Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


Larry Ray, David Smith and Liz Wastell (1999) 'The Macpherson Report: A View from Greater Manchester'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 1, <>

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Received: 15/3/99      Accepted: 25/3/99      Published: 31/3/99


These comments arising from the Macpherson Report are made in the light of our research on racist violence in Greater Manchester. This study, funded by the ESRC as part of the Violence Research Programme, is still in progress and our findings at this stage are tentative. The focus of the study is mainly on the perpetrators of racist violence, but we have also obtained material on the response of the police and other agencies to racist attacks and harassment.

The Police

The Macpherson Report (1999) commends the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, David Wilmot, for his willingness to acknowledge publicly that institutional racism exists in his organisation, and contrasts this with the reluctance of senior officers in the Metropolitan Police to accept that institutional racism is a helpful concept. In Chapter 45 of the Report, the inter-agency group in Collyhurst, north Manchester, is one of the initiatives identified in the second part of the Inquiry and singled out for mention as promising. There are thus some suggestions in the Report that the police in Manchester may have recognised the need to take institutionalised racism within the force seriously, and have found ways of responding effectively to local problems of racist violence. In contrast, the Report repeatedly notes the reluctance of many of the officers involved in the Stephen Lawrence case to accept that his murder was racially motivated - an attitude that was crucial in the failures to recognise the potential value of Duwayne Brooks's evidence and to mount a prompt and relevant search of the neighbourhood.

In Greater Manchester, we have found that the attitude of the police to the identification and recording of incidents of violence and harassment as racist varies markedly across areas. The Collyhurst case, where the police support and service a diverse and active inter-agency group, is indeed a good example of the kind of commitment to a strategic response called for in the Macpherson Report. There are, however, other aspects of the police response to racist violence that suggest that the implementation of policies that look good on paper - a key theme for Macpherson - is at best uneven.

When we began our research, the most recent figures showed that Greater Manchester recorded substantially more racist incidents than any other police force outside London, and showed the second highest rate of increase since 1989 in the number of such incidents being recorded. The latest report of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) on racial incident monitoring suggests, however, that the police in the CPS north west region (which includes Cheshire as well as Greater Manchester) are less likely than in any other area to identify as racially motivated incidents which are eventually so categorised: only 15% of these were identified by the police rather than by the CPS, compared with over 50% in Wales and the Midlands (Crown Prosecution Service, 1998). Police officers have claimed to us that it is common for them to submit a racial incident report form along with the file they pass to the CPS, only to find that this is disregarded when the charge is actually laid; but, in terms that echo the relevant sections of the Macpherson Report, members of the CPS dispute this, and stress that they can only prosecute charges for which there is sufficient evidence. As in the Stephen Lawrence case, evidence of racist motivation in acts of violence is unlikely to be found at all if it is not found quickly.

There are marked variations within Greater Manchester in the number of racial incidents recorded across police divisions (Greater Manchester Police, 1998). By far the highest number for 1997-98, 238, was recorded in Oldham, almost twice as many as in the next highest, 122 in Rochdale, which according to Census data is demographically quite similar in terms of ethnic mix and degree of segregation (Rees and Phillips, 1996a; 1996b), and over four times higher than the figure for any other division. Other figures provided in the Report suggest some peculiarities in Oldham: for instance, only one of the 238 incidents was reported by the Racial Equality Council, compared with 59 of the 122 in Rochdale (much the highest figure from this source in any division); and Oldham is unique in that the majority of victims - 116 out of 204 cases where the ethnicity of the victim was recorded - are categorised as white (the figure for Rochdale is nine out of 120).

In trying to interpret these figures, it is relevant to note that the Divisional Commander in Oldham has been featured several times in the local press over the past two years, arguing that the major problem of racial violence in Oldham comes from attacks by 'Asian' youth on innocent whites. This apparently authoritative judgement has been enthusiastically used by the British National Party, notably on its North West branch website (, where we are told that in 'mid-March 1998 the police chief confirmed what local residents had long known - that there was an epidemic in the area of racist violence by Asian youths against whites', and, on 4 February 1999, that 'Oldham's Asian crime crisis has escalated again this week, with Manchester Chief Constable David Wilmot finally speaking out in support of his embattled Oldham Chief Superintendant' [sic]. Inter-agency forums for the co-ordination of information on and responses to racist violence have ceased to function in Oldham, and the MEP for the area has been strongly critical of the police account of the nature of racist violence locally.

