Is the UK Institutionally Racist?

“Broken and rotten, suffering collapsing public trust and guilty of institutional racism, misogyny and homophobia,” could describe, arguably, much of Britain in 2023. These, however, are the findings of March’s Baroness Casey Review into the Metropolitan Police (Casey, 2023).

Public confidence in the Met was already low but the rape and murder of Sarah Everard in 2021 by one of its officers shattered it completely. While some pointed out that it took the death of a white woman to force an enquiry, the police’s treatment of protesters at Sarah’s vigil would seem to confirm that their misogyny is colourblind (Grierson, 2023). Interestingly, the Met commissioner at the time was a white woman, Cressida Dick. Following criticism from London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, she resigned in February 2022 (Sandle, 2022).

In contrast with the treatment of protesters at the vigil we need only look at the response to the 2020 murder of African American George Floyd by a white police officer in the US (Karnowski, 2023). Protesters took to the streets across the UK in largely peaceful marches. These and Everard’s vigil all took place during the pandemic, yet, despite the Floyd protests being considered unlawful, they were allowed (“George Floyd”, 2020).

A cynic might suggest that these very different responses to public outcry at the monstrous acts of a police officer had something to do with only one being accountable to the Met. The Floyd protests also began a trend of vandalising and toppling the statues of historical figures with ties to slavery. This rough critique was polarising, seen by some as an erasure of history, but did lead to Sadiq Khan setting up a commission to review diversity (Mayor of London, 2020).

It would seem, with a shared history, it’s easy to lose ourselves in a US flavoured discussion on race and social justice. Popular American thinkers, such as Robin DiAngelo, have famously called out racism, linking it to “whiteness” itself. DiAngelo though, white herself, has been accused of projecting her own bigotry onto other whites, while acting like a white saviour (McWhorter, 2020). In the introduction to her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, she writes: “I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color. I define a white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist, or in the “choir,” or already “gets it.” (DiAngelo, 2019). And it is just this sort of Kafkatrap that has many scratching their head in confusion.

The Left in Britain seem to be shifting away from this idea that whiteness is synonymous with privilege is synonymous with racism. Dianne Abbott’s response to a recent Observer piece by Tomiwa Owolade caused her to lose the Labour whip and be accused of antisemitism (Finnis, 2023). Owolade argued that the idea that white people couldn’t be the victims of racism is “painfully misguided,” and that racism is “multidimensional” (Owolade, 2023). Abbott’s comments that equated teasing gingers with the holocaust is perhaps more baffling considering not only her own battles with racism (Bunce & Linton, 2020), but also the accusations of antisemitism within her party (Smout & Shirbon, 2020).

In response, Kier Starmer said, “We must never accept the argument that there’s some sort of hierarchy of racism.” (Cowburn, 2023). Which echoes the conversations on Sangita Myska’s LBC show on the day of the scandal (Bourne, 2023). But Diane Abbott is not some right-wing white nationalist, so what’s going on here? If whiteness does not equal racism, then what of privilege and power? Is bigotry the innate part of Britishness rather than anything to do with melanin?

Rishi Sunak is Britain’s first Asian Prime Minister and our wealthiest PM ever (Smout, 2022). This era’s Conservative Party has been and is replete with people of colour, but you might not realise that by policies alone. As Home Secretary, Priti Patel looked at using the Navy to stop migrant crossings (“Home Office”, 2020). Her successor in the role, Suella Braverman, once said that flying migrants to Rwanda before Christmas would be her dream (Syal & Walker, 2023). Both women are children of migrants.

Is this a case of pulling up the ladder after themselves? Or is it actually incredibly racist to suggest that people of colour should have loyalty first to people who look like them, rather than those with the same interests and loyalties?

Robert Jenrick, the Minister for Immigration, is white. He has said that asylum seekers will receive only the bare minimum in housing (Walker, 2023). Jenrick was the first MP to take in a family of refugees under the Homes for Ukraine scheme (Faulkner, 2022). Ukrainians are typically white Christians (Hrushetskyi, 2022).

“We have enough problems of our own in this country so why import more?” Is a British trope. Unfortunately, taking care of our own problems invariably looks like the findings of a March report from Children’s Commissioner Rachel de Souza (CC, 2023). It found that of the 3,000 children strip-searched in England and Wales between 2018 and mid-2022, more than half were conducted without an appropriate adult present. And those children were six times more likely to be black.

If racism comes to all ages, from all sides, and we’re aware of it, surely we’re becoming progressively better?

