Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


Kusminder Chahal (1999) 'The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report, Racist Harassment and Racist Incidents: Changing Definitions, Clarifying Meaning?'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 1, <>

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Received: 21/03/99      Accepted: 23/03/99      Published: 31/3/99


The attempt by Macpherson to clarify the definintion of a racist incident has further highlighted how racism and racist harassment are misunderstood and not effectively debated. This paper highlights some of the issues which emerge from the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry's definition of of a racist incident and whether it will be a useful tool.

Definitions; Lawrence Inquiry; Racist Harassment and Incidents

What is a Racist Incident?

There has been a debate regarding how to define racist harassment and racist incident since at least 1981, and this debate is central to how the problem is understood or more often than not how it is misunderstood. The Macpherson Report (1999) into the death of Stephen Lawrence and the subsequent events after this tragic event have also hinged on how a 'racist incident' is defined. What is interesting about the current debate is how newspapers have reacted to Macpherson's recommendation that the existing definition of a racist incident should change. It is the intention of this brief commentary to critically evaluate the new Macpherson definition of a racist incident and its wider implications.

The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report states that:

A racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.

Columnist Carole Malone writing in the Sunday Mirror (28 February 1999) was outraged by what this definition of a racist incident suggests:

Surely this is a blank cheque for anyone who has a grievance against anyone from another race. ... I have always treated black people in precisely the same way as I treat white people ... is that how it is going to be? Are black British people going to regard white Brits as the enemy and visa versa?

If Carole Malone does indeed treat all people the same then she has very little to worry about. However, she implies that the 'blank cheque' could be misused by black people. For a number of years it has been argued that existing definitions used by agencies fail to adequately explain what racist harassment is. Macpherson had the opportunity to clarify the meaning of a racist incident and racist harassment, but this has not been acted upon and clarity provided. Instead we are left with a definition which continues to imply that white people are just as likely to be victims of racist harassment as black people.

Carole Malone probably echoes the feelings of a number of white people - that black people will misuse the opportunity provided by the definition to brand all actions taken by white people as racist. Certainly, the Daily Telegraph's concern was that the Macpherson definition would in reality be unworkable and that any person could be branded a racist which would mean that the reported figures would increase quite dramatically (Daily Telegraph, 2 March 1999). However, given that versions of the Macpherson definition have been in existence for nearly twenty years and there has been no surge of black people complaining about white actions as racist is ignored by such scaremongering. The very fact that black and minority ethnic people do not report every experienced racist incident is because there is an accepted level of apparently routine forms of white racism (Blackburn REC, 1997).

The Macpherson definition is not new, for in fact it is a shorter version of the existing Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) definition, which is that:

Any incident in which it appears to the reporting or investigating officer that the complaint involves an element of racial motivation. Or any incident which includes an allegation of racial motivation made by any person.

It will not be a great surprise if the police adopt the new definition because, ultimately, it has not changed the emphasis of how a racist incident is perceived or clarified who are the prime targets for such incidents. The Macpherson definition is 'business as usual' in its misunderstanding of what racist harassment is and why racist incidents occur, and a definition which cannot adequately locate the motivation behind a racist incident is of little practical use to clarifying meaning. The paradox is that the Macpherson Report openly discusses "racism" and "institutional racism" particularly with regard to it disadvantaging minority ethnic people, and yet locating racism as a motivation for suffering a racist incident and its prime target being black and minority ethnic people is generally ignored by the Inquiry Report. In attempting to clarify what institutional racism is, the Inquiry should have also attempted to clarify what a 'racist incident' is, who it is aimed at and why. The consequence is that Macpherson's recommendation that 'this definition be universally adopted by the police, local government and other relevant agencies' (my emphasis) is politically naive and doomed to failure with regard to those community based agencies, for their frame of reference in understanding racist harassment is racism and their overwhelming case load is of black and minority ethnic people and occasionally their white partners experiencing racism. Moreover, for the critics of diversity and anti anti-racism, the Macpherson definition of a racist incident should be seen as a victory because now white people can claim that they are also the victims not just black and minority ethnic people - even they can see the absurdity in a definition which proposes that anyone can make a complaint about another person and apply a racist label.

If the Macpherson definition is to be the standard that police and other official bodies operate with, we need to ask whether there is there any useful purpose in continuing to monitor by racial origin just who it is who reports racist incidents and just who it is who experiences them, given that anybody and everybody can. And if we are to continue to monitor racist incidents by racial origin, we also need to ask what the purpose is, if the experience of racism plays no part in the racist incident. Indeed, in my view the whole debate needs to centre on whether there is any utility at all in having a definition if it does not radically alter the service that people are trying to access.

