Britain and racial justice

Britain once more has an opportunity to display the moral leadership it has so often shown the world. This time the challenge is the persistence of racial disadvantage in a land of exemplary democracy. For Britain to erase this basic injustice would not only respond to the most urgent recommendation in Lord Scarman's widely applauded report on London's Brixton riots last spring. It could also instruct and inspire other countries with no less severe moral challenges.

The respected Lord Scarman, drawing on a long judicial background, also recommended police reforms to improve community relations and avoid the police conduct he saw as contributing to the outbreak of disorder. He acknowledged that steps in this direction had already begun. But he got to the heart of the matter when he concluded:

''Good policing will be of no avail, unless we also tackle and eliminate basic flaws in our society. And, if we succeed in eliminating racial prejudice from our society, it will not be difficult to achieve good policing.''

Denying that institutionalized racism exists in Britain, Lord Scarman confirmed that racial disadvantage does, along with ''its nasty associate racial discrimination.'' He recognized that his recommended direct and coordinated attack on the situation would mean that ethnic minorities would enjoy for a time ''a positive discrimination in their favour.'' But he called this a price worth paying if it accelerates elimination of the ''unsettling factor'' of racial disadvantage - a task he finds even more urgent than police relations.

Education and employment, as Lord Scarman suggests, are at the root of the problem. He would not impose quotas or double standards. But he would favor the extra investment to overcome minority disadvantages in education from the earliest years. He would encourage the hiring of black workers who meet job standards.

The report has received some not unexpected criticism. Community militants wanted it to call for outright repeal of laws they believe encourage police abuses. Others would have liked to see analysis of the violence not only in regard to grievances that have long existed without such outbreaks but as a development of concern in itself.

But Lord Scarman's judicious and nonconfrontational approach reaches out broadly. The government was wise to promise swift action. Specific measures will have to be debated. But if momentum is kept up by ''all sections of the responsibly minded public,'' in the report's phrase, Britain will again be an example to us all.

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