Racism, tokenism and totemism: the disturbing case of Doreen Lawrence

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Print screen from the BBC's website (URL: http://bbc.in/19LxEAn)

Print screen from the BBC’s website (URL: http://bbc.in/19LxEAn)

In April this year I wrote a blog which I titled ‘To Iconize and Canonize – the State We’re In 20 Years after the Murder of Stephen Lawrence‘. In that article, I examined the process of iconizing Stephen as the victim of a racist murder and canonizing his mother, Doreen. That canonization is now pretty much complete with Doreen being made a Life Peer of the realm in the last week.

In one sense, if one is disposed to be especially generous, this mother of all gongs could be seen as the expression of a ‘Big Ben’ of a ‘mea culpa’ on the part of the British establishment. I fear, however, that is much more sinister than that.

In the last few days, I have had many people from the Global African Diaspora, women especially, express their delight that ‘Doreen is now the Right Honourable Baroness Lawrence’ and that ‘there is one more of us in the Lords’. They all thought I was being churlish and as one put it ‘typically anti-establishment’ when I made the same arguments I was prompted to write in April, not least the following:

On 22 April 2013, senior representatives of the British state joined the Lawrence family in marking the 20th anniversary of the murder of 18 year old Stephen Lawrence by white racists. Leaders of the three main political parties and the Mayor of London attended a memorial service at St Martin in the Fields, near Trafalgar Square, to pay tribute to Stephen and to acknowledge ‘the debt the country owes to the Lawrence family for refusing to give up, ensuring those who were guilty of Stephen’s murder were brought to justice’. Beguiling as some might have found it, there is something both fascinating and deeply disturbing about that memorial, the presence at it of those leaders of state and above all, about the statements they made (…)

(…) I long to see a more mature and dispassionate debate about those matters, without people feeling that one is being ‘irreverent’ to the courageous Doreen Lawrence. I believe it plays into the cult of individualism when someone like Doreen is extricated from the wider collective, community campaign that was launched after Stephen’s death and that sent out a strong message to the country that the outrage needed a high level government response. The more what some see as her ‘victory’ is projected as a victory for a solitary grieving mother who was tenacious in her quest for justice, is the more it dismisses the power of and the need for collective action; the need for everyone in the society and not just African and other global majority people to declare publicly: No!

This is NOT the kind of society I want to identify with, or want to see children accept as ‘normal’. To say that is not to detract from the pain, enduring grief and steely determination of Doreen and Neville Lawrence, but rather to acknowledge that Stephen was a proxy for any of our children. He was not specially chosen as a victim because his assailants had reason to single him out. Any African person or group of African males would have qualified in the eyes of those hate-filled people. That is why so many ordinary parents and young people, as well as activists who had been part of many similar campaigns spent months and years campaigning with the Lawrence family out of a firm belief in the power of collective action. That is why I feel that what David Cameron and the rest of them are doing is such a travesty and is so very cynical.

Putting all of that to one side just for a moment and dealing with the establishment on its own terms, one wonders why Doreen Lawrence was made a Labour peer and not a ‘cross-bench’ peer. After all, she has been placed at the top of the totem pole by the entire British political class, not just the Labour Party. She is the revered emblem of the British establishment and an ambassador for the supposed ‘openness’, ‘inclusiveness’, ‘justice’ and ‘antiracism’ of British society.

In 2003, she was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for ‘services to community relations’ (sic). Since then, she has sat on various government panels and police service forums. In June 2012, she was guest on the BBC Radio 4 flagship programme, Desert Island Discs. In July 2012, she received world wide exposure as the totem of the British establishment when she took part in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, carrying the Olympic Flag. In October 2012, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 14th Pride of Britain Awards. And now, as Baroness Lawrence, she has reached the top of the totem pole.

Over the past 20 years, we have become used to hearing newsreaders say: ‘Doreen Lawrence, mother of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence….’. It is worth reminding ourselves that this is the profile out of which this creation of the British establishment has been forged. A mother seeking justice for the murder of her innocent son cut down in his prime while going about his lawful business; a mother who was able and was assisted by the wider African community to place her son’s murder by white racists in context and to gain strength from the active and prolonged support of activists and campaigners within that community, many of whom kick started the campaign that supported the Lawrence family in holding the Metropolitan Police and the British Home Secretary to account for the investigation of Stephen’s murder.

