Fightback: The Movement Against Racial Profiling in Europe

Clarence Lusane. Souls. Volume 10, Issue 4. 2008.


In 2003 Mark Daley, a British journalist working for the BBC, went undercover to investigate racism among the police. He applied and was accepted at the Manchester police academy where he received training, finished the course, and even served on the street briefly as a police constable. He secretly filmed and recorded discussions (excerpted above) with many of his fellow trainees and documented the racist statements and views that some held, positions that are grounds for immediate dismissal under the rules of police services. After the release of his report three of the officers were suspended and five resigned. Though sensationalized, as is often the case with British documentaries, the program found a deep resonance among the U.K.’s Black and Asian communities, who have long argued that they suffer racial profiling and disproportionate abuse and discrimination at the hands of the British police and the criminal justice system (CJS) in general. These circumstances are echoed throughout Europe.

Racial and ethnic profiling has long shaped the experiences of citizens and immigrants of color across all of Europe. In recent years, state responses to terrorist attacks and attempted attacks in Europe: in July 2005 and June 2007 in the U.K., in March 2004 in Madrid, and the riots in France in October and November 2005, have increased anxieties among minority communities fearful that a racial backlash will come not only from traditional right-wing sources, but also from the region’s security and policing services. These fears are warranted.

Communities are fighting back, however. Across the region, local and regional non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including many led by or significantly comprised of people of African descent, have challenged the retreat of states on discrimination. The result has been mixed, but activists have forced states to adopt progressive policies and their ongoing mobilization continues.

The always-explosive relationship between race/ethnicity and crime in Europe has been especially tense in recent years. In a broader context, this tension is occurring during a period of dramatic transitions across Europe as a whole. In Western Europe, deindustrialization, increased immigration, and the collapse of social democratic governance and its generous welfare policies are feeding social tensions that manifest in a number of ways, including racial and cultural nationalism and xenophobia. Globalization and neoliberal economic policies have eroded the life-conditions and chances for millions in Europe and some of those are looking for someone to blame. These sentiments are often expressed in the violence of policing and security forces across the region.

Numerous explanations have been proffered to explain the tensions and history of strife between racial and ethnic minority communities and the policing services. One view, a blame-the-victim approach, argues that it is those communities themselves that are responsible for their poor relationship with the police. This “color blind” perspective denies the existence of racism in European societies. A second approach sees minority communities’ lack of integration as the cause of the problem. However, because the assimilation process is conducted on terms external to these communities, this perspective also squarely blames the victim. While the first approach demands little of the state other than more policing and incarceration, the second calls for resources to be put into schemes that will facilitate integration, i.e., citizenship and English classes, multicultural and diversity training, behavioral guidelines and other measures, in addition to more repressive tactics like longer sentences, identification cards, and more restrictions on civil liberties. Both fail to bring structural and fundamental changes in the way the state delivers and understands security and policing services relative to marginalized communities.

An alternative approach is the application of what can be called a critical race analysis (CRA). This framework locates its roots in Critical Race Theory (CRT), which evolved in the mid-1970s as a framework for understanding what has been termed, “the vexed bond between the law and racial power.” CRT challenged the notion that legal structures are neutral and not affected by the hierarchical racial structures of a given society. Applying this framework to Europe’s struggle to negotiate the relationship between the police and minority communities, a critical race analysis has three central characteristics. First, it recognizes that racism continues to exist in modern society. CRA rejects the argument that racism has disappeared as a result of international, European, and domestic civil rights and anti-discrimination legislation. Second, this analysis contends that racism is not only personal (involving individual prejudice and discrimination), but that it is also institutional and systemic. To acknowledge the institutional nature of racism elevates it from the subjective and personal to the objective and social. Finally, a critical race assessment is also intersectional, i.e., racism is seen as linked to socially determinant variables and cross-cutting categories of gender, class, citizenship status, sexual identity, and others. The promotion of anti-racism is also directly connected with the effort to build a human rights culture in Europe.

Racial profiling, disproportionate incarceration, deaths in custody, and other issues affecting racial and ethnic communities require active policy, political, and procedural intervention. This article examines the status of the relationship between policing and Europe’s minority communities. It also, through a case study of the U.K., engages Black resistance to racial profiling and racism by a growing number of organizations, and the emergence of a human rights and critical race analysis approach to the nexus of policing and race. These groups are seeking to develop appropriate remedies to racial profiling in what will surely be a very difficult period ahead.

