Belfast Telegraph

The lessons we too must learn from Lawrence

Racist attacks in Northern Ireland have fallen but that is not a reason for any complacency, says Duncan Morrow

There is too much romantic talk about 'diversity'. Good people everywhere revel in 'celebrating' it and everybody pays lip service to its value.

Of course we know that it sometimes degenerates into discovering that Catholics keep their washing up liquid on the kitchen surface while Protestants put it in the cupboard, but ultimately it is all good clean fun.

Except that it isn't always. Living with diversity means making a world together with people with very different experiences and ways of doing things. And sometimes that means confronting the hard fact that we carry deep fears and hatreds, rooted in ignorance, uncertainty and sometimes in all-too real experiences of violence, discrimination and exclusion. And even worse, sometimes we treat our prejudices as facts, and never reflect on their consequences for others.

In a world of vast economic differences, where 150m people live outside their country of origin, it is no small matter.

And if we don't know that here - whether as sectarianism or as the experience of the Irish as immigrants across the world - then who does?

Diversity is not a small issue to be managed, it is the reality and the possibility we all live with. The opportunities of diversity are enormous, but they will mean change for all of us - and not all of it comfortable.

Eighteen years on - and after two trials, a public inquiry and the repeal of ancient rules on double jeopardy - two of the gang responsible for murdering Stephen Lawrence will serve 15 years each. Yet in a striking way, the murder of Stephen Lawrence has come to mean much more than convicting two teenage racists. This time it is the Metropolitan Police accused of "institutional racism", but nobody believes that it stops there.

After Lawrence, we all see that racism is not a mutant outgrowth of a few mad bad thugs in the abandoned suburbs but part of the humdrum normality of a whole society still quietly discriminating between 'ins' and 'outs' and between 'us' and 'them'.

Writing over a decade ago, the MacPherson Report captured what it called "institutional racism", not only in the obvious violence of a murder but also in the "processes, attitudes, and behaviour, which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping, which disadvantages minority ethnic people."

In other words, racism disappears from view when it is not immediately violent but it lives on in the nether world of prejudice, denial and ignorance which goes with the everyday small steps of going with the flow. Tragically, it seems only a brutal murder of a teenager forces us to see it, and only the public shame which comes from seeing makes us act.

All of this has lessons for us.

Perhaps we have seen so many shocking incidents to make us wish that it would all go away rather than shaming us into doing something about it. So 18 years after ceasefires, we have no idea why we can't really apologise for the hate- violence in the past that was just as brutal as the stabbing of Stephen Lawrence.

The good news is that race-hate crime in Northern Ireland has reduced in the last two years, according to the PSNI.

But the years when Belfast was dubbed the race-hate capital of Europe were never a matter of mere numbers but a reaction to the naked use of intimidation to force people from their homes and to the dominant idea of 'normal' around here - that certain people live in certain places and that is that. The sheer normality of attacks on gay men and women should be shocking but is still treated as workaday normal.

The lesson from the Lawrence case is that racist murder does not emerge from nowhere but from the habits treated as normal in our institutions and culture and which amount to racism.

It is not enough to deal with sectarianism or racism by institutions or by laws, vital as they are. Even less can we go on as normal in the face of a pattern of behaviour which is having terrible consequences.

Furthermore, if we don't deal with it - by leadership, by laws, by co-ordinated actions, by example, by education and by getting to know each other as human beings and not just as groups - we will find ourselves in a new round of whites against blacks, Muslims against Jews, Catholics against Protestants.

Diane Abbott may be right if she says that some white people have sought to manipulate race issues to the disadvantage of black people, but she is surely wrong to call for fronts of racial solidarity or to draw new lines of good guys and bad guys with the labels reversed.

In a world of such enormous complexity, more of 'us against them' in the present only deepens our crisis and never resolves it.

What Doreen and Neville Lawrence did was insist that it is never acceptable for their son or for anybody to be killed for being black and that the culture of casual racism which led the police to treat their son as a suspect not a victim had to change. This is the first base of human rights and the first base of a shared future. If we believe it, there can be no alternative to putting it front and centre in everything we do - especially in a place that has been defined by hate for generations.

Just because it happened over there doesn't mean that it has no lessons for us.

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