Remembering Stephen Lawrence

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Stephen Lawrence, who died in a racist murder 20 years ago. Photo: Family Handout

Last week I stood on the spot where Stephen Lawrence died in a racist murder 20 years ago, on April 22nd. It’s marked by a smooth granite square next to a south London bus stop, a few wilting flowers alongside.

Within two minutes of us getting the camera out – a flashing blue light of a police car. A police officer jumped out – wanted our names, wanted to know why we were filming.

The memorial plaque in memory of Stephen Lawrence. Credit: Reuters

If any indication were needed as to the sensitivities persisting around this case, this was it. The memorial is watched via a security camera 24/7.

This evening, the Tonight programme talks to Stephen’s remarkable mother Doreen and others to assess just how far Britain has come since the murder which shook Britain and woke it up to the racism in our midst.

After two of the main suspects were finally convicted last year – Doreen said she felt at last she’d received ‘partial justice’. From what we’ve found – the many hopes and promises for change after Stephen’s death have also only been partially fulfilled.

The public inquiry into Stephen’s murder famously branded the Metropolitan Police ‘institutionally racist’. There were seventy clear recommendations to improve the whole of the criminal justice system and other parts of society in the way it treats black and Asian communities.

So what of the progress? There is no doubt that Britain as a whole is a better place when it comes to racism – no longer is a casual comment or an active display of discrimination acceptable. Multi-ethnic Britain was a focus of celebration at the Olympics.

Gary Dobson (left) and David Norris who were jailed for the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Credit: CPS/PA Wire

But some are bitterly disappointed in the police – in terms of their recruitment from black and Asian communities and in their treatment of them. A black person in London is twice as likely to be stopped and searched (Stephen’s brother Stuart has said it’s happened to him 25 times) – in the West Midlands – it’s eight times more likely. Only one in four staff in the Met is from an ethnic minority background – with very few in senior posts. This in a city in which forty percent are from black or minority ethnic communities.

When I ask the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, who has declared himself an ‘implacable’ opponent of racism, if the Met is still institutionally racist, he does not categorically rule it out – even 20 years on - saying that he ‘hopes’ it no longer is. He rightly points to the many measures which have been brought in to counter it.

But does he accept it may still be a ‘fair criticism’ ? – 'It’s possible' he says.

So in the wake of huge social change in the last two decades – has racism simply slipped off the agenda? In the face of improvement in the way we all treat each other, is there still an insidious problem which is even harder to tackle? What is the true legacy of Stephen Lawrence?

As his mother prepares to mark the anniversary of her son’s death – watch the Tonight programme, 7.30pm on ITV.