Thirty years ago this month, a teenager with a promising future waited for a bus in London. He was swarmed by a gang and stabbed. His injuries were so severe that he died before he could reach hospital. His killers were unrepentant and avoided justice for 19 years thanks to racism, incompetence and alleged corruption within the police force. Stephen Lawrence was black, and that was the only motivation for his unprovoked, racist attack and murder (Lawrence, 2023). It wasn’t until 2012 – long after the failure of two police inquiries, a public inquiry and the MacPherson report ­– that two members of the white gang responsible were finally convicted. These same men had been anonymously reported to the police by witnesses in the days after Stephen’s murder (“Stephen Lawrence”, 2012).

The MacPherson Report of 1999 had found the Met to be institutionally racist (Macpherson, 1999), just as the Baroness Casey review did 24 years later. While Sadiq Khan, speaking at the memorial for Stephen Lawrence, said that the Met is institutionally racist (Salmon, 2023), Met Police Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley prefers the term “systemic,” as “institutional” is politicised and ambiguous (Vickers, 2023).

Justice is anything but swift in this country. From the detention and sometimes deportation of children of the Windrush generation – those invited here to help rebuild the country after the second world war ­– to their long battle for compensation (Wyporska, 2023); and from the shame of slavery to the controversial matter of reparations. While it is common to hear, “You didn’t pick cotton and I didn’t own slaves,” as a rebuke to such talk, there is also the valid argument that nations like ours have stood on the shoulders of slaves and called ourselves giants.

Recently, the Trevelyan family, British descendants of slave owners, have pledged to make a £100k reparation donation to Grenada (Lashmar & Smith, 2023). On its face, this is heartening, and a good way of taking ownership and raising awareness. However, this pledge is just a fraction of the equivalent £3m that the family were paid in compensation following the abolition of slavery; with a BBC story reporting that Grenadian reaction to the donation was “mixed” and calling it an “inadequate amount of money.” (Nevett, 2023). British child of Ghanaian immigrants, Nana Akua, accuses Laura Trevelyan of “perpetuating a narrative of white superiority” and “victim mentality for black people” and wherever your opinions lay, it might be worth considering that so-called virtue signalling by whites serves, at best, only them, and, at worst, the broader injustices both historic and current (GBNews, 2023).

When it comes to racism and a basic level of tolerance, many are not seeking reparations or equity but simply equality, safety, respect. Yet from the reprehensible treatment and attitudes toward the Duchess of Sussex, to the racist abuse of the players who missed their penalties in the Euro 2020 final, the rot in our culture is as deep as it is wide. Is the UK a country tainted by institutionalised racism and intolerance? The institutions that create and enforce our laws would appear to be. Research published this month by the Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity at Manchester University concludes that we are, “not close to being a racially just society.” (Butler, 2023). And if you think it’s just a London matter, The Runnymede Trust, in response to the Children’s Commissioner’s report, said, “Our policing crisis is not just confined to London, it is national.” (Runnymede, 2023).

Is the UK achieving the genuine inclusivity of an increasingly cosmopolitan population? Well, Cosmopolitan implies sophistication and worldliness, and we appear both to be moving in that direction and away from it, simultaneously, and who can really say where we’ll end up when the rubber band snaps and catapults us in some unknowable direction?

The 2021 report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities offers, “Most of us come from an older generation whose views were formed by growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. And our experience has taught us that you do not pass on the baton of progress by cleaving to a fatalistic account that insists nothing has changed.” (CoRaED, 2021). Is that positivity or naiveté?

Stephen Lawrence’s father can forgive his son’s killers, but not the police. (Sky News, 2023). Individuals feel remorse, or they don’t, but they do die. Institutions can only be changed through collective will and determination.




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Bunce, R., & Linton, S. (2020, September 29). How Diane Abbott fought racism – and her own party – to become Britain’s first black female MP. The Guardian.

Butler, P. (2023, April 9). Britain ‘not close to being a racially just society’, finds two-year research project. The Guardian.

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Salmon, B. (2023, April 22). Sadiq Khan criticises lack of police progress 30 years on from Stephen Lawrence’s murder. Yahoo News.

Sandle, P. (2022, Feb 10). London Met Police chief Cressida Dick resigns after controversies. Reuters.

Sky News (2023, April 22). Stephen Lawrence’s father says he will ‘never forgive the police’ 30 years after his son’s murder. [Video]. YouTube.

Smout, A. (2022, October 25). UK’s Rishi Sunak becomes richest ever occupant of Number 10. Reuters.

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Syal, R. & Walker, P. (2023 February 6). Suella Braverman’s Rwanda flight ‘dream’ could happen this year, sources say. The Guardian.

Vickers, N. (2023, March 22). Met chief Sir Mark Rowley again refuses to use ‘institutional’ to describe police’s problems. Evening Standard.

Walker, P. (2023, March 29). Asylum seekers will get the most basic housing possible, says Robert Jenrick. The Guardian.

Wyporska, W. (2023, April 18). Message to Suella Braverman: you are betraying the Windrush scandal survivors, but we will defend them. The Guardian.

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