Racial and Ethnic Profiling Defined

James Goldstein, Executive Director of the Open Society Justice Initiative that has been researching racial profiling in Europe, has defined racial and ethnic profiling as “the use of racial/ethnic stereotypes, rather than individual behavior, as a basis for making law enforcement and/or investigative decisions about who has been or may be involved in criminal activity.” Legal scholar David Harris offers a somewhat broader definition of racial profiling, arguing that it encompasses “the use by police of racial or ethnic characteristics as one set of clues among others to decide whom to stop, question, search, or otherwise investigate for as-yet-unknown criminal offenses.” Finally, Amnesty International states, “racial profiling occurs when race is used by law enforcement or private security officials, to any degree, as a basis for criminal suspicion in non-suspect specific investigations.”

These definitions appropriately describe the situation being faced by people of African descent, Roma, Latino/as, Asians, and others in Europe who are not considered to be white. With the exception of the U.K. and the Netherlands, European states refuse to acknowledge racial disparities and racist behavior on the part of state authorities and agencies. One consequence of this denial is that it prohibits the collection of data that would not only document racial and ethnic discrimination and profiling, but would also point to solutions like affirmative action and other race-based remedies. Some countries, such as France and Germany, make it illegal to collect data on race.

Legal Frameworks and the Movement Against Racial Profiling

While domestic laws against racial profiling in Europe have been limited, a wide number of international and regional legal instruments address the issue. Two key international human rights instruments have been signed and ratified by virtually every state in Europe: the International Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Both, at least in part, speak to standards regarding the function and operation of criminal justice systems.

In Article 1 of the ICERD, racial discrimination is defined as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.” Unlike much of anti-discrimination law in Europe and in the United States, the ICERD focuses on “effect” rather than “intent,” the latter a nearly impossible standard to prove. The section of the ICERD that is most relevant to racial discrimination in the field of criminal justice is Article 5, which states, “In compliance with the fundamental obligations laid down in article 2 of this Convention, States Parties undertake to prohibit and to eliminate racial discrimination in all its forms and to guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, colour, or national or ethnic origin, to equality before the law.” Under Section a, the ICERD specifically states that everyone should enjoy “the right to equal treatment before the tribunals and all other organs administering justice.”

Similarly, there are numerous sections of the ICCPR that address criminal justice concerns. Article 10 (a) underscores the principle that everyone held or arrested should be treated equally under the law stating, “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.” This is reinforced in Article 14, which states “all persons shall be equal before the courts and tribunals” and finally, Article 26 explicitly addresses the issues of racial (and other forms of) discrimination. It declares, “all persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

At the regional level, while the European Union has not passed a specific directive against racial and ethnic profiling, it has passed a number of directives that address issues of discrimination and generally cover the issue. In 2000, the EU passed the Race Directive, which addressed racial discrimination in employment and goods and services, as well as the Employment Directive, which addressed employment discrimination related to religion, age, disability, and sexual orientation (an earlier directive addressed the issue of gender discrimination). The Race Directive obligates states within the EU to establish specific laws prohibiting racial discrimination, establish monitoring or oversight bodies, and consult with anti-racist and human rights NGOs.

Finally, there is the 1950 European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms—popularly referred to as the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). All 43 member states of the Council of Europe, an inter-regional body, are signatories and are accountable to the Convention’s adjudication under the auspices of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Article 14 of the Convention makes it illegal to discriminate based on “sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.”

All of these policies have been critical for those activists engaged in the struggle to create a more just justice system and to end racial profiling. Anti-racist and human rights groups were critical in the passage of the race directive. The Starting Line Group, a U.K.-based NGO comprised of a number of different anti-racist and human rights organizations, led the fight to have the EU take up the issue of racism in the Europe region.

The Movement Against Racism and Profiling

The political movement for ending racial and ethnic discrimination has grown, although the political will of individual states has been lacking. A wide range of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community groups have maintained the political pressure for changes in public policies that would outlaw state-sanctioned racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination. The overwhelming majority of these groups are led and comprised of whites, but Afro-Europeans and others of African descent have played central and leading roles in many of the most important groups, and several Black-dominated or Black-only organizations have emerged as well.