Stephen Lawrence was murdered by racists. An Inquiry established to uncover the facts failed to relate the murder to what black and minority ethnic people experience on a routine basis. The routine nature of racist abuse, insults and threats is the key to British society accepting that the black experience is fantastically different from the white experience. The Policy Studies Institute estimated that in a 12 month period covering 1993 and 1994 there were nearly 300,000 racist incidents experienced by black and minority ethnic people in England and Wales. 80% of these incidents were racist abuse and insults (Virdee 1997). Such experiences have been documented elsewhere (Chahal 1992; Hesse et al 1991). But such everyday experiences are rarely reported for a variety of reasons, including fear of retaliation, concern that a complaint will not be taken seriously, or that such events are too numerous to report and are managed as part of the lived experience.

Current definitions obscure the fact that black and minority ethnic people are more likely to experience racist incidents than white people, whether as adults or children. If all the research evidence suggests this, then why do we persist in having operational definitions which continue to fail to recognise who are the targets of racist harassment and attacks?

Misunderstanding Racist Harassment and Racist Incidents

The Inter-Departmental Racial Attacks Group (Home Office 1989) stated that:

It is undoubtedly the case that there are parts of Britain with substantial Asian or Black populations in which some white people are frightened of being harassed or worse by people with a different skin colour.

Clearly the Group had a limited understanding of the operation of racism. However, the statement also begs the question of how they know this. Why are white people afraid of being harassed or worse by black people - is it from experience of black racism or is it their own racism or paranoia fuelled by stereotypes? Bonnerjea and Lawton (1988) argue that white people cannot be the victims of racist harassment:

There are white victims of crime, of assault, of violence but there are no white victims of racism. Racial abuse about whiteness is powerless in a society which equates whiteness with privilege; intimidation of white people never calls into question white legal, political and civil rights in this country.

Thus the statement 'pakis go home' or 'nigger' and 'wog' have a resonance. They make a clear statement about black and minority ethnic people's position in British society. If a black person retaliates with a similar remark - 'snowflake go home' - there is no context of power. However, the whole life experience of racism which black and minority ethnic people experience is actively ignored and discounted. The development and use of definitions is just one means that this is achieved.

Definitions about any social phenomena communicate to society what is important and what is relevant. All mainstream attempts at explaining racist harassment/incidents have been flawed but have highlight that they are the product and a symptom of a racialised society which clearly knows who is the dominant group. No society is likely to declare itself racist 'by definition'. Thus anti social/racist behaviour is rationalised as a universal phenomena - in other words, it can happen to anyone. This denies the racist element of an action. Further this gives legitimacy to the claims that white people also experience and suffer the indignity of racist harassment. It is therefore likely that all definitions used and constructed will continue to confuse inter-racial incidents with racist incidents and reduce the latter to the former (see for example, CRE 1987, Home Office 1981).

Witte (1996) argues that in considering a definition of racist violence there needs to be a recognition that:

... the attacked person is not victimised in his/her capacity as an individual, but as a representative of a real or imagined foreign or strange group. ... Buildings, properties and institutions may be attacked because they are perceived to represent or symbolise these communities or their interests.

A racist incident is an act which is a power relation of domination between a majority (superordinate) group and a minority (subordinate) group. It is a doctrine and action of superiority regardless of whether a geographical area is pre-dominantly white or Asian or black. The teenage murderer of Ahmad Iqbal Ullah in a Manchester school playground in 1986 was heard shouting 'I've killed a paki'. Similarly, prior to Stephen Lawrence being brutally stabbed he was referred to as a 'nigger'.

It is difficult, given the overwhelming weight of evidence of who experiences racism, to continue to define racist incidents or harassment as a two-way process and ignore unequal power relations and the general climate in which minority groups are perceived and represented as different. Although firmly locating the victim as the key decision maker, the Macpherson definition fails to take into account the reality of who has power in the investigating process. It is na´ve to develop definitions of what a racist incident is which is based on singular events and ignores the inter-connectedness of black and minority ethnic people's experiences of multiple victimisation and ultimately of having their experiences denied as part of a general social phenomenon. Perhaps the key question to ask is whether the Macpherson definition would have made any difference to Stephen Lawrence, Ricky Reel, Imran Khan, Manish Patel, Mohan Singh Kullar .....


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Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999