Why is Britain in denial of institutional racism?

Just two weeks ago, the Sewell Race Report concluded that Britain is no longer institutionally racist. Just 10 days ago, Richard Okorogheye’s mother was told by an officer when reporting her son as missing - “If you can’t find your son, how do you expect police officers to find your son for you?”

Photo: Channel 4 news

The Metropolitan Police was determined to be institutionally racist in the 1999 Macpherson Report, an inquiry into the investigation of the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence. Over the years, it’s been observed that this systemic racism embedded within the institution is exercised through numerous ways. For example,  the targeting of ethnic minorities through the use of Stop and Search powers; racial stereotyping; inadequate investigations into cases involving someone of an ethnic minority; the lack of seriousness and effort put into these cases. The question being asked, 25 years on, is does institutional racism still exist in the UK? When issues such as institutional racism are brought to light, even with supporting cases, many Britons choose to deny and resist its existence.  We are socialised to view the police as an authoritative figure, so questioning their legitimacy may seem out of reach for some people. Statistics also play a key role in fooling the public that the police aren’t a racist institution; the employment of ethnic minority officers causes many people to see an aspect of diversity, and thus, racism must not exist. Similarly, The Sewell Report concluded institutional racism isn’t displayed in Britain, which many people will accept at face value. The problem demonstrated here is that when a precedent is set by a powerful figure, even when lacking legitimacy, it’ll then be adopted by those who are under its influence. We also witness this through the presence of predominantly white, high-profile people in the media who promote this dismissive view of racism. For example, people such as Piers Morgan and Katie Hopkins having huge platforms comes with its consequences, as seen when their views are endorsed by passive media consumers.

But, arguably even more harmful, is a representation of ethnic minority individuals in positions of power who are in denial of the discrimination they themselves, and their community, face. When doing so, it allows the deniability of institutional racism by white people to become almost plausible. Not only are these individuals used as a prop to represent diversity in the institution, but they are often simultaneously used as a mouthpiece to preach messages that benefit the conservative government's image. For example, when Sajid Javid implied that his position as Home Secretary equalled no discrimination or racism in the conservative party. It is people like Javid that only strengthen, and encourage, the deniability of systematic racism across the white population. I think it’s factors such as these that prevent many members of the public from recognising the existence of racially  motivated inadequacy amongst police work. How can an institution, with a role of enforcing the law, do so in a manner that actually breaks it? It’s a question I often ask myself, not because I don’t believe it happens, but because I am in disbelief that it actually does. 

 The tragic story of Richard Okorogheye, who has subsequently been found dead, comes just weeks after the devastating alleged murder of Sarah Everard, a woman who went missing when walking home alone. Her case, deservedly, attracted both a huge media and police presence, but differs significantly to Richard’s. His story attracted little media attention at first, and the investigation itself raised concerns; the alleged comments  from an officer to Richard’s mother, as noted earlier, is a prominent example. Two missing people; two police investigations; and one key difference. Richard was a black teenage boy and Sarah was a white woman. From the outset, it could be presumed that the unbecoming and inadequate treatment of Richard’s missing status was due to the actions of one unprofessional police officer. Every workplace will have a misfit employee, but that doesn’t mean the workplace as a whole should be tarnished with the same brush. However, the truth is, the poor investigation of Richard is a symptom of institutional racism within the UK. 

Photo: Christiana Shofolabo

Blessing Olusegun. Not many, including me, knew her name or her story until the case of Sarah Everard brought to light other female victims. The facts are it took the murder of a white woman, for people to learn of the death of a black woman. Blessing was an intelligent 21-year-old, who was regrettably found dead on September 8, 2020. The media and the police offered little effort and support in her case; Sussex police concluded her death as “unexplained”. Public outrage at the handling of her case was later enhanced by the noticeable difference in the standard of the investigation of a missing white woman. This pattern of mediocre, and often abysmal, treatment of those of an African heritage in investigations highlights how the standard of police work can be determined by one’s race or ethnicity.

Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry. Two black women who were murdered on June 6, 2020; their case highlighting yet another demonstration of institutional racism. Not only did the police fail to take reports from the sisters’ friends and family seriously; not only did Nicole’s boyfriend find her body himself, but two Met Police officers allegedly took selfies - yes, selfies - with their bodies and further distributed these images. It’s almost impossible to comprehend that two men in power, wearing the uniform that is a symbol of trust, could commit such a horrific, unexplainable act. Nicole and Bibaa’s Mum compared the act to the historic “lynch mobs'' in America, where a black person was hanged and the white people would pose for a photograph. Some may see her comparison as an exaggeration, but they are part of the problem. 

Photo: Met Police

Not only were the girls victims of a murder crime, they were victims of the system originally designed to protect them. The two officers are accused of actions that have historically racist roots and, if found guilty, shows how comfortable and safe they felt to do so. This is yet another demonstration of the casual racist culture that is arguably still present within UK police forces. The one time those girls needed the system to protect them, it instead failed them and, by preserving the officers’ anonymity, was protecting only themselves. This highlighted that the institution is operating on a system that protects its own, hence why racism within it’s proceedings is a common occurrence, because it often comes with limited punishment. Thus, some officer’s behaviour will be influenced by the belief that they’re untouchable, for as long as they wear that uniform. Institutional racism did not start with the case of Richard Okorogheye, nor does it end with him. That is why it’s important for those of us with privilege not to shy away from these issues and, instead, educate ourselves and each other about them. We should continue to stand with those who are victims of injustice at the hands of a system which aims to serve the opposite.

Article written by Connie Yates


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