SYSTEMIC RACISM IN THE UK CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM: AN UNDENIABLE REALITY

police UK
by Alexandra Jarvis of IAS UK

The brutal murder of George Floyd in America this May sparked revived global conversations on the presence of racism in criminal justice structures around the world today. Despite this movement and its rallying cry across the world that Black lives matter, the UK’s systemic racism is entrenched and stubborn. Just last week in Britain, dance group Diversity’s performance on popular TV show Britain’s Got Talent attracted criticism after daring to depict police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement in their powerful performance. As activists work in the aftermath of the revolutionary protests and petition to push forward change, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) in Britain has launched an investigation into racism within English and Welsh police forces. Through this, it aims to assess whether Black, Asian, and other minority-ethnic groups are discriminated against by police officers and established practices.

Boris Johnson launched the commission in August as a response to recent accusations of racism enacted by UK police officers. However, the PM’s own refusal to acknowledge institutional racism within UK police forces suggests that, no matter what the findings of this investigation are, his government will not recognise deeply embedded forms of racial discrimination of UK public institutions like the police.

 Johnson’s unwillingness to accept the presence of institutional racism in the country he leads contradicts the findings of several key reports into the presence of racism in all its forms in Britain, including those published by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on racism and racial discrimination, E. Tendayi Achiume. Achiume conducted analysis regarding contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in the United Kingdom during her visit in 2018. While her report accepted some leadership is evident in the UK regarding racial equality, it critiqued the lack of work done to deconstruct structural forms of racial discrimination and inequality. Her findings concluded that Black, Asian and ethnic-minority individuals are subject to poorer outcomes in British life and that, in particular, austerity, criminal justice, counter-terrorist and immigration policies continue to promote racial and religious discrimination and inequality. 

austerity, criminal justice, counter-terrorist and immigration policies continue to promote racial and religious discrimination and inequality.

The IOPC investigation will consider the impact of the infamous stop-and-search policy, controversial due to the disproportionate figures showing how Black individuals are subject to being stopped and searched at skyrocketing rates in comparison to other ethnic groups. Stop-and-search only reinforces distrust between the police force and black people, allowing for racist assumptions and behaviours to be enacted by the police force against BAME asylum seekers, migrants and British citizens.

 In further analysis of racism within Britain’s criminal justice system, The Lammy Review, published by Labour MP David Lammy in 2017, has been imperative in deconstructing how racism pervades the British criminal justice system. Some of the key findings within the report include statistics that show 41% of Black defendants pleaded guilty in England and Wales between 2006-2014 compared to 31% of white defendants, losing the chance of reduced sentences for Black offenders and creating a lack of trust in the criminal justice system to not discriminate against Black individuals. Further findings show that 227 BAME women are sent to prison for drug offences for every 100 white women and that only 7% of court judges are BAME. What’s more, while Black people make up 13% of the UK’s total population, they contribute to 25% of the UK prison population. It is clear from these findings that Black, Asian and ethnic-minority individuals are hit hardest by divisive and punitive government measures and practices, and are still subject to profiling and unequal treatment within our country’s criminal justice structures: how can there be justice in light of such unjust figures? 

Ignoring systemic racism in the UK and its institutions not only denies the lived experiences of Black and ethnic minority people

Boris Johnson’s ongoing denial of the presence of institutional racism in Britain is intent on separating the UK from America in a way that reduces the political and cultural discourse to gun violence. However, as the United Nations and Lammy review reports show, just because UK police forces do not carry guns does not mean they are devoid of racism. Far-right and so-called alt-right figures such as author Douglas Murray wilfully distort the international call for anti-racist policies and discussions by arguing that Black Lives Matter is “the globalisation of a specific American racial issue”; Johnson feeds this narrative with his unwillingness to stand with Black and ethnic minority communities. The refusal to acknowledge Britain’s racist history and therefore entrenched racial inequality in institutions such as the police force show how disasters have happened under the Conservative party: one of the most racist, anti-immigration policies of recent political times, the Windrush scandal, is a clear example of this. This saw Caribbean migrants who were encouraged to migrate to Britain decades earlier, and their descendants – individuals with British citizenship – suddenly stripped of their rights amid hostile immigration policies.

Ignoring systemic racism in the UK and its institutions not only denies the lived experiences of Black and ethnic minority people; but also the findings of detailed, researched reports that have been conducted and published by experts. The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, conducted and published in 1987 after the racist murder of teenage Stephen Lawrence and the lacklustre police response in bringing his killers to justice, often refers to “unwitting racism”, suggesting “unconscious” and “unintentional” racism were present in the way in which Britain polices. These forms of racism are just as perverse and damaging as Black men like Floyd being murdered by police in the US. Denying them, as Johnson does, is a form of political gaslighting. The voices and experiences of anti-racist activists and victims of racism must be central to the government’s position on tackling this insidious form of discrimination. Justice cannot be served as long as the reality of Black, Asian other ethnic minority communities’ experiences are sidelined or silenced. 

Featured image CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 tbz.photo


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