This week saw the tenth anniversary of the landmark report into the death of Stephen Lawrence. Stephen, a young black man, died at the hands of racist thugs on a London street and the Metropolitan Police at the time failed to investigate the crime properly. To mark the occasion some 300 or so of us, including Stephen’s mother, Doreen Lawrence (a tireless campaigner), three cabinet ministers (Home Secretary, Justice Secretary, Communities Secretary) and senior police officers and officials spent the day conferring on the interaction of police and race in Britain. If you want news reports or copies of the politicians’ speeches you can Google them, but it seems to me there were two unresolved tensions underpinning the event worthy of TA reflection.
The first is that secular society finds it hard to manage the tension between acknowledging achievement and recognising that where we have got to is still far from good enough. Ministers and Chief Constables rightly drew to our attention that the majority of the report’s recommendations have been accepted and implemented; for example there are many more black and minority ethnic police in Britain than when Stephen was killed and open racism is much harder to find among serving officers. By contrast comments from the floor suggested that the scarcity of BME faces among the senior ranks of the 43 constabularies and the huge disproportionality in “stop and search” practices means that little has changed in the underlying culture of British policing. One sounded complacent, the other incapable of recognising as progress anything less than total success. I was left feeling that what was missing was the ability to bring together repentance and thanksgiving, without denying the force of either, that is a hallmark of Christian liturgy. My impression was confirmed by the final speaker of the day, an evangelical pastor, who did hold the two together. Do the churches have something to offer here? If so, how can we make it accessible?
The second tension was between those promoting the “single equality” route to engaging with diversity and the advocates for separate treatment of distinctive strands. Here I am firmly in the former camp. I understand the concerns that those working primarily on race and racism express, that as soon as race is linked to something else the attention moves over to the something else and race gets marginalised. Against this however are a number of telling arguments. Individuals do not engage with the world separately as black, or muslim or female or gay or disabled or young, depending on the particular moment and cause. We always engage with our whole identity, and with all the aspects of that identity that make us diverse beings. The cutting edge of equality and diversity work lies in the interplay between the strands. Being black and female, I am sure, is not simply an amalgam of being black and being a woman; engagements that separate gender from ethnicity treat black women poorly. The same applies, I suspect, to being gay and muslim or young and disabled. For me as a Christian from the Anglican tradition it’s particularly important that the church operates a single equalities methodology lest we end up using different standards, even opposed standards, by which to engage with different aspects of diversity.
Stephen Lawrence had the ambition and the capacity to be an architect; nobody knows what buildings he would have erected had he enjoyed a full span of life. Instead his monument is the sea change in equality and diversity work that his murder and the subsequent enquiry provoked. It’s an edifice that is still very much “under construction”.