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Racist Discrimination Throughout The Criminal Justice System Criminology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2253 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Racist discrimination throughout the Criminal Justice System (CJS) in the United Kingdom (UK) is a controversial but pervasive issue. There is an undeniable over-representation of ethnic minorities; Africa/Caribbean’s in particular are approximately four times as likely to be arrested as white people, even though they only represent around 2% of our total population. Ethnic areas tend to be subject to more ‘proactive policing’ (Bowling and Phillips 2002 p.97) discrimination in cautioning and sentencing and use of The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) stop and search powers.

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The Macpherson report of 1999 made following the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence focused on ‘institutional racism’ through ‘unwitting prejudice’ towards minorities which may cause them disadvantage and this may contribute to the racial discrimination towards black people and minorities throughout the (Lea 2000 p.230). This institutional racism has caused serious problems in the criminal justice system, in a variety of ways, which will be examined throughout the course of this essay. This essay will argue that undoubtedly institutional racism and failings on the part of leading officers did mar the whole investigation into Lawrence’s murder, but that wider historical, socio-economic and demographic factors bear as much responsibility.

The Macpherson Report and Institutional Racism

The Macpherson Report was made following the tragic death and racist murder of Stephen Lawrence. The black teenager from Eltham, South-East London named Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death while waiting for a bus on the evening of 22 April 1993.

After the initial investigation, five suspects were arrested but never convicted due to a series of police errors and investigational incompetence that has been widely reported in the press and the subject for a reassessment of the entire criminal justice system. It was suggested by Lawrence’s friends and parents during the course of investigation that the murder had a racist motive and that Lawrence was the subject of a racist homicide precisely because he was black. The media furore surrounding the murder investigation suggested that the handling of the case by the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was affected by issues of race leading to an inquiry.

Macpherson (1999) concluded the investigation was marred by professional incompetence, institutional racism and failure of leadership by senior officers. The report documented the denial that the murder was even racially motivated, by five of the leading officers who were responsible for investigating the murder of Lawrence. This included a serious failure to examine the evidence with a clear eye and a racial stereotyping of the initial murder suspect Duwayne Brooks at the scene of the crime. In this sense, there serious failings in the Lawrence murder enquiry can be said to have been directly the result of the incompetence of the leading officers, but those failings are the result of a more endemic institutional racism.

Institutional Racism Defined

Institutional racism, which is also known as structural racism or systemic racism is any type of racist discrimination occurring specifically within institutions such as government bodies; public bodies; universities and businesses and large corporations. Sir William Macpherson of Cluny used the term to describe what he felt was:

“the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin”, which “can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes, and behaviour, which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping, which disadvantages minority ethnic people” (“Metropolitan police still institutionally racist”, The Guardian, 22 April 2003)

Institutional racism is one of three forms of racism: (i) Personally-mediated, (ii) internalized, and (iii) institutional. The term institutional racism actually originated with Stokely Carmichael (Johnson 1990). Institutional racism is the varied access to the goods, services, and opportunities of society as a result of deeply rooted endemic and often unconsciously adopted practices (Lea 2000). When this differential treatment becomes an essential aspect of institutions, it becomes common practice, making it difficult to rectify and the actions of new members to the institutions are reinforced by the behaviour of the old members.

Another difficulty in reducing institutionalized racism is that there is no sole, true identifiable perpetrator. It is difficult to rectify as there is no one to blame but society and the other cultural and historical factors contributing to the institutional racism in the Metropolitan police will be examined below.

Historical Background to Institutional Racism

There is a strong historical relationship between crime, ethnicity and racism. Modern race ideas espoused by Hume, Kant and Gobineau (Apter 1999), saw the ‘Age of Reason’ as being synonymous with white people. The concept of ‘white supremacy’ (Bowling and Phillips 2002) was deeply embedded in British Imperialist ideals. The initial encouragement of the influx of ethnic minorities into the UK after World War II gave way to the hostile political climate of the 1960s and Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ (Chilton 2003 p.38). This lead to fractious relations between the police and black minorities throughout the 1970s, which culminated in a public image of black people as disorderly and riotous or ‘inherently criminal’.

After the riots of the 1980s Lord Scarman (1986) issued a report emphasising the negative effects of oppressive policing. The media sensationalism of the early 1980s further embedded ideas of black and Asian criminality in the public consciousness. This myth inspires practices such as more proactive policing and this leads to the production of statistics which further perpetrate the myth.

Generally studies have shown that ethnic minorities tend to have a lower academic achievement leading to higher levels of unemployment, but the question of whether this leads to an actual increase in offending remains somewhat illusive, the official statistics are all somewhat flawed as they tend to focus on the end result and not the process involved in the criminalization of minorities, but they are useful in that they show who is processed by the Criminal Justice System.