The dominant police interpretation of racist violence in Oldham is reminiscent of the attitudes of some of the police officers who gave evidence to the Macpherson Inquiry, and are criticised in the Report for their defensiveness and reluctance to recognise that the central problems of racist violence arise from the behaviour of whites. The Lawrence family, as the Report repeatedly makes clear, were themselves, with their solicitor, constructed as a problem by many of the officers in the case - as politically motivated (or manipulated by people with political agendas), unreasonably demanding, and ultimately anti-police. These officers apparently could not even consider the question of whether black people's general experiences of the police might explain the Lawrences' well-founded suspicions of incompetence and lack of care. Nor could they understand Duwayne Brooks's apparently aggressive reaction when the police, and not an ambulance, first arrived on the scene of the murder.

In Oldham, our sense is that while there have undoubtedly been incidents in which young men, mainly of Pakistani origin, have attacked white people in the street, these can only be understood in a wider context - one that has led these young men to conclude that the police can or will do nothing (or nothing effective) in response to repeated bullying, harassment and violence by young white men against young children of Asian origin. Their actions become intelligible when the chain of events is traced further back, as retaliation against what is perceived as routine violence and intimidation by whites; and the police figures on racial incidents can then be understood as largely reflecting the decision by many Asians that to report racist incidents to the police is useless.

The situation in Oldham does not seem to be typical of the Greater Manchester police force area as a whole. There are indications from the CPS report that police officers may in general not identify as many racist incidents as they might; but there is no reason to think that the impact of institutional racism is more serious in Greater Manchester than in other police forces. As the Macpherson Report notes at several points, perhaps the single most important source of a sense of discrimination and injustice among ethnic minority groups in their relationships with the police is their greater vulnerability to being stopped and searched (Phillips and Brown, 1998). In Greater Manchester the extent to which members of minority ethnic groups are more likely than whites to be stopped and searched is reported to be below the average for provincial forces, and well below the average for England and Wales as a whole, when the Metropolitan police area is included (Fitzgerald and Sibbitt, 1997). Locally, as in Collyhurst, there is evidence of a commitment on the part of the police to the development of a more careful and sensitive response to racist incidents; the agency of individual officers can make a local difference, within a structure in which racist outcomes are still produced as a matter of organisational routine (Bowling, 1998).

The Probation Service

We have had particularly close contact during the research with the probation service in Greater Manchester. It was largely as a result of existing relationships with the service that we were convinced that it would be possible to gain access through the service to a substantial number of offenders who were racially motivated and prepared to talk about it; and the research officer for the project (LW) is a Greater Manchester probation officer for whom a career break was arranged. We are hugely indebted to the senior probation staff in Greater Manchester who have consistently supported the principle of the research.

Nevertheless, one of the surprises of the research process has been the difficulty of identifying relevant offenders to approach for interviews. We should perhaps not have been surprised, since Sibbitt (1997) found it difficult to find perpetrators of racist violence through probation services in London, in part because the 'very culture of the probation service discouraged them from talking about it' - the visible signs of this culture including notices on the walls to the effect that the use of racist language on the premises was unacceptable and would 'not be tolerated' (Sibbitt, 1997: p. 68).

We were assured, in good faith, that this would not be true in Greater Manchester, where the policy was that officers should explore possible racist motivation with all offenders with whom they had contact. The research was also thoroughly discussed by the senior management, before the fieldwork started, with probation staff through the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO), and the local branch of the Association of Black Probation Officers (ABPO). Both were committed to supporting the research, and both reflected and contributed to the strongly anti-racist culture mentioned by Sibbitt; ABPO by definition and NAPO in practice had adopted strongly anti-racist positions since the late 1980s (for NAPO's stance see, for example, Nellis, 1995). But in the actual conduct of the research, we have found that many - though not all - probation officers tend to be somewhat protective towards people on their caseloads. They are adept at finding good reasons why offenders should not be interviewed, and in constructing arguments around the principle of confidentiality to impede access. The message that officers are expected to co-operate with the researcher has therefore needed to be reinforced several times by senior management, and the researcher has had to adopt a more proactive style than we envisaged initially. This has led to the identification from case files of several offenders whose pattern of offending suggests a targeting of black people, when the responsible probation officer either denied this or was unaware of it.

