How an 18-year-old murder verdict reflects a racially changed UK
The 1993 murder in London of black teenager Stephen Lawrence revealed systemic racism in Britain, spawning sweeping efforts to root it out.
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"You would see signs saying 'rooms available,' but they weren't available when a black man knocked on the door," recalls the retired telecommunications engineer, who has remained in the neighborhood of Brixton since then. "One time a woman screamed at me to leave, saying her mother had never seen a black man before."
Twenty years later, the perceived mistreatment of a black man by police ignited the Brixton race riots of 1981 – which remain the biggest such riots in British history.
But Brixton today is a prime example of how Britain has transformed into a multicultural society, especially in its cities, in the half century since Mr. Ogunshola first moved here.
Now there is little evidence of antipathy between Brixton's diverse ethnic groups, which include a strong African-Caribbean community and a large Asian contingent.
While riots last summer, set off by racial tensions, reached the neighborhood, they did not pit an ethnic community against the authorities.
"Brixton's a different place; Britain's a different place," says Ogunshola, raising his voice to be heard above a steel band playing calypso music outside a subway station.
This month's conviction of two men for the racially motivated murder of 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence in 1993 has prompted an examination of how far Britain has come in eradicating racism since then.
Mr. Lawrence's killing in Eltham, south London, assumed huge significance in London. A long and unflagging campaign by the murdered teenager's parents, Doreen and Neville Lawrence, revealed the existence of a subtler, more systemic form of racism and inspired ground-breaking steps to root it out.
It took 18 years to convict Lawrence's killers. The initial police report was spectacularly bungled: Police received names of five suspects within 24 hours, but no arrests were made for two weeks.
The 1999 report on the case – named after retired judge William Macpherson, who led the inquiry – declared that London's Metropolitan Police was "institutionally racist."
The report led to the creation of new criminal offenses, a new law mandating that public authorities promote racial equality, and some other significant legal changes, including the abolition of the double jeopardy law, which allowed one of Lawrence's murderers to be tried a second time.
"In a nutshell, the Macpherson report had a positive effect on equality in Britain," says Uduak Archibong, professor of diversity at the University of Bradford. "The changes forced public organizations to look inward – [to] think 'What can we do to promote racial equality?' And because it also affected the way they dealt with commercial organizations, it had a ripple effect."
For ordinary Britons, perhaps the greatest legacy of the case is that it made overt racism, including racially abusive language, unacceptable.
"Just the fact that it's illegal to shout racist abuse – that's made a change, no question," says Stafford Geoghan, who owns a Jamaican takeout restaurant on Brixton's Electric Avenue, a street of market stalls. "That's just not something you ever hear on the street anymore."
Making a Difference