The experience of those campaigners and political activists and of the Lawrence’s legal team was of:

  • neo-fascists and ferret-eyed racists acting murderously in the belief that they had a right to control the black presence in Britain on behalf of ‘the silent majority’ of long suffering whites who were concerned about the impact of these alien types on the Britain they knew and loved;
  • a growing number of racist murders across Britain for which no one was brought to justice; the flawed manner in which the police investigated racist murders over the decades and especially the racial stereotypes and other racist baggage they brought to the investigation of such murders;
  • the lack of seriousness with which the state and successive Home Secretaries took the growing incidence of racist murders up and down the country;
  • the fact that the state and the police were sending out powerful messages that the life of black people was of less value than that of others in the society and that that attitude needed to be vigorously confronted;
  • the fact that in this much heralded liberal democracy, political activists in defence of human rights and in the struggle for racial justice were more likely to be put under surveillance and harassed by the police for activities ‘against the state’ than to be encouraged and given the protection of the state for safeguarding hard won rights and affirming the values that make the society a better place for us all.

Such was the context of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence and of the African community’s response to it, including that community’s guidance to the Lawrence family as to what had gone before and what was needed in order to put and maintain pressure on the police to find and prosecute Stephen’s murderers. Doreen and Neville Lawrence were not responding to the murder of their son in the course of a street robbery or a car-jacking that had gone horribly wrong. They were not responding to the murder of their son in the course of a brawl outside a night club. They were not responding to the death of their son in a hit and run road accident.

So, when Doreen Lawrence was awarded an OBE for ‘services to community relations’, those recommending her for that award succeeded in reducing a historical, community struggle for justice for Stephen and to hold the Metropolitan Police to account for the way they investigated Stephen’s murder to some liberal, do-gooding efforts of a courageous grieving mother to ‘promote good community relations’.

The words still echo: the dignity with which she conducted herself throughout a difficult period; her lack of bitterness; her determination that the tragedy of Stephen’s murder should be seen for what it was, i.e., ‘the evil deeds of a few racists who do not represent our fair and tolerant society’, etc. In other words, the state was valorising and distorting the conduct of Doreen Lawrence as a private individual and displacing her and her response to Stephen’s murder from the collective action and shared grief of a community that had every right to be fed up with the dehumanisation of African and Asian people in Britain and to demand that the police, the criminal justice system and the state afforded the same rights and protection as everybody else.

"Doreen Lawrence, opening conference of Healing History 2013" by CAUX Initiatives of Change (Flickr)

“Doreen Lawrence, opening conference of Healing History 2013” by CAUX Initiatives of Change (Flickr)

By removing Doreen Lawrence and her response to her son’s murder from that wider struggle and context, the state is not only able to indulge its pretence of supporting and valorising the ‘underdog’, of standing with her against racist and neo-fascists and of standing up for ‘decent British values’; it is able to pretend that there is really no need for all that activism and for the construction of British society and its institutions the activists would have Doreen Lawrence adopt.

Meanwhile, other campaigns proceeded apace amidst systematic and costly obstruction and obfuscation by those same state institutions: campaigns for justice for Sean Riggs, Azelle Rodney, Christopher Alder, Roger Sylvester, Jimmy Mubenga and more.

In April 2007, the year of the bicentenary of the Abolition of Slavery Act, I was asked to present a keynote address at the TUC Black Workers Conference, an address I titled: Remembering the Holocaust of Empire – Time for Acknowledgment, Repentance and Restitution. In that feature address, I was at pains to point out that:

‘It is especially critical for this and coming generations of white and black British to know how the enslaved Africans organized themselves and abolished slavery, and to understand how they were written out of history. People such as Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines, Ottobah Cugoano, Queen Nzinga, William Cuffay, Olaudah Equiano, Robert Wedderburn, Sam Sharpe, Nanny of the Maroons, Yaa Asantewa, Paul Bogle, William Gordon and other monumental figures written out of the anti-slavery movement.

Understanding of how the same process of writing black people out of history is at work today, especially in the schooling and education system and through the media.