Across Europe there has been a proliferation of NGOs resisting the fortress mentality that appears to be increasing in the region. Most of these groups were involved in the preparation process leading up to the 2001 UN-sponsored World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, including the Fall 2000 European Preparatory Conference. There are regional organizations as well as domestic ones that have struggled against racism and religious intolerance, as the policies and laws combating terrorism have grown harsher and more blatantly discriminatory. The largest organization of human rights and anti-racist groups is the European Network Against Racism (ENAR). Comprised of more than 600 NGOs across Europe, it has been at the forefront of pushing the European Union to pass directives based on the principles of equality, tolerance, and pluralism. ENAR’s focus is on fighting “racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia, to promote equality of treatment between EU citizens and third country nationals, and to link local/regional/national initiatives with European initiatives.” ENAR championed the Race Directive and other anti-racist policies that have been passed by the EU in recent years. It also provides research and training opportunities for NGOs and government officials.

A number of critical web-based research projects also exist. ICARE (the Internet Centre Anti Racism Europe) has been the most comprehensive in documenting daily issues around the region regarding racism and anti-racism. It has played a critical role in the mobilization of anti-racist and human rights activists around various policy and political campaigns. The European Race Bulletin plays a similar role. Produced by the London-based Institute of Race Relations, it documents racist incidents and anti-racism campaigns that occur in Europe.

The European Roma Rights Center, based in Budapest, is one of the most important NGOs fighting for the human rights of Roma, Gypsies, and Traveller people in Europe. A legal organization, it produces studies and reports, lobbies on behalf of the Roma with regional and domestic institutions, provides legal training, and publicizes issues related to the treatment of Roma within Europe and beyond. ERRC consistently gives testimony before the European Union, Council of Europe, and the United Nations. Racial profiling is perhaps the number one issue facing the Roma and ERRC battles cases involving profiling on a daily basis.

A relatively new and Black-only regional NGO is Diaspora Afrique, based in Paris. The organization has primarily been focused on mobilizing people of African descent, particularly first and second generation Africans, around issues related to African social and economic development, the rights of African immigrants in Europe, and racism against people of African descent. The organization actively worked with the youth who were involved in the uprisings in the Parisian suburbs in late 2005 and played an active role behind the leadership of French Guyana Parliament member Christiane Taubira in getting the French government to pass a law—Loi Taubira—that apologizes for its role in slavery and the slave trade and recognizes them both as crimes against humanity. It has chapters and affiliates in France, the U.K. Switzerland, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain.

At the domestic level there are numerous efforts to combat racism and issues like racial profiling. In Germany, the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland—Black German Initiative (ISD)—is the principle NGO representing citizens and residents of African descent, as well as other people of color. Along with a Black women’s organization, ADEFRA (in Ethiopian, “The Woman Who Shows Courage”), ISD has struggled to bring the issues of Black people to the public sphere and they have built links to activist groups across Europe.

In France and Spain, SOS-Racisme and SOS-Racismo have been active voices addressing the rise in racist violence, discourse, and policies emanating from their governments. In both states, racial and ethnic profiling is rampant.

For example, in France, racial profiling was a direct cause of more than two weeks of “rioting” in October and November 2005. On October 27, 2005, then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy referred to the “criminal” elements in France’s notoriously poor suburbs as “racaille,” which was widely reported as meaning “scum” by western media. Although the exact translation is closer to the term “rabble,” it nevertheless was inflammatory to the residents of the areas, especially the youth that have long been subject to verbal abuse and police harassment. Two days later, in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, Zyed Benna, 17 and Bouna Traoré, 15, were electrocuted when they and several other young people who were headed home after a football game fled when they saw a police patrol. Although the youngsters had done nothing criminal or illegal, their daily experience of being stopped, searched, and often taken to the police station and held for hours on no charges triggered an impulse to run. Hiding in an electric substation, Benna and Traoré were accidentally electrocuted and died and another youth severely injured. As word spread of the deaths and injury, young people across the suburbs surrounding Paris began to gather and soon started to burn cars in protest. The “riots” escalated as Sarkozy and other French politicians and the French media used bigoted language to describe the rebels and subsequently called for harsh police action. Eventually the situation came under control, but not before France, for the first time, admitted that it had a race problem. Then-President Jacques Chirac stated “We will never build anything long-lasting without fighting this poison of racism.” The uprising was rooted in a long history of racial and ethnic profiling in France.

