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Doreen Lawrence: 25 years on – ‘Brexit gave people permission to be racist’

Since the murder of her son Stephen, Doreen Lawrence has fought for justice and racial harmony. EMMA JONES hears what she thinks Britain still needs to do to combat discrimination.

It is almost 25 years since Stephen Lawrence was murdered in south east London in a sickening racist attack. He would now be 43. Now Stephen’s mother and tireless anti-racism campaigner, Baroness Doreen Lawrence, says she fears Brexit has provided fertile ground for racism to rear its head. She believes the referendum means ‘people have been given permission to be racist’. Nearly 20 years since the Macpherson report branded some parts of the police ‘institutionally racist,’ and concluded ‘Stephen Lawrence’s murder was solely and unequivocally motivated by racism,’ Lawrence thinks the issues that contributed to his death have not gone away, and must not be brushed aside as something ‘dealt with’ and resolved. Speaking an event at the University of Westminster she said: ‘I think after the report about institutional racism, people were always looking at ways to not raise their head to say racism exists. ‘Since the referendum, it’s as though the result has given them the permission to be racist towards people, people of colour, people of other religions… which for me, I don’t understand, because we all live in the same country we all have the same needs. There might be a minority of people who cause problems. But not the majority of the people. The majority of people work within this country, they want to live peacefully.’ Having been made a member of the House of Lords in 2013, Lawrence, 64, sees the Government’s inadequate response to the referendum result as a failure. Particularly, the lack of security given to people affected by the growth in racist attacks, and the climate surrounding them. ‘The referendum has caused so many problems for so many people,’ she added. ‘I sit in the House of Lords, and sometimes I listen to what is going on and the reports about how the Government is addressing it, and my conclusion is they are not addressing it in the right way, and people are still suffering. What are they going to do to change it? ‘I haven’t seen anything that the Government has come out with that will make a difference.’ Her words are timely – the following day, yet another Government report on racism is published, called the Race Disparity Audit, an initiative by Theresa May to eradicate the divide by the numbers. It shows: Black Caribbean pupils are permanently excluded from school three times (0.29%) as often as white British classmates (0.1%); White British pupils on free school meals perform the worst at key stage two, with just 32% reaching the expected level; Unemployment among black, Asian and minority ethnic people (8%) is nearly double that of white Britons (4.6%).

If the stats sound familiar, they are – most of the key findings have been known for years, but little has been done. Lawrence is spot on: ‘I think they [the Government] said they are aware and they have shown concerns but the question remains, what are they doing in order to help and support those people who are experiencing racism as a result?’ Is there a growing problem with tolerance or is it that the referendum unleashed a latent racism that was there all along? ‘Racism has never gone away and I think after the report [Macpherson] came out people thought ‘OK, we’ve done that we can move on now’. But I don’t believe racism ever went away. ‘It’s definitely not something that is going to happen overnight and it needs all of us to be working at it. ‘The government can play party politics at times, when its suits them, but it’s the people on the receiving end who are suffering and the question is, what it is that the people in power are going to do about it? After all it’s not just the saying, it’s the doing, that makes the difference.’ Lawrence said she believes that misinformation and misconceptions around immigration are to blame for the sentiments that give rise to today’s racism. And she also said she thought it was a case of history repeating itself. ‘If you go back to the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s and Enoch Powell and the Rivers of Blood speech, what the British people were never told was the reason why people went across to the Caribbean to bring them here to do the work was to do the work that the British people wouldn’t do. That was never explained to the public. So the public feels resentment because of people coming over here and having to do the jobs that they won’t do. The same thing is happening now. Where people are talking about Eastern European’s coming over and taking our jobs, they are being paid less money and all the rest of it. It because the people here actually need people to do this. They don’t realise it’s because of a need. People start complaining about the teaching staff and the nursing staff but soon they won’t be here. We are beginning to see droves of people going back and pretty soon the NHS won’t have people to do the work, so what are they going to do? So, unless you start explaining the reasons people are here then people just assume all the Polish and whoever are just coming over here and taking our jobs. The reality is that isn’t true. They are here providing a service.’ Lawrence believes part of the answer is to accurately reflect what is going and change in the way ethnic groups are represented in the British press. ‘I think it is a problem because many times you only ever see the negative side of what happens in the black community,’ she said. ‘I’ve been to places where teenage black boys have achieved and gone to Oxford and Cambridge, that’s never reported. You never hear the positive side. Anything negative gets reported.’ After a quarter of a century fighting for justice for her late son, next year Lawrence wants to commemorate the anniversary with a day of reflection, a moment to stop and think collectively about the issues facing society today. I want to have a day. A day where young people, people in schools think about Stephen, the things that have happened within the law as a result. How things have changed, about how to be tolerant, just so people can start talking about issues that may concern them, their families or their friends and what do we do to change that. ‘So as the next generation grow up they do not have this thing in their heads that race is something that you can use against somebody. How do we all work together? We live in one world and the idea that we are out there killing each other, finding ways to do wrong to each other, that needs to stop. We need to survive all of this.’ One of the remarkable strengths of Lawrence is her ability to fight the establishment without bitterness. She is careful to avoid an adversarial ‘them and us’ tone. She talks about qualities British people share rather than differences between us, and her belief the majority are law-abiding people craving harmony. When asked by a young black man in the audience, if she thought the black community were being too tolerant in the fight against racism, her reply reflected her view that non-aggression is the answer. ‘I think of Nelson Mandela, the mere fact that he went through so much and came out of prison after 20-odd years and he still didn’t bear a grudge and was able to say he wanted to be president of everybody. He wanted to see the whole country live as one. We shouldn’t have to fight. When Stephen died, I had no idea I would have to fight to get justice. My shock was that, as a black person I don’t deserve that, in their eyes, why should they bother? So I had to prove to them as an individual and as a family we had every right to expect that. We shouldn’t have to fight we shouldn’t have to argue our point. Wrong is wrong.’ Lawrence is humble, describing herself as ‘just an ordinary person’ and says she is still coping with the grief. Fighting for justice has been a way of dealing with it. ‘Its very difficult for me when people say, ‘how do you cope?’ The answer is I’m still trying to get through my grief. It’s hard for any parent getting up one morning and realising your child is no longer there. How do you cope? It’s how the justice around that operates, how the police deals with it, at least you know someone is trying to do something about it. Fighting for those things helps. It won’t take the hurt away but then you know somebody is doing something about it. A crime is a crime and should be investigated like that, not black-on-black crime, that title should never be there, and it should be investigated as a crime because by putting it in a little box it is not being dealt and the family are still suffering and the perpetrators are still out there. Those things need to change.’ Emma Jones is a writer and freelance journalist