Understanding and taking responsibility for the fact that too little has been done to expunge from the psyche of white Britain the racism on which its identity was constructed, and that the schooling and education system still shows no sign of putting that urgent task on the agenda any time soon. Seventeen years after the 1976 Race Relations Act was passed, Stephen Lawrence was savagely murdered on the streets of South East London. It took that tragic event to focus those in Government on the fact that the 1976 Act was largely ignored by public authorities and that racism was very much alive and kicking in just about every nook and cranny of the society. But even now, seven years after the 1976 Act was amended and a statutory duty placed upon public bodies to promote equality of opportunity, eliminate unlawful discrimination and promote good relations between people of different ethnic groups, public bodies are still adopting a minimalist approach to compliance with the requirements of the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000.

Understanding that there can be no healing in this nation while it stubbornly continues to celebrate and iconize the trappings of Empire. Many of us as African people crave those same oppressive trappings, like the Order of the British Empire, Member of the Order of the British Empire, Commander of the Order of the British Empire, without the understanding that ‘The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire’ (OBE) was created by King George V in June 1917 and bears the motto: For God and the Empire. It is one of the British orders of chivalry, created by the King to honour people who had served in the First World War in non-combatant roles. But in the succeeding decades it was used extensively to honour those who, for God and Empire, had savagely put down the rebellions and working class revolts that our forebears waged across the West Indies to put an end to the plantation system and to colonial rule. That is why when Tony Blair nominated me to be appointed CBE, Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the New Year Honours, 2000, I politely refused to go and receive that gong from the Queen. Let me say, in passing, that rather than preening ourselves and running to Buckingham Palace and proudly placing MBE/OBE/CBE behind our name, we should all point out to the British state that it is surely about time that they respect our right to take issue with the tag of ‘Empire’ and find a less compromised and less anachronistic way of acknowledging individuals’ contribution to civil society, be they white or black like me.

If 2007, 200 years after 1807, means anything, it must mean acting upon that understanding in a manner that clearly demonstrates repentance, humility and restitution, rather than jingoism and a celebration of Empire.

The canonization of Doreen Lawrence and her positioning at the top of the British establishment’s totem pole is disturbing for one very simple reason. We as the Global African Diaspora in Britain and the history of our presence and struggles here are already pretty much written out of British social history. Doreen Lawrence is being heralded as the person ‘who changed Britain’. The likelihood is that when the story of the murder of Stephen Lawrence and its aftermath comes to be written, it is the account of the canonization of Doreen Lawrence and the ‘magnanimity’ and ‘inclusiveness’ of the British state that will be recorded, rather than the state’s own complicity in the botched investigation of Stephen’s murder and in denying the context within which that murder occurred and in which the active political response to it by the African community was framed.

Future generations of black and white British citizens are therefore likely to be treated to a social history curriculum that includes a Wikipedia type entry on Doreen Lawrence, rather than the true narrative of the origins, trajectory and contradictions of the Stephen Lawrence campaign.

That is why, without wanting to diminish in any way Doreen Lawrence’s passion for justice for her son, we must not fight shy of pointing out the cynicism of the British state and particularly of the Labour Party in seeking to hijack and fashion Doreen Lawrence into its own grotesque creation.

In his hard hitting blog published on 1 August 2013 which he called ‘The Stephen Lawrence case has eclipsed the Stephen Lawrence agenda’, Lester Holloway, perhaps the most influential black voice in the Liberal Democratic Party at the present time, said the following:

Only revisiting the Stephen Lawrence Agenda, as opposed to remembering Stephen Lawrence or honouring his brave mother, will make progress (…) In that sense while I welcome Doreen’s new peership, if anyone will make an impact in reviving this agenda is it Professor John. If he was a Lord he would stand up for the Stephen Lawrence Agenda and articulate the arguments with intellectual force, passion and a conscious spirit in a way that would shake the Upper House to its foundations. He would not invite sympathy for himself but would instead make demands that are impossible to refute.

Generous sentiments indeed! This gives me an opportunity, however, to make my position clear.

It has been suggested to me more often than I care to remember that this person and that would like to nominate me as a cross-bench peer in the House of Lords. On each occasion I have resisted vehemently.