Perhaps most telling in the French response to its rising immigrant population and minority residents is the adoption of U.S.-style policing. As scholar Cathy Schneider points out in her study comparing policing in New York and Paris, in the 1990s Parisian authorities adopted New York-style policing methods that developed under the “no tolerance” regime of Rudy Guiliani. His policies were correctly criticized as having a disproportionate impact on New York’s Black and Hispanic communities. While arguably crime went down-although as many have pointed out, there were numerous factors that accounted for the drop that really had began under the previous administration of David Dinkins—the impact of Guiliani’s policies was to generate more tension and conflict between the city’s police and minority communities. Zero tolerance, in both New York and Paris, was a green light that gave the state a license to enforce so-called “quality of life” laws that were thoroughly class and race determined. In concrete terms, it meant that poor communities were subject to punitive measures for jaywalking and littering, crackdowns that would never, under any circumstances, be enforced in wealthier neighborhoods.

Case Study: The United Kingdom

In the U.K., there are a large number of anti-racist NGOs that focus on policing and security discrimination. This includes the National Assembly Against Racism (NAAR), the 1990 Trust, and National Civil Rights Movement (NCRM) (whose logo prominently features a picture of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.), as well as a number of small groups working on specific cases of criminal justice malfeasance. These groups have been active around deaths in police and prison custody as well as on racial profiling concerns.

The beginning of the modern era of U.K. race relations can arguably be traced back to the evening of April 22, 1993. At around 10:30 pm, Black teenager Stephen Lawrence and his friend, Duwayne Brooks, were attempting to catch a bus on Well Hall Road in the Eltham area of Southeast London. By 10:40 pm, Lawrence, who hoped to become an architect, would be dying. As he stepped away from his friend to see if the bus was coming, he was suddenly surrounded by a group of five or six young white males. Without any warning, he was grabbed by the group and one of the youth stabbed him five inches deep on both sides of his chest. He managed to break free and he and Brooks tried to run away, but Lawrence only got about 100 yards before he collapsed. As he lay dying on the street, Brooks was unable to get any cars to stop and help. Finally, a white couple, the Taaffes, who were walking home from church, came to give assistance as did an off-duty police officer James Geddis. By the time an ambulance arrived shortly before 11:00 pm, Lawrence was dead.

The murder was compounded by the wholesale botching of the investigation by the police. First, the police refused to see the incident as a racially motivated or hate crime. This blind spot, many believe, conditioned subsequent events. The police did not gather evidence at the scene of the crime or keep a log of what happened. They also procrastinated in searching the neighborhood for the perpetrators, who ran off after the murder, although there had been witnesses who named them. They did not look for the weapon used to kill Lawrence in a timely manner. There were also substantial delays in arresting the youth who were eventually identified as having been involved: Jamie Acourt, Neil Acourt, David Norris, Gary Dobson, and Luke Knight. The investigation was so poorly handled that by July the charges were dropped. There was also a great deal of criticism regarding the insensitive treatment of Stephen’s parents, Doreen and Neville Lawrence, by the police and hospital staff on the night of his murder. In 1996, a private prosecution was brought against three of the defendants: Neil Acourt, Dobson, and Knight, and a trial was held. But after the trial judge determined that the main witness, Brooks, was unreliable, the three were acquitted. To this day, none of the five (or anyone else) has ever been found guilty of Lawrence’s murder.

Lawrence’s case, however, changed U.K. history and reconfigured the nature of the relationship between the police and the Black community, as well as the state of race relations more generally. Doreen and Neville Lawrence, in the face of police intransigence, refused to let the case go and supported by a Black community that had witnessed other racially motivated murders go uninvestigated and ignored, mobilized a U.K.-wide, grassroots campaign for justice. Demonstrations, community hearings, newspaper articles, and other strategies were employed to keep the pressure on the U.K. government to seriously investigate what happened to Stephen and why the police had handled the case so badly. By the 1997 U.K. general election for Prime Minister, the case had become the number one issue for Black communities. Then-candidate Tony Blair promised that if Labour won the election, an official government inquiry would take place, an inquiry that the Conservative Party governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major refused to authorize. Keeping his word, in 1998 the inquiry into the murder and the slipshod investigation was launched, chaired by Sir William MacPherson. The inquiry became known as the MacPherson Commission. In 1999, the Commission released its devastatingly blunt report. The report—alternatively referred to as either the “MacPherson Report” or the “Lawrence Report”—concluded that the central reason why the Lawrence case was mishandled was because the U.K. police force was “institutionally racist,” which it defined 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 which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.

