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Institutionalised Racism – Myth or Reality?


Crime, power and discrimination have been interlinked and will continue to remain so, though the intensity of such interdependence is bound to change with the times. The Scarman Report, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, followed by the Macpherson Report offered solutions to mitigate police excesses based on racial discrimination.

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The Scarman Report – effective policing vs. racism

After the Brixton riots in 1981, Lord Scarman presented a scathing attack on the police force. However, he did do a this-far-and-no-further turnaround by categorically denying that there was no such a thing as “institutional racism”. Scarman (1981). Crimes committed by ethnic minorities are often conscious and deliberate political acts directed against a society that treats them unjustly. At the same time though, there is no concrete proof to state that ethnic minorities are more prone to being criminal than other sections of the community. Gilroy (1987). Is this stereotyping? In a situation of mass unemployment, ethnic minorities can get sidelined and pigeonholed as a group that needs to be controlled. In the late 1970s, young Blacks in the UK were stereotypically associated with the ‘mugging problem’, which allowed the police to use stop-and-search methods and inundate Black areas with police. Stuart Hall (1987a). The Scarman Report attempted providing a balance in this control and apparent discrimination. The recommendations called for heightened sensitization and the exercise of restraint while dealing with ethnic and other minorities.

The Macpherson Report – institutional racism, a harsh reality

This report left no doubt that racism in the police force was not just rampant, but had also not reduced significantly since the Scarman Report in 1981. “…the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin…” Macpherson (1999). This report was submitted after Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager was brutally killed in a racist attack; no convictions were made, protests against the general apathy of the police towards Blacks led to the report. Apart from the seventy recommendations of Macpherson, some legal changes were also suggested. The scope of the Commission for Racial Equality was broadened; investigations could be done into school admission policies and police operations. BBC (2001)

The teeth of the law

Between the Scarman and Macpherson reports the PACE 1984 tried to bring greater responsibility and discipline within the police force. More importantly, the law provided opportunity for the voicing of views by aggrieved members of the community. PACE (1984).

Conclusion – the reality

Though the leftist view that, the State is a group of humans who have successfully monopolised the legitimate use of violence in a given territory Weber (1922-3), may sound pessimistic and polarised, it is true that successive reports and legislations have resulted in a marginal improvement in police treatment of suspects from minority communities. The intervention of the law combined with the activism of socio-ethnic groups has improved moral responsibility and accountability in the police force while strengthening the trust of ethnic groups in the government machinery as a whole.


Scarman, L. 1981. The Scarman Report. Pub. by Susana De Freitas.

Gilroy, P. 1987. There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack. Hutchinson. London.

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Hall, S. 1978a. Mugging, the State and the law’ in S,Hall et al., Policing the Crisis. Macmillan. London.

Macpherson, W. 1999. The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. Report of an inquiry by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny. Presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for the Home Department by Command of Her Majesty. Web.

Author n.d. 2001. Race: The Macpherson report. BBC News Vote 2001. Web.

Author n.d. Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (c.60). Web.

Weber, M. 1922-3. ‘Class, status, party’ in H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Oxford University Press. London.

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