Racism: still real, but no longer speaking its mind?
In one of the oldest black communities in London, views are split in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence convictions
In Nena’s hair salon in north London on Wednesday, men were having their hair cut, and women were having hair weaves put in to make theirs look longer.
A television screen showed footage of a festival in Ghana, with pictures of the celebrations half a world away being glanced at by the customers of the salon. This area of Tottenham, Seven Sisters, is home to one of the oldest African-Carribean communities in London, and its streets are home to shops expert in black hair care, food and music. In recent years it has also become home to people from South America.
Barber Kwabena Boateng, 35, came to Britain in 2000 from Ghana, a year after the Macpherson report. Boateng said he had not experienced any direct racism, but said: “You can’t see it, but sometimes you can feel it.”
It is a common theme when people talk about the “Lawrence legacy”, the reforms recommended by the 1999 Macpherson report, which the then Labour government hoped would lessen racial discrimination in Britain.
Overt racism such as name calling, some do say, has lessened. But racism has become different in the way it survives, in how it is propagated and manifests itself.
Boateng explains it this way: “In this area you have the black community, but the white and the rich people have moved away in recent years.”
Dean Phillips, 23, also has the same view: “It’s kind of different, it’s not in your face, it’s more indirect. People won’t say racial words as they did back in the day. They don’t trust the police to do their job.”
Being on the other side of London from Eltham, where Stephen Lawrence was murdered, people in Seven Sisters are not used to having their opinions asked for. But some of the most challenging cases to do with race and the power of the state have been played out in this area. In January 1999, as Sir William Macpherson was honing his damning report on the police, officers detained an African-Caribbean man, Roger Sylvester. He later died, amid allegations of police brutality, which were denied.
Then in the summer, the area was the scene of the shooting by police of Mark Duggan, which led to community anger and to Tottenham being the starting point of the riots.
What is striking in this area is how incidents will become wrapped up into a narrative of racism.
Student Gloria Mpanga, 18, believes racism has lessened in recent years. She is hoping to set up her own business and vows that any attempt to hold her back because of her skin colour will spur her on to do better. But just below the surface there is unease.
She draws a comparison between the 18 years it took to convict Lawrence’s killers, and the time it took the police to catch and convict people for the riots: “In the riots they took the decision quicker than in Stephen Lawrence, it’s not fair.” Mpanga also believes that the police errors which left the Lawrence killers free, and the police killing of Duggan, are evidence of racism: “It is racism. Why shoot someone, even if he is a criminal?”
Community activist Stafford Scott, who is part of the Met’s independent advisory group, says there is little evidence that he can see of real change among officers.
The Met’s own statistics show that in the first six months of 2011, in the runup to the disturbances, there were more than 6,000 stops and searches in the borough of Haringey, which contains Seven Sisters, with fewer than one in 10 leading on to an arrest. If stop and account is included, there were more than 12,000 recorded instances when an officer stopped a member of the public.
“They keep stopping innocent people for no reason at all. They still can’t tell the difference between one black person and another,” Scott said.
National figures show stop and search is still used disproportionately against black people.
Unemployment in Seven Sisters is higher than the national and the London average, as are the numbers of people on benefits. Jobless rates for black Britons are higher than for whites, nationally, and a study for the Institute for Public Policy Research showed African-Caribbean youth unemployment growing faster than for other groups.
In one business, a Caribbean food shop, Donovan Smart, 57, wears a Santa hat as he mixes a banana smoothie: “There is not as much racial violence as before, it’s better. I think people are more aware of different cultures and the need to get on.”
Law clerk James Cameron, 47, disagrees: “It hasn’t changed Britain at all. People outwardly are more tolerant, but there is so much latent racism. People feel it every day.” As to the convictions of two of Lawrence’s killers, Cameron is not impressed: “It’s 18 years too late. It gives the impression they can commit racist murderers and they may be caught.”