Five years on - no common understanding of 'institutional racism' among police


Five years after the MacPherson report raised questions about the management of race relations in the police, there is still no common understanding of 'institutional racism' within constabularies, according to new research sponsored by the ESRC. This research is published today as a part of Social Science Week.

And there is a strong view among black police association Chairs that open racism has given way to a covert form in the post-MacPherson era.

A study by Professor Simon Holdaway, of the University of Sheffield, found that chief officers and the Chairs of the local associations often have 'rather different ideas in mind' when they refer to or discuss 'institutional racism'. And for minority ethnic officers, racism is lodged in a collective memory that cannot be dislodged easily by current policies and practices.

Professor Holdaway, a former officer in London's Metropolitan force, said: "This is a new and important finding of relevance to understanding racism within institutions and to the reform of the police."

His study of the black police associations operating in most of the UK's 43 constabularies, found that members have moved on from being police officers who happen to be black. Today they are black officers who are members of a black police association.

The research analyses for the first time the emergence of a shared awareness of racial prejudice and discrimination that brought minority ethnic officers into new relationships within the police workforce.

It says that most of those surveyed agreed that their constabulary was institutionally racist. But whilst chief officers tended to point to such things as the outcome of policies and under-representation of ethnic minorities, Chairs of associations drew on personal experiences of racism, sometimes in the distant past.

Covert racism included lack of effort to recommend someone for training, a view that white officers use racist language when minority ethnic colleagues are not around, a furtive gaze or a sense of unease in the presence of a white officer.

The study says that black police associations are recognised formally within constabularies and welcomed by chief officers, who encourage Chairs of these groups to develop formal and informal, direct lines of communication.

It found that chief officers viewed the bodies as an important, secure feature of constabularies, needing support and a status similar to other staff associations.

Assistant chief constables and police human resource directors saw associations as an important channel for consultation about race relations policy and practice, especially policies for recruitment and retention.

But, says the report, for Chairs of associations, having the support of their membership was of increasing importance, and it was possible to become a bit distanced from them when much time was given to policy-related work.

In some cases, there was a concern that chief officers' support was no more than lip service - a cynical meeting of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary's criterion of good practice.

Many Chairs mentioned how white colleagues were suspicious of what they perceived to be an association that separated minority ethnic officers from the main workforce. Reasons for forming associations were often not understood and, in many constabularies, white officers had commented that they should form their own ethnic association.

The workplace culture of the police is described as exclusionary. Its racialised values, customs, ways of communicating and other characteristics are not seen as those of minority ethnic officers and police support staff, says the report.

Professor Holdaway said: "To be a black officer is to not be a white officer and to not be an officer who shares many aspects of the majority ethnic group's occupational culture."

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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