The probation response to racist violence is also limited at a more institutional level. The service in Greater Manchester is only now considering the introduction of a field for the ethnicity of victims in its case monitoring and recording system, recognising that if it is to implement its anti-racist policy effectively it needs to be able to devote resources more accurately and specifically to racist offenders. To date, all that has been routinely done is to include a 'module' on 'respecting differences' in the standard introductory programme offenders undergo at the start of a probation order. Other limitations include the erratic provision of information to the probation service from the CPS, so that officers may write reports for courts without being aware of evidence of racist motivation; and even when this is identified at the report-writing stage, there is no guarantee that it will be addressed as an issue in the course of any subsequent order, since the functions of report-writing and supervision are institutionally separate.

The Macpherson Report suggests that there is no particular reason to think that institutional racism is a bigger problem in the police than in other organisations, and, while we would be astonished to find probation officers talking of 'coloured people' or 'Negroes', as several of the police officers who gave evidence to the Inquiry did (with no apparent sense that this was offensive), it is clear that the probation service has its own means of denying and minimising racist motivation in offending. It also seems unlikely that a standard groupwork programme element on respecting difference will promote such respect among those who lack it; indeed, as suggested by one of Sibbitt's (1997) respondents, it might tend to promote resentment and resistance in people with a sense of grievance and little patience with well-intentioned middle class educators. The offenders discussed below are not deficient in resentment and a sense of grievance, whatever else they may lack.

Racist Offenders

On the basis of the video recording made in 1994 of the suspects in the Stephen Lawrence case, and the weapons - knives, swords and a hammer head suspended from a strap - found in the belated search of their homes, the Macpherson Report (¶2.18) concludes that they were members of 'a sub-culture of obsessive violence, fuelled by racist prejudice and hatred against black people'. Because it comes from work in progress, what follows from our research should be treated as tentative and provisional. Our interviews to date with offenders in Greater Manchester support the Report's view that the perpetrators of racist violence typically are also perpetrators of other violence, and of other types of crime. Theft, aggression, bullying and harassment are everyday aspects of their lives. Their specifically racist offences - those they say they would not have committed against a white person - are as opportunistic and unplanned as most of their other offending, arising from a combination of circumstances that makes offending possible and desirable. The key elements seem to be an apparently vulnerable target - a potential victim who is judged to be unlikely to resist, but who can be construed as having offered some kind of provocation or challenge; the presence of at least one like-minded other (also seen as important in the Macpherson Report); and some other disinhibiting element, usually provided by alcohol. The typical sites of offences are shops, garages and taxis; violence typically erupts when the victim shows some unexpected sign of resistance, such as complaining about theft from a shop, or non-payment of a taxi fare.

Typically, these offenders are young men (though two of the interviewees have been in their 30s) who see their home neighbourhood as having declined into widespread drug use and the violence and criminality associated with it. The objects of their racist violence - typically described as 'Pakis' - are resented for their economic success; they run the shops that remain, and drive the taxis on which these offenders rely, since public transport disappears in the middle of the evening. They are constructed as money-grabbing and arrogant; they are seen as receiving unfair special consideration from the state and public authorities. Their presence is seen as a symptom of a process of neighbourhood decline - to which, objectively, the racist offenders have themselves contributed, through their criminality and incivility.

Tentatively, we suggest that these young men feel some ambivalence about their own behaviour, which is resolved in classical fashion by scapegoating: the responsibility for the loss of neighbourhood security, of community, is projected onto Asians, who are then deemed legitimate targets of violence.

As in Webster's (1997) account from West Yorkshire, the perpetrators of racist violence construct themselves as victims, as overlooked, under-valued, and neglected. By virtue of being white, they are normal, but therefore also invisible; no-one pays attention to them or their culture. They were taught in school about other cultures, but not about their own; and the memory of this contributes to their sense of dispossession, resentment and grievance. In their construction of the issues, only whites ever get called 'racist'; the police secretly sympathise with their racist attitudes, but of course cannot say so - indeed, the police will use racist motivation when it suits them, to aggravate the seriousness of an offence. They also claim that their racism, though not their criminality, is supported by the local white community, who share their concern with neighbourhood decline and the loss of 'community' (Giddens, 1994). This claim is one of the techniques of neutralisation (Sykes and Matza, 1957) that they are able to invoke, as rationalisations of their behaviour or facilitators of it; others include denial or discrediting of the victim (for example, the claim that Asian taxi drivers always over-charge) and the demands of loyalty to one's friends. It has also been suggested to us that the claim of racist motivation could itself be a technique of neutralisation: violence against someone whose full humanity is denied is less blameworthy than violence against someone not thus stigmatised and devalued.