I do not deny any member of the Global African Diaspora or of the South Asian Diaspora in Britain the right to aspire to become or to be given a safe seat to be returned as a member of parliament. Indeed, given the fact that every Tom, Dick and Harry, Mary, Jane and Sue who is white is deemed to have the right to so aspire and be chosen, even though some of them prove to be decidedly dodgy characters as we have seen, it would be not only illogical but racist in the extreme to suggest that African and Asian people do not have the capacity, let alone the right, to become MPs or Lords. The question remains, however, what difference does it make?

As a Global African Diaspora that thankfully has not abandoned all hope, we have made the mistake of expecting that the presence of the likes of Diane Abbott, Keith Vaz, Paul Boateng, Valerie Amos, Chuka Umunna and others would make a tangible difference to the way we experience the British state and its institutions. Sadly, however, the only pertinent reference we can make as to their influence is that of the leadership installed or endorsed within the post-independence colonial states of Africa and the Caribbean. Essentially, they continue to operate within a hegemonic system that treats the black presence in Britain as ethnic colonies to be exploited economically, colonized and manipulated with the assumption of power sharing, joint decision-making and equality of opportunity, whereas the reality remains the complete opposite.

Diane Abbott MP at the launch of the Jamaica 50 exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (Flickr - CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Diane Abbott MP at the launch of the Jamaica 50 exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Baroness Lawrence will no doubt be lauded and patronised by a majority in the Upper House who exude entitlement to safeguard the ‘status quo’, confident that they could accommodate aberrations and exceptions such as Doreen Lawrence with magnanimity because she and the likes of her do not pose a threat to their power base or their capacity to maintain that ‘status quo’. Such is the elasticity of that system. For one thing, neither Doreen Lawrence nor any peer of African or Asian heritage has the social and cultural capital that gives them the leverage to broker power among their peers in the Lords. However powerful or gut-wrenching the statements Doreen Lawrence might make, based upon her limited experience and knowledge of that age-old parliamentary system, therefore, they are unlikely to have any meaningful impact upon the situation and struggles of those who continue to fight for justice in relation to ‘Stop and Search’, deaths in custody, school exclusions or the treatment of immigrants deemed to be ‘illegal’.

Since the 1987 General election and the much celebrated election as MPs of Diane Abbott, the late Bernie Grant, Keith Vaz and Paul Boateng, neither the Labour Party nor the Tories or LibDems have put ‘race’ centre stage on the political agenda, despite the ethnic penalty that generations of British born children of African and Asian heritage continue to suffer. Diane Abbott now has an impressive track record in respect of challenging the state about the schooling experiences of African heritage children. The fact that she has been clamouring within the Labour Party on this very issue for the last 25 years has not resulted in any Labour Government, let alone any other, addressing seriously the issue of schooling practices and schooling outcomes for African heritage children.

It will be at least half a century if not more before we see a critical mass of African and Asian people in the British parliament with the numerical capacity to make a difference to the way the state deals with issues of racial equality and social justice in Britain. By that time, I will have thankfully popped my clogs and joined the realm of the Ancestors. In the time and with the energy I have left, therefore, I am committed to supporting the empowerment of the masses of ordinary working people, of the dispossessed, marginalized and vulnerable in society to put an end to the elective dictatorship that passes for Westminster-style democracy in this society; a system that enables the likes of David Cameron and George Osborne, aided and abetted by a vacuous Labour Opposition to erase the fundamental rights for which heroic generations gave their liberty and their lives; a system that allows for the likes of Michael Gove to determine what our children should be taught and learn and in what types of schools, irrespective of their background and history.

The canonization of Doreen Lawrence comes at a price to the Global African Diaspora in today’s Britain, however much members of that Diaspora might welcome it.

Since the beginning of March 2013, I have been supporting the Burke-Monerville family in Islington whose son, Joseph, was shot in the head and killed while sitting in his brother’s car in Hackney on route to meet their father on 16 February 2013. One of the saddest moments for me was the morning I turned up at the family’s home to find Mr Burke-Monerville deeply distressed. He had just received a phone call from Doreen Lawrence’s personal assistant in response to a request he had made to Doreen for support and solidarity in their own campaign to get the Metropolitan Police Service and in particular Operation Trident to spare no effort in apprehending the murderer(s) of their son. What so distressed him was the response from Doreen Lawrence to the effect that she was sending her deepest sympathy to the family through her PA, but was unable to get involved in any more ‘casework’…. The family should therefore seek advice from Citizens Advice.

