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To confront racism, Britain redefines it

Report on racist killing calls for change in how police, society treatpeople of color.

Workmen had finished scraping wet white paint off the plaque set into the sidewalk in Well Hall Road where Stephen Lawrence, a black man, died after a racist assault, allegedly by white teenagers six years ago. The attackers were never punished.

In the early hours of Friday morning, vandals had despoiled the memorial, now covered with bunches of flowers. A card tied to a bouquet of snowdrops said, "Stephen - Thanks for showing us things must change."

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But the question being asked far beyond the bleak southeast London suburb of Eltham where Mr. Lawrence was beaten to death is how the ethnic hatred that produced his murder can be abolished.

Last week, a landmark judicial inquiry called for massive changes in British attitudes on race. It denounced the "incompetence" of law-enforcement officers assigned to the Lawrence case. More startlingly, the report accused Scotland Yard - London's world-famed police force - of "pernicious and institutionalized racism."

Sir William Macpherson, the senior judge who wrote the report, has demanded that police throughout Britain should search their consciences and ensure that deep-seated prejudice against ethnic minorities is rooted out.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has promised to act on all 70 of Sir William's recommendations, including making Britain's Race Relations Act apply to all government departments, particularly the police (until now the act applied only to private industry).

'Profound change' needed

Lawrence's death and its long aftermath show every sign of producing an earthquake in British social attitudes.

Home Secretary Jack Straw has spoken of the need for "profound changes" in the way Britain's 3 million blacks are treated. He has paid tribute to Lawrence's parents, who were adamant about finding out how their son died, and why nobody has been punished for his death.

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Mr. Straw may not be accepting all of the report's recommendations, however. A proposal to ban the use of racist language in the home is considered excessive and a gross violation of civil liberties, as is the suggestion to allow the accused to be tried twice for the same crime, if new evidence becomes available.

In Eltham, as commuter traffic whizzed past the memorial, people stopping to look at the roadside plaque seemed genuinely puzzled.

A middle-aged man said: "I just don't know what to think. If the police are racist, does that mean I'm racist, too?"

A woman pushing a child in a carriage remarked: "It was bad enough for white youths to have set upon and murdered Stephen. But to throw paint at his memorial is just too much. Who could do such a thing?"

A constable standing guard murmured: "I'm not a racist, and I don't consider myself incompetent either. But Macpherson seems to be saying I'm guilty on both counts."

Clear consideration of the Macpherson findings has been muddied by official blunders.

Ahead of the report's official release last Wednesday, London's Sunday Telegraph published a leaked version. Straw initially obtained a court injunction to block publication, but it was overturned as a violation of press freedom.

And when Eltham residents reported that white paint had been thrown over the Lawrence memorial, local police sheepishly admitted that a closed-circuit TV camera overlooking the site was a dummy intended to deter crime - so there were no pictures of the culprit.

To make matters worse, Macpherson admitted that his report had accidentally published the names and addresses of dozens of informants who helped in the search for Lawrence's killers. The informants had to be given special police protection.

Against this background of errors, police in particular are coming under heavy pressure to make major changes.

Britain's black community is concentrated mostly in urban areas. Inner-city blacks frequently complain they are stopped and searched without reason and that, under questioning, they often encounter racist police attitudes.

Police admit that blacks are five times more likely than whites to be stopped and searched.

In future, Straw has decided, police must make a written record of every stop and search.

The Macpherson report also singles out for criticism London Police Commissioner Sir Paul Condon's handling of the investigation into Lawrence's death. During the inquiry, the commissioner refused to accept that his force was institutionally racist.

Sir Paul has accepted that he was wrong and has apologized to Lawrence's parents. He has refused to resign, however, despite calls for him to do so by civil rights groups and some members of Parliament. Bernie Grant, one of the few black MPs in the House of Commons, said Sir Paul "has a duty to go." Straw, however, replied that the commissioner should stay and begin implementing the report's recommendations.

Redefining racism

A striking aspect of Macpherson's report is its adoption of a much wider definition of "institutional racism" than has been accepted in Britain until now.

The term was coined by American black activist Stokely Carmichael in the late 1960s, to describe businesses and other organizations in which attempts at reform were blocked by the racism of individuals.

Macpherson says this "bad apples" view of racism is too narrow. His report redefines institutional racism as "the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their color, culture, or ethnic origin."

While the debate gathers momentum, for ordinary citizens, it seems, there are no easy responses to the death of Stephen Lawrence and its aftermath.

Attached to a bunch of roses at the Lawrence memorial was a note that perhaps reflects the country's prevailing confusion about how ethnic majorities and minorities should conduct their relations.

It reads: "A sick society produces sick people. The innocent get hurt and the guilty go free. Why it is so, baffles me."

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