This conclusion, for the first time in U.K. history, gave an official imprimatur to what Black and Asian communities had been arguing for decades. The MacPherson Report made 70 strong recommendations for addressing these concerns that had an impact not only on the criminal justice system, but also on government anti-racism policy across the board. It directly led to the passage of the Race Relations Amendment Act in 2000, the most sweeping restructuring of U.K. anti-racism policies in history.

The need for a revolution in anti-discrimination public policy was acute. The growing Black and Asian population increasingly demanded inclusion and justice, but were rebuffed. The U.K.’s ethnic minority population constitutes about 7.9 percent of a population of nearly 55 million, according to the last census. Asians (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and other Asians) constitute approximately 4 percent and Blacks (Caribbean, African, and other Blacks) about 2 percent of that figure. Black and Asian populations in the U.K. are disproportionately concentrated in London; more than two million live in the capital city, making up about 29 percent of its population. In England, 46 percent of the nation’s Black and Asian populations live in London. However, the numbers are growing—and generating tensions—in other parts of the U.K. The census indicates that Leicester, about an hour outside of London, will become the first city to become majority Black and Asian sometime between 2010 and 2012.

Similar to minority communities in the United States, the U.K.’s Black and Asian populations suffer disproportionate disadvantages across the economic and social spectrum. The status of racial and ethnic minority communities in London mirrors those across the U.K. In economic terms, Black and minority ethnic (BME—the official term used by the U.K. government and many NGOs to describe collectively communities of color and ethnic minorities) unemployment is twice that of whites: the former stands at about 12 percent compared to the latter’s less than 6 percent. In London, Black and minority ethnic people are 44 percent of those unemployed. Among those who are employed, though only 18 percent of managers and senior officials are from Black and Asian communities, 58 percent of all cashiers and checkout operators are from these groups. Work in the public sector has been important in terms of fair opportunities. According to the Greater London Authority, “On average, Black and minority ethnic workers earn 72 per cent [sic] of the median for white workers in the private sector, compared with nearly 89 percent [sic] in the public sector.”

In the U.K., race and religion blend into a particular form of discrimination known as Islamophobia. In 1997, the Runnymede Trust, a U.K.-based anti-racist advocacy group, argued that Muslims were experiencing a distinct form of discrimination that they labeled Islamophobia. They advanced a definition of “Islamophobia” that included seeing Muslims as “a monolithic bloc, static and unresponsive to change,” as not having “values in common with other cultures,” as “barbaric, irrational, primitive and sexist,” and “hostility towards Islam [as] used to justify discriminatory practices towards Muslims and exclusion of Muslims from mainstream society.” Since that time, the term has come into popular, academic, and policy usage, albeit with a great deal of debate regarding its legitimacy and usefulness as an analytical category. Some, such as scholar Kenan Malik, have argued that “the trouble with the idea [of Islamophobia] is that it confuses hatred of, and discrimination against, Muslims on the one hand with criticism of Islam on the other,” and “’Islamophobia’ has become a one-stop explanation for the many problems facing Muslims.” He contends that Muslim leaders have distorted the term and used it as a means of disingenuously consolidating their base of followers. However, even Malik acknowledges the disproportionate stops of Asians-a proxy for the police and others of “Muslims”—under the Terrorism Act.

In the wake of September 11th and the July 2005 attacks, Muslims and others thought to be Muslims were verbally and physically attacked in the U.K. Though the number of assaults was small, the intensity of the backlash, including attacks on Muslim shopkeepers and mosques being set on fire, accelerated alarms that Samuel Huntington’s infamous “clash of civilization” thesis was being realized. Racial tensions have also been heightened by bigoted reactions to the rise in the numbers of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers coming to the U.K. from the global South. The rightwing press has evolved its hysterics from railing against “bogus asylum seekers” to uncontrolled fits of outrage against “criminal asylum seekers.”

Since 1999, the National Assembly Against Racism (NAAR) has taken on many cases of police abuse and murder. Led by Black and Asian activists, the organization has struggled to educate communities about notorious cases of brutality and has mobilized thousands to protest and speak out against these acts.