‘Casework’? ‘Citizens Advice’? It was all too bewildering for that grieving father, John Burke-Monerville. He was distressed because he felt that his expectations of solidarity, at least, in his family’s struggle for justice had been misplaced and that they were being regarded by Doreen Lawrence simply as a ‘welfare’ case.

My wish, and it might well prove to be a vain hope, is that we as the Global African Diaspora in Britain will examine critically the disturbing case of Doreen Lawrence and ask ourselves some searching questions: how have we allowed this to happen under our very noses? How complicit have we been in that very process? How can we develop and spread the understanding that despite the worthy and ceaseless efforts of Operation Black Vote, our power as a Global African Diaspora lies not so much in harnessing our electoral power to increase the number of African councillors and MPs, but in building a mass movement to articulate our demands, develop a vision of the society we want now and want our children and grandchildren to inherit, and deal with the pressing issues that successive governments continue to ignore?

Those issues include: deaths of African people at the hands of the police and others operating the institutions of state; the burgeoning African population in young offender institutions and prisons; the scandalous number of our children being excluded from schools year on year; the treatment of African teachers in the schooling system and in academies in particular; the perennial over-representation of African youths in unemployment statistics and the scandalous number of murders of African young people by other African young people year on year; the high incidence of mental health problems among young black males and especially those in prison.

Since 1998, Diane Abbott MP has brought together thousands of parents, teachers and community education workers year on year to discuss the schooling experiences and schooling outcomes for black children. In fifteen years, this has not led to the development of a mass movement within the Global African Diaspora in Britain to tackle the issue of African children in the British schooling system and the challenges facing black teachers, nor has it led to any Labour Party initiatives on either of those issues.

As I have tried in vain to point out over the years to the eager and expectant attendees at the Diane Abbott conferences, it is not for Diane Abbott as an MP, whatever her political agenda, to build or lead a grassroots movement of African students and parents to tackle the vexed question of what the schooling system has been doing to our children for the last half a century and continues to do.

The British state will continue do as it will and as it has done for centuries.

"John La Rose" by Campaign Photo Gallery (Flickr - CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

“John La Rose” by Campaign Photo Gallery (Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

As my late and dearly beloved brother, John La Rose, used to remind us at every opportunity, we as the Global African Diaspora had a life experience with Britain long before we arrived here to continue a life experience in Britain. We have made Britain the only home most of our children and grandchildren know. Most of them, therefore, would have no problem with the canonization of Doreen Lawrence in the same way that they have been socialized into burying hordes of young people like themselves, without the latter being victims of Aids pandemics, malaria or civil war as in other countries.

That is why the likes of me have a historical responsibility to interpret for them the significance of the response of the state to the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence and to the struggle for justice of his parents, Doreen and Neville Lawrence . That is why we must forever draw parallels between that response and the state’s response to the agony and protracted struggles of parents, spouses and families of black people who are killed while in the custody of the state, no less than to those whose children die senselessly at the hands of one another.

I would be gratified if the above or some simplified version of it is what curriculum leaders and schools are gearing themselves up to teach children about the elevation of Doreen Lawrence to the Lords when they return to school, but I would not be in the least bit surprised if that is not their preferred take on that event.

The inescapable fact in my view is that irrespective of how many Lords and Baronesses of African heritage they appoint; or MPs the Labour, Conservative or LibDem parties manage to secure in the next or any other future elections, it is the focused and informed activities of the masses of people in the Global African Diaspora, supported by other progressive movements, that will hold the state and its institutions, especially the police, to account and help young people of all ethnicities shape the agenda for the continuing struggle for racial equality and social justice and in defence of fundamental human rights in Britain; the struggle to make the future they actually want for this country that is ceaselessly failing to come to terms with the legacy of Empire.

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[…] that Ellison has reported as he did. Good in the sense that the state clearly believed that having canonised Doreen Lawrence and made her a Lady of the Realm, it had beaten its breasts, cried its ‘mea culpas’ and come to […]

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