UK Race Relations: Yesterday & Today
Two white men were found guilty and received life sentences for the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the black teenager stabbed to death by five white youths at a London bus stop in 1993. Nearly two decades on, the verdict may have brought some closure to a case that put a spotlight on racism and criminal justice in the United Kingdom. I was a teenager myself at the time and remember hearing a little about this case, but it wasn't until I viewed the BBC film The Murder of Stephen Lawrence when I got the whole story of the case and how England is so not "postracial."
My mother emigrated from Jamaica to England during the 1960s and some of her relatives still live in London's Hackney area. They all say that, unlike America, where race is discussed ad nauseum on a regular basis, any discussion about race in England was pretty much muted before the Lawrence case. When race was discussed, it was seen as the "immigrant problem." In 1968, politician Enoch Powell gave his infamous "Rivers of Blood" speech, criticizing the growing number of immigrants moving to the UK from Commonwealth countries.
Following the initial investigation in 1999, the five suspects were not convicted. It was believed at the time that Lawrence's murder was not only racially motivated, but also the acquittal was due partially to institutional racism within the Metropolitan Police. Later that year the Macpherson Report confirmed these findings, stating that the case was "one of the most important moments in the modern history of criminal justice in Britain." Although the Race Relations Act of 1968 passed and has since been superseded by the Race and Religious Hatred Act of 2006, racial tensions provoked by Powell's speech continued to have a lasting impression for years to come. This could be seen through the many race riots over the years. The most recent London riots that spread nationwide are believed to have been racially provoked by the death of Mark Duggan at the hands of the police.
Just last week the family of Anuj Bidve, an Indian student who was shot in the head and killed while walking with his friends on Boxing Day, accused British authorities of racism due to delays in handling the investigation and return of his body to India.
As I have said here before, the more things seem to change, the more things remain the same.
[Bidve's family] have accused the police of failing to contact them to inform them of their son's death – they only found out when his friends started to contact them through Facebook – and of neglecting the case because it was the festive season.
The delay in getting Bidve's body home has infuriated family members, who say the British authorities were more concerned about Christmas and the new year festivities than in helping the family observe their traditions."It is unacceptable to us," said Rakesh Sonawane, Bidve's brother-in-law... "We still have a lot of faith in the UK authorities and the police, but they have to help us more. They have to help us to believe again that Britain is not a racist place."