Combating Institutional Racism: From the UK to Ferguson


The murder of Michael Brown has raised a variety of issues around policing, including excessive force, but perhaps more importantly, institutional racism. The initial reaction by police, to paint the victim as a “thug” or somehow violent has been a consistent theme in the deaths of unarmed black men. At a time when the public is looking for leadership from President Obama and the federal government, there has thus far been a weak response. The Justice Department has sent in investigators, but it will take time for any action to be taken. The US is not the only country that has had to face issues of institutional racism, and the experience of Britain may be instructive.

Britain has a long history of “race relations” policy, which followed-upon US civil rights legislation in the 1960s. When Tony Blair became the first Labor Party Prime Minister since the rise of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, race relations were at a low point. The murder of a young black man, Stephen Lawrence, became the focal point of group frustration. The Labor Government under Blair attempted to illustrate the difference between it and the Conservative Party by introducing a number of initiatives: the Macpherson Report (on the murder of Stephen Lawrence), the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, and the 2000 Race Relations Act which were designed to change government policy on race relations.

The story began a few years before the election that brought Tony Blair’s government to power. In April 1993 a young, black, A-level student, Stephen Lawrence, was murdered by a group of youths in southeast London. The events surrounding the subsequent investigation have been detailed in news coverage by sources such as the BBC. When New Labor came to power in 1997, there was a clear shift in emphasis to address racial injustice. With the failure to convict the main suspects in the case thanks to a bungled police investigation, the new government commissioned the McPherson Report, published in February 1999. The report highlighted the impact of “institutional racism” in the ethnic minority community of Britain and made many policy recommendations that would strengthen the 1976 Race Relations Act.

A direct result of the McPherson Report was the 2000 Race Relations Act that extended coverage of the 1976 Act to the police and other public officials previously exempt from the laws against discrimination. This Act holds chief officers liable for acts of racism by policemen and women under their supervision, creating a strong incentive for them to enact internal policies that root out racism. The Act also places a “general duty” on public authorities as diverse as the army, governing bodies of schools and sewage authorities to eliminate discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity and positive relations between individuals of different racial groups.

[The 2000 Race Relations Act] holds chief officers liable for acts of racism by policemen and women under their supervision, creating a strong incentive for them to enact internal policies that root out racism.

In addition to the foregoing laws that addressed access racism, Britain also adopted several laws that addressed expressive and physical racism, i.e., physical attacks against persons or property motivated by racial hatred. For example, even before the publication of the McPherson report, the Labor government enacted the Crime and Disorder Act of 1998. This measure enables prosecutors and courts to impose stiffer penalties for crimes motivated by racial animus. The law explicitly embeds crimes of physical racism into the country’s institutional repertoire.

Britain has not solved its problems of racism by any means, but the focus on institutional racism has led to greater sensitivity by the police on issues of racism, as well a greater sense of responsibility. There is always more to be done, for example I was recently involved in a discussion with the UK College of Policing on how they might address issues of diversity in leadership. It is also important to note that many police officers don’t carry guns in the UK, which means far fewer cases of police killing unarmed victims. What is clear is that throughout the history of civil rights in the US and Britain, it takes policy change from the top to address longstanding bias.

givens-100pxTerri E. Givens is a professor in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Legislating Equality: The Politics of Antidiscrimination Policy in Europe (Oxford University Press 2014) with Rhonda Evans Case.

Featured Photo Credit: Oxford United Against Racism by generalisng.

  • Dianne Marie Pinderhughes

    Thanks Terri, for inspiring and starting this conversation. Understanding that there are paths to changing policy different than our own, is an important move.

  • Dion E. Black

    So by calling it murder are you offering that the killing was unlawful?