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.

By , Correspondent

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    Doreen (c.) and Neville Lawrence (r.) exit the London court building where two men were convicted earlier this month of the murder of their son, Stephen, 18 years ago.
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When Joseph Ogunshola arrived in London from Lagos, Nigeria, in 1961, he got what he calls a "big, bad welcome."

"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.

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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."

Responding to the convictions earlier this month, Trevor Phillips, chair of Britain's Equality and Human Rights Commission, said, "Stephen Lawrence's murder was a turning point for Britain. Most people see racial prejudice as a secular sin that is not to be tolerated."

Of course, that does not mean it's entirely gone. In December, England national football captain John Terry was charged with using racist language against an opponent, although he denies it. Liverpool striker Luis Suarez was banned for eight matches for a similar offense, although both the player and the club insist that he is innocent.

It is a positive sign that these cases were treated seriously, but they also prompted concerns that racism is again on the rise. A British parliamentary committee is being set up to investigate whether more should be done to tackle racism in football. On Jan. 16, British Prime Minister David Cameron urged football clubs to work harder to promote managers and coaches from minority backgrounds.

"Of course many of us will have been concerned by recent events," Mr. Cameron said.

"My message is clear. We will not tolerate racism in Britain. It has no place in our society. And where it exists, we will kick it out."

Many civil organizations remain concerned by police officers' disproportionate use of their power to stop and search citizens, first highlighted by the Macpherson report.

Research by the Open Society Justice Initiative and the London School of Economics found that more than a decade later, blacks are 26 times more likely than whites to be stopped and searched.

"There are places I tell my children and grandchildren not to visit because the police will stop them no matter what they are doing," says Carmen, a Brixton resident who came from Jamaica in the 1960s. She declined to give her last name.

A week after the Lawrence case convictions, the Metropolitan Police announced plans to drastically cut its use of stop-and-search. Officers were told to halve the number by focusing on known criminals – a move that was welcomed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Some of the most dramatic changes are happening at a family level. About half of African-Caribbean British men are in relationships with women of another race, according to several surveys, while 1 in 5 children is characterized as mixed-race. Racism is increasingly a nonissue.

But speaking outside the court where two of her son's killers were convicted, Ms. Lawrence said she could not celebrate; her son was dead and it had taken 18 years to bring the justice he deserved.

"Racism and racist attacks are still happening in this country," she said. "And the police should not use my son's name to say that we can move on."

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