Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Racial Discrimination and Criminal Justice


Time to read

3 Minutes

Last week on 9 and 10 July 2015, a two day conference celebrated and contemplated 50 years since passing of the Race Relations Act 1965. Organised by Dr Iyiola Solanke (University of Leeds) and Mr Patrick Maddams (Honourable Society of the Inner Temple), the conference was fittingly supported and held at the august British Academy in London. Academics, practitioners, lawyers and policy-makers came together to critically consider the changes that the last 50 years had brought and looked ahead to what the agenda for the next 50 years might look like in terms of race relations. It was undeniable that much had been achieved and won (legally and socially) since the passing of the act and the people that attended and spoke, were indicative of that. Society, the media, academia and legislative frameworks had progressed and evolved, however, also clear was that more was necessary, and that although overt racism was fading, as a consequence of the passing of the Act and attitude change in society, indirect racism remains, everyday racism has now evolved and correspondingly, the fight against new racisms need to continue. It was resoundingly suggested that interpretation of the Race Relations Act needed to be better in its application.

As part of the conference, a public event on the evening of Thursday, 9 July, entitled Racial Discrimination and Criminal Justice in the EU, brought together a panel of scholars and practitioners dedicated to discussing how (and indeed if) the Race Relations Act had impacted specifically on policing and criminal justice. The intersections of race and criminal justice are all too often referred to in passing, rather than presented as the central question to be addressed, which is arguably myopic given the grossly disproportionate ways in which black and minority ethnic groups are policed and imprisoned in the UK. Hence it was apposite that experienced and esteemed panellists spoke directly to this issue and in as bold terms as the title of the event suggested.

Professor Ben Bowling discussed how the police were initially exempt from the original Race Relations Act 1965 and charted the trajectory along which, after many legislative amendments to the act, were now equally liable to its requirements. The initial contradictions of the police needing to simultaneously enforce an act to which they were at times most likely to be in breach of, was at the heart of Ben’s paper and demonstrated the vital importance of holding public bodies such as the police accountable to principles of race relations. Though levels of disproportionality in stop and search are reducing, the effects of over-policing and the under-protection of minority communities remains.

I spoke about the ways in which the policing of Asian communities in current times of terror had changed the terms of debate. Police stop and search of Asians increased by 26% between 2005 and 2009 and this demonstrated a marked change in policing styles towards this group I asked if we might think beyond seeing racism as solely a colour coded phenomenon and that it’s perhaps time to bring into view other modalities of racism that increasingly shape the lived experience of Asian groups, particularly in the magnified sphere of criminal justice. In charting the experience of British Asian Muslims from largely invisible to hyper visible, I showed the ways in which explanations of racism and structural causes had largely been erased from explanations of events such as 7/7 and the 2001 riots and replaced with discussions about cultural and religious difference and a lack of community cohesion instead. Though recognising how culture and hybridity are indicative of the myriad of identities within Asian and Black communities, there is a concurrent need for Asian, Black, oppressed and non-oppressed groups to unite along a broad based political unity, in order to continue the fight against new forms of racism.

Rajiv Menon QC (Garden Court Chambers) discussed his role in acting as counsel for Duwayne Brooks (friend of Stephen Lawrence) at the Lawrence inquiry and how, despite the fact that the charge of institutional racism levelled towards the police represented a watershed moment in British policing, nevertheless deaths in police custody and police disproportionality towards Black and now Asian men continue, unabated. The final speaker, Momodou Jallow (European Network Against Racism in Europe) talked about everyday racism in Sweden and how this was reflected overtly in police racist practices, which have resulted in appalling and avoidable deaths of black men held in custody and yet leave the police beyond reproach.

The varied presentations were united in their capacity to lay bare the realities of being policed, if you belong to a minority ethnic group in the UK and Sweden, and further demonstrated the need for action and accountability. All four speakers underscored the importance of focussing on the police as a lens of analysis; the police are gatekeepers to the criminal justice system and arguably the police and state are mutually constitutive, thus a focus on the consequences of policing and its intersections with racism was germane. Since 1965 although much has been achieved in the form of progress with regard to race relations and multicultural living, there is much, much more to be done, not least in unpacking the ways in which citizens continue to be policed unevenly. Bringing together the public and academics in mutual exchange around the issue of race and criminal justice was and is important and inspiring; race mattered and matters, and the British Academy event, its attendees and the ensuing discussions are a testament to that.