist officers were recruited into the police, their individual agenda is likely to be supplanted by that of the institution.

Finally, calls to diversity the police force place the onus upon Black and Brown people for challenging racism and educating other officers. The responsibility for creating change becomes misplaced and, as Audre Lorde argues, ‘the oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions.’ To redress racism in the police – and elsewhere – it is important that those racialised as white, properly reckon with the inequities of white supremacy. The burden should not fall to those marginalised by the power structure, though it so often does, but to those who benefit from it.

To recognise racism as institutional therefore takes us to a difficult and deeply uncomfortable position. We begin to see that there are no easy solutions: liberal reforms simply will not do. To tackle the deep roots of racism in the police, we need nothing short of a radical re-imagining of policing and criminal justice as we know it, or what Vitale speaks of as ‘the end of policing’.