The Macpherson Report expresses the hope that its publication will act as a 'catharsis' - a radical purging (of defensiveness and denial?) that will lead on to 'constructive action and not to further divisive views or outcomes' (¶6.47). Its seventy recommendations include measures that would make the policing of racism far more central to police priorities than it has been, increase the powers of the Inspectorate of Constabulary, simplify and clarify the definition of a racist incident, improve care for witnesses and the families of victims, encourage a view in the CPS that, other things equal, prosecution of racist crimes is in the public interest, and improve the training of police officers in racism awareness. If these measures were successfully implemented, along with a successful effort to recruit and retain more officers from ethnic minorities, we have no doubt that policy on racist violence and its victims would improve.

But, as the Report repeatedly makes clear, the problems that were evident in the police response to Stephen Lawrence's murder were not in policy but in practice. This, rather than its well publicised failure to conclude that the incompetence of the investigation into Stephen Lawrence's death was the result of collusion with criminals associated with the suspects, seems to us the major (and inevitable) limitation of the Report. The allegation of collusion, believed by the Lawrence family and vigorously pursued during the Inquiry by their barrister, may or may not be true. The Report concludes that there is no evidence that establishes its truth, although some of the puzzling behaviour of police officers is certainly compatible with its being true. But it is also true that police officers responded ineptly, incompetently and irrelevantly to the death of Stephen Lawrence before the identity of any of the prime suspects was known. They failed to establish the nature of Stephen Lawrence's injuries, to give him first aid, to recognise that Duwayne Brooks was an important witness, and to appreciate that they were dealing with a racist murder. Inevitably, because it is the product of an inquiry into a specific case, the Report devotes much space to a detailed investigation of what the police did in the period immediately after the murder, and of the performance of individual officers. Equally inevitably, this approach allows room for the argument that these officers indeed failed in their duties (although the police were notably slow to acknowledge even this much), but that this was untypical, that they were exceptionally inept or influenced by racist stereotypes, and that other officers (especially six years on from Stephen Lawrence's death) would have acted differently, and better.

The Macpherson Report reflects an effort to transcend the limitations of an inquiry into a particular case, and the main outcome of this is its insistence on the reality of institutional racism. Not surprisingly, it is this, rather than its exposure of incompetence and lack of care, that has generated most resistance from the Metropolitan Police. Even John Grieve, head of the Racial and Violent Crime Unit at Scotland Yard, resists the term, and claims to find it meaningless. For him, individuals can be racist (the 'bad apple' theory), and racism can be subculturally reinforced (in the 'canteen culture', in which, apparently, racist language is as normal as it is for the violent offenders interviewed in Greater Manchester). But, though cultures can be racist, in this way of thinking, institutions cannot. The Macpherson Report argues, on the contrary, that acceptance of the reality and effects of institutional racism is the crucial move for the police to make, if 'trust and confidence in policing amongst ethnic minority communities' are to be increased (Recommendation 1).

The probation service has, in contrast, been quite willing to accept that its practices may amount to institutional racism. It is not clear, however, what this has actually meant for its day to day operations in Greater Manchester. A public acknowledgement of institutional racism is compatible with practices that lead to a systematic under-estimate of the extent of racist violence, and with attempts to encourage respect for difference that seem mechanical and formulaic. It may be tempting for other criminal justice agencies to respond to the Macpherson Report as if the need for change it identifies applies solely to the police; the Crown Prosecution Service, for example, escapes largely without criticism in the Report, as does the judiciary. Yet the evidence of the most recent large-scale survey (Phillips and Brown, 1998: p. 184) confirms the findings of previous work that discriminatory outcomes are not confined to the early stages of the criminal justice process in which the police are involved: black defendants were, for example, more likely than whites to receive prison sentences in magistrates' courts, and both they and Asian defendants were more likely to be committed to the Crown Court for trial. While the most specific messages of the Macpherson Report are for the police, the evidence of widespread distrust among ethnic minorities not just of the police but of the criminal justice system as a whole has implications, only hinted at in the Report, for other agencies too. Their 'uncritical' (Bowling, 1998) and non-reflexive 'common sense' practices can maintain the processes of minimisation and denial that characterised the police response to the murder of Stephen Lawrence; and, we should add, academics are no more immune from the temptations of such common sense understandings than anyone else.


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Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999