One murder doesn’t make a racist society
The response to the killing of Anthony Walker tells us more about Britain than the murder itself.
The murder of black teenager Anthony Walker ‘proves racism exists’ a BBC Online headline announced after his killers were convicted this week. Few people would have doubted that, even without such a brutal death. But the implication of much of this discussion – that Britain remains a deeply racist society, and that nothing much has changed since the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993 – is far more questionable. Indeed, the Walker case can be seen as evidence of just how far everything has changed – and in the case of the authorities, not necessarily for the better.
Through a stream of reports and statistics today, we are bombarded with the message that Britain is an increasingly racist and intolerant society, where the number of incidents and attacks reflecting racist or religious hatred is continually on the rise and black and ethnic minority communities are apparently besieged. Any little local example of racism, from abuse at a football match to graffiti on a wall, tends to be picked up as evidence of a far wider problem. It was inevitable, then, that the murder of Anthony Walker would be used to reinforce the message about rampant racism.
The judge used powers granted under recent laws to declare the killing racially motivated, on the ground that somebody had shouted ‘nigger’ before the attack, and thus increased the minimum tariff to be served by the murderers – the first sentence of its kind in a murder case. This was reported as a deterrent measure, presumably aimed at stopping all the other white thugs assumed to be out there with ice axes. A week earlier, another judge had declared that the murder committed by three Asian men, who stamped their victim to death and then boasted about how ‘we killed the white man’, was not racially motivated. But then that killing did not fit the script.
Yet by any objective standard, Britain today is a far less racist and more tolerant society than it was 20 or even 10 years ago. One striking thing about all the comparisons between the Lawrence and Walker murders was that few seemed to notice the length of time separating their tragic deaths. If Anthony Walker’s murder was the first to bear serious comparison to Stephen Lawrence’s in the past 12 years, that hardly suggests we are witnessing a wave of racist killings. By contrast, 20 or 30 years ago there was more racist violence, and far less publicity about it. Indeed, the amount of political and media emphasis given to this problem has seemed to rise as the level of violence has fallen.
Of course there are still racist idiots around, of whom Anthony Walker’s killers appear to be extreme examples. The key difference is, however, that the prejudices of these few no longer enjoy the sanction of society, or the indulgence of the authorities.
No institution illustrates this sea change in official attitudes more starkly than the police. Their incompetent failure to convict Stephen Lawrence’s killers was widely interpreted as evidence of racist contempt within the Force. That interpretation was endorsed by the 1999 Macpherson Report into the murder, which found the Metropolitan Police guilty of ‘institutional racism’, a charge that was quickly extended to cover every police force and public body in the country.
In the years since Macpherson, the priorities and etiquette of British policing have been entirely reorganised to emphasise the commitment of the force (sorry, ‘service’) to anti-racism. Rather than ignoring allegations of racism, the police have gone out actively trawling for them, using Macpherson’s sweeping definition of a racial incident as ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’. This ever-expanding definition accounts for most of the reported increases in ‘hate crimes’.
When Anthony Walker was murdered, the Merseyside police moved with unprecedented speed and self-conscious sensitivity to catch and convict those responsible. While other serious offences can take years to come to trial, Walker’s killers have been sentenced to life imprisonment – with extra years in jail added on for their racial motivation – just four months after his death.
What explains this stark contrast in official attitudes towards racism? Are the police and courts guilty about their past prejudices, or have they just come to like black people more? Perhaps. It is also possible, however, to see how these changes have been brought about by the search for new forms of political authority and legitimacy.
In the past, racism acted as an important political force, a product of the strength of British nationalism that united much of the nation behind the establishment and cohered the authority of the state. Legal and social discrimination against Britain’s black and ethnic minorities, enforced from the top downwards by the political class, gave sanction to the casual racism that became part of the British way of life.
However, the old politics of race and empire have long since lost their potency. There is no longer a powerful nationalist consensus in Britain. Far from a conviction that ‘British is best’, the authorities appear to lack any clear sense of what it means to be British in the first place.
As they search for some new form of moral and political legitimacy, the British authorities have more or less stumbled upon anti-racism and multiculturalism. For them, these new orthodoxies are supposed to serve a similar purpose (albeit less potently) as the politics of race and nation once did for their predecessors. Anti-racism has been turned into a moral stance that they hope can give them some authority and sense of mission by demonstrating they are on the side of Good.
The Detective Chief Superintendent who led the investigation of the Walker murder gave an unwitting insight into how this might work in a remarkably self-serving statement this week. He explained how one of Anthony’s sisters had initially expressed doubts about the police. After charging the men eventually convicted of the killing, the DCS said, ‘I went to the Walkers’ house and the same sister happened to be there. I asked her, “Have you got faith in us now?” and she put her arms around me and said: “Yes, I have.”’ Such touching tales are meant to encourage us all to have faith in the police as a Force for Good.
It is undoubtedly a good thing that we live in more tolerant times. The authorities’ attempt to turn anti-racism into a moral crusade, however, has done little to help create a more free and equal society.
For example, in the name of anti-racism, we have witnessed a dangerous drift in the law. Take the fact that a judge can now double the tariff for a life sentence by declaring a murder to be racially motivated. Here the law is moving from holding people accountable for what they do, to punishing them for what hatred the judge deems was in their mind at the time – an area that might once have been considered thought crime. The result is effectively to create a politically assessed hierarchy of murders, where one can be considered more serious than another based on the presumed racial prejudices of the killer. Those men should have been judged for sticking an axe in Anthony Walker’s head, not for what m’lud decided was going on in theirs. Some will inevitably ask why the murder of a black man by another black man, or a white man by an Asian, is not treated in the same way.
The authorities’ moral crusade against racism is based on a stereotype of the white working class which, by treating such lumpen dregs as Anthony Walker’s killers as typical, suggests that the British proles are a race riot waiting to happen. These are now the one minority group whom it is socially acceptable to pillory; by contrast, imagine the reaction today if anybody in authority attempted to resurrect the old stereotype of muggers as the face of the black community. It is worth recalling that, when racial politics first reared its ugly head in Victorian Britain, it was aimed against the white lower orders accused of contaminating the nation’s racial pool.
The tendency to view every incident between people of different communities as evidence of rampant racism can only help to racialise society, reinforcing a divisive sense of grievance on all sides. It undermines any attempt to create a genuinely tolerant society, where the law must be based on universal standards that treat all equally as citizens, not members of competing minorities.
The racism of yesteryear may have played its part in the murder of Anthony Walker. But the responses shaped by the politics of anti-racism and multiculturalism reveal another pressing problem for today.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.