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Institutional racism – time for leaders to accept the challenge of dismantling it

Jeremy Crook OBE, Chief Executive, BTEG

Sir William Macpherson, author of the ground-breaking Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report (1999), sadly passed on 14 February 2021. After a thorough examination of the Metropolitan Police investigation into Stephen’s death he and his distinguished inquiry panel concluded that the Met was institutionally racist, defining this as:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour that amount to discrimination through prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.

Stephen Lawrence’s family also described the Met as institutionally racist. Many black Londoners, then and now, agree with that assessment. Yet in 2020 Met Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick stated that institutional racism is an unhelpful term and means different things to different people, comments that were widely interpreted as a declaration that the Met is not, or is no longer, an institutionally racist organisation.

Let’s consider whether the evidence supports this claim.

I have been advising the Met on race equality for a decade, and for the last three years have engaged directly with Commissioner Dick in my (unpaid) role on the Met’s External Advisory Board (EAB) which focuses on the Met’s equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) strategy and actions. I voluntarily chair the HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) external advice and scrutiny panel dealing with racial inequalities in the workforce and in their service delivery to black, Asian and other minority groups. BTEG services the EQUAL National Independent Advisory Group, which is tackling the racial inequalities in the criminal justice system exposed by the Lammy review in 2017.  

In all these advisory bodies we take an evidence-based approach; examining the ethnicity data collected by the Met, HMPSS and other criminal justice agencies, as well as criminal justice data placed on the government’s Ethnicity, Facts and Figures website.

The underrepresentation of black staff at senior level is a pattern across all these agencies, but to focus on the Met:

  • Only 4% of officers in the Met are black; to reflect London’s population it should be nearer to 13%.
  • There are only 146 black officers (out of 6,200) above the rank of constable and only 3 black Superintendents (out of 85).
  • It takes black officers, on average, two years longer than white officers to reach Inspector level.

The Met’s own evidence shows ethnic disparities in staff workplace experiences, including:

  • In a recent survey of Met officers and staff (2020), 80% of white respondents reported that they are treated with fairness and respect compared with 73% BAME respondents and only 69% of black respondents.
  • Black and Asian officers are more likely to instigate grievances and employment tribunals (It is also high for officers with disabilities).

I recently watched, not for the first time, a distressed senior Asian officer describe the routine racism she battled with at every stage of her journey up the Met career ladder to Superintendent. She acknowledged that there had been progress in the Met but believed it was still institutionally racist. For any black or Asian individual to rise through the ranks and STAY there for a period - they possess extraordinary resilience.

The Met’s exit survey data of officers leaving the service shows black and Asian officers broadly leave the Met early for the ‘same’ reasons and in similar proportions in the first four years of service. This is hard to square given the evidence above. It begs the question of whether black and Asian officers are completely candid in exit interviews; there are several reasons why they might not be, including wanting a good reference, and whether they see any value in sharing their experience with an organisation that in their eyes treated them unfairly and failed to tackle their issues. Action Plan - Transparency, Accountability and Trust in Policing

Confidence in the Met amongst black Londoners, particularly young black people, is exceptionally low. Black communities are concerned at the extraordinarily high number of young black men that are stopped and searched by Met officers every day, the use of force, deaths in custody, the database created to tackle youth violence which is overwhelmingly comprised of young black males. Campaign groups and the Information Commissioner's Office called the Met out on this database; there was serious wrongdoing in the way data was shared with external stakeholders and young black men’s rights were infringed. If the over-policing of black communities does not change the recruitment and trust gaps will never close.

Well aware of the challenges that under-representation and racial disparities pose to its credibility and confidence among London’s black and other ethnic minority communities, the Met has outlined plans for 40% of new recruits to be from BAME backgrounds from 2022 and is actively adopting policies to tackle racial disparities in the workforce.  Metropolitan Police Service - Inclusion and Diversity Strategy 2017 – 2021

Policing a world city like London is a massive challenge. As citizens we consent to the police having significant powers to uphold the rule the law and protect us. In describing the relationship between policing and black communities the Commissioner stated:

...I recognise and regret the pain and anguish felt by many in our black communities...’

‘The Met is not free of discrimination, racism or bias. I have always acknowledged that and do now again...My job is to continue to try to eliminate any such racism and discrimination, however it appears’ (November 2020)

Institutional racism remains the elephant in the room. Since the murder of George Floyd and the global Black Lives Matter protests, the term has resurfaced in the public debate and within the Met and the Greater London Authority.

In my view, institutional racism describes a situation where an organisation, despite EDI policies, noble values and leaders making commitments to fairness and racial justice still systematically delivers significant racial disparities in recruitment, progression, retention and staff satisfaction. And, all too often, settles race grievances away from the public gaze, fails to respond effectively to the damage caused by racial disproportionality, has a pattern of undermining senior black and Asian staff, refuses to challenge and deconstruct a white male hegemony.

I believe institutional racism can impact on one ethnic group or several; it does not have to be in every department. It does not mean the whole workforce exhibit racist attitudes and behaviours. It does mean those leaders and staff that want to eliminate racism should embrace the challenge rather than denying the institutional nature of the problem.

Leaders, especially in the public sector, need to find a way of accepting the reality of institutional racism and be publicly resilient in their commitment to remove the toxic reaction and atmosphere that it generates.

We need leaders to stand up and lead from the front, be direct and accept that the evidence over many years shows that there is a serious problem; a structural problem, best described as institutional racism because black and Asian staff and communities are not receiving the same treatment and quality of service provided to white staff and communities.

Leaders need to use the data they have collated and explain to the public and their workforces that it points to an institutional problem that can and must be fixed. The Met and other organisations need to be proactive and analyse ethnicity outcomes in every department and at every level and make every manager and employee accountable to their performance on race equality.

Sir William and the Inquiry members made a historic conclusion based on extensive evidence. Two decades on, the Met is still trying to transform itself to become the most trusted service in the world, while London’s black communities are still waiting for evidence of change. The Met’s leaders can turn this around but they have to start in the right place. That means accepting that the Inquiry report assessment of institutional racism still applies and taking responsibility for ending this.

When the Met’s performance indicators show no significant differences on racial grounds only then will its leaders be entitled to declare the organisation is free from institutional racism.



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