Nature of Racist Offending

The perpetrators of racially motivated crime are typically white males aged 16-25 yrs. Attacks most frequently occur with groups or gangs of offenders. Sibbitt’s study (1997) showed after having interviewed racist offenders and their wider community that the offender’s racist views typically shared by their community and that this was a psychological factor legitimising their actions. In the past thirty five years there have been officially only 100 racially motivated killings within the UK, but these are only those which have been reported. Another factor in increased racist offending is the role of increasing size of ethnic populations and white Britain’s perception of them as receiving preferential treatment and access to scarce social and economic resources (Goldhagen 1996).

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Lack of witnesses and Victim reporting

Although it has been suggested that around 85 % of crime against ethnic minorities is not racially motivated, even such an empirically unreliable statistic leaves a staggering 15% that are: patterns for victimization showed ethnic minorities were at greater risk of victimization relative to their white counterparts – (British Crime Survey (BCS) 1988). Although institutional racism can account for some of the reasons why these crimes are rarely punished, victimisation of ethnic minorities within a broader community and their fear of more crime, threat and abuse stops them from coming forward to the police to report racially motivated crimes. The BCS (2000) showed that although household victimization rates for Black people and whites were more similar – Asians were at greater risk.

It is also impossible to ignore the wider socio-economic and demographic factors which are undeniably relevant when it comes to the perpetration and prosecution of racist crime. The concentration of ethnic minorities into high-crime areas and their younger age structure explain higher risk: unemployment, inner-city residence, lack of academic qualifications are all relevant factors,

Further incidences of institutional racism in Macpherson Report

Further suggestion of institutional racism discrimination can be found in the police use of stop and search powers, which was criticised in the Macpherson Report. Stop and search powers provide a context for the distrust of the police felt by ethnic minorities. Newburn, Shiner and Hayman in 2001 found that the police intrusion and the formal action taken were greater where the suspect was not white – more stops, more searches and more intrusion.

Lea (2000) in his article comments on this institutional racism and criticises the Macpherson Report’s weak attempts to improve this, citing a lack of social interaction between officers and ethnic minorities as the cause of racist stereotyping. Lea reconstructs this citing ‘power’ to cause trouble for the police and not ‘race’ as the cause of discrimination. Stop and search makes a modest but significant contribution to the over-representation of blacks in the arrest population. The fact that only 8% of stop and searches in ethnic minorities lead to arrest further implies racial discrimination further down the CJS, although the 2000 BCS found that ethnic origin was only a predicator for car and not foot stops.

African/Caribbean people make up about 2% of the total population of the UK but comprise 10% of male and 12% of female prisoners. These prison numbers are partly the result of a ‘process of criminalization’. This process begins with ‘over-policing’ of ethnic areas. There tends to be an increased deployment of officers in minority areas and this may explain the four-fold arrest rate for black people in 1999/2000 compared to their numbers in the general population. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) can terminate cases before they reach the courtroom, diverting offenders from further action. The CPS has to consider whether there is a ‘reasonable prospect of conviction’. 20% of cases against black people were terminated compared to only 12% against whites and a huge 27% against Asians. This seems to evidence racial discrimination at earlier stages in the CJS, such as arrests, and lack of cautioning and a selective presumption of guilt by the police force. Perhaps this breaking in the chain of criminalization of ethnic minorities can be explained by the less subjective nature of decisions made by the CPS and the stringent guidance provided in the code for Crown prosecutors.

Women are also subject to discrimination in the CJS, in particular black women who represent 25% of the female prison population. However the number of Asian women in prison remains consistently low. Statistics showing that women are favourably treated at the sentencing stage, may be misleading because women tend to commit different types of offences to men, theft for example is the prominent offence committed by women.


The Lawrence report (Lea 2000) defined institutional racism as ‘the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people’.

The report went on to say that institutional racism ‘persists because of the failure of the organisation openly and adequately to recognise and address its existence and causes by policy, example and leadership. Without recognition and action to eliminate such racism it can prevail as part of the ethos or culture of the organisation’.

The use of the phrase ‘unwitting’ in the Stephen Lawrence Report allowed people to accept that there had been unintended disadvantage to ethnic minorities. It must be submitted in conclusion that the flaws into the inquiry of the Lawrence murder and the general lack of competence involving investigations where a murder of crime has an alleged racist element were a result of both institutional racism and a lack of competence by the five leading investigating offers.

However, institutional racism is a difficult concept from which to attribute blame, it is ingrained in institutions gradually and may often be an entirely unconsciously followed pattern of differential treatment. The socio-political and historical factors within our society are equally to blame and must be addressed in order to prevent further reoccurrences.


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