There have been important advances in U.K. anti-racism policy since the 1950s, when Blacks and Asians began to arrive in significant numbers. Responding to the rise in racist violence and demands by Blacks and Asians, in 1976 the Race Relations Act (RRA) was passed. The Act, similar to U.S. civil rights legislation, outlawed racial discrimination in a wide range of economic and social areas. Discrimination was covered on the grounds of race, color, nationality, ethnic origin, and national origin. The Act also established the Commission on Racial Equality (CRE) to monitor, research, and, within certain limits, confront and end racial discrimination. While the RRA applied to employment, vocational training, housing, education, and membership in clubs, trade unions, and professional associations, it did not cover key areas of policing and criminal justice, such as prisons and detention centers. The Race Relations Amendment Act of 2000 strengthened the investigative and remedial capacity of the CRE, and included police services, prisons, and other criminal justice—related areas.

For decades, the U.K.’s Black and Asian communities have fought what is both the “racialization of crime” and “criminalization of races”: racial profiling. Britain’s racial and ethnic minority communities have long criticized the U.K.’s police services, accusing them of bias and unfair treatment. This treatment has included disproportionate incarceration, a high number of deaths in custody, and discriminatory stop-and-search policies. To these traditional and long-standing concerns can be added the relatively new panic regarding terrorism. While the U.K. has a great deal of experience around terrorism due to their conflict with Northern Ireland, the targeting of Islamic extremists and the racial, ethnic, and religious issues bound up with that effort have complicated and generated new tensions.

For many Blacks and Asians, their first encounter with the criminal justice system CJS begins on the roads, estates, and streets of their cities. While relatively few whites have to worry about whether an every day walk to work, church, or the corner carryout will be interrupted by an unwanted rendezvous with a police authority, at a disproportionate rate of targeting at six-to-one, Black and Asian men have no such luxury. One of the most controversial policing tactics has been the policy of intrusively stopping individuals on the public street for interrogation as well as a possible search of their person. “Stop-and-search” has emerged as ground zero for the contestation between minority communities and street-level policing. The tactic, under numerous labels and forms, has a long, unpleasant history in poor, minority, and ethnic communities around the world, including those in the U.K. Many believe that stop-and-search tactics are a legal cover for state-sanctioned harassment and two-tiered policing. Contemporary U.K. stop-and-search laws have their roots in the infamous “SUS”—the popular abbreviation for the term “suspicion”—laws of the 1960s, which were employed to control the so-called disruptive elements of the community. The Scarman Report, issued after the 1981 riots in the Black community, specifically noted that anger at the SUS laws played a direct role in the cause of the rebellions.

The 1999 MacPherson report also addressed the issue of stop-and-searches. Recommendation 61 of the report stated,

… the Home Secretary, in consultation with Police Services, should ensure that a record is made by police officers of all ‘stops’ and ‘stops and searches’ made under any legislative provision (not just the Police and the Criminal Evidence Act). Non-statutory or so-called ‘voluntary’ stops must also be recorded. The record is to include the reason for the stop, the outcome, and the self-defined ethnic identity of the person stopped. A copy of the record shall be given to the person stopped.

This was followed by Recommendation 62, arguing “that these records should be monitored and analyzed by the Police Services and Police Authorities, and reviewed by HMIC [Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary] on inspections. The information and analysis should be published.” In April 2004, the Home Office issued guidelines on stop-and-search, and in July 2004 it established a Stop-and-Search Action Team whose purpose is to ensure that the procedure is implemented fairly and effectively.

Despite the changes made by the U.K. government, the data show that disproportionate application of stop-and-search continues. There are 19 acts of legislation under which stop-and-search is allowed, but of those only three constitute the main use of the procedure: Sec. 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) of 1984, Sec. 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (POA) of 1994, and Sec. 44 of the Terrorism Act of 2000. As Statewatch notes, “The use of the first two powers over the last year has shown a decline of 15% and 9% respectively. The use of section 44, the anti-terrorist power, has increased by over 36%.” In the period from 2000 to 2004, there was an overall increase in the use of stop-and-search, disproportionately concentrated on Blacks, Asians, and “Others”.

The authority to conduct a stop-and-search is different under each law. According to the Home Office,

Section 1 of PACE allows an officer to stop and search a person or vehicle to look for stolen or prohibited items. Section 44 of the Terrorism Act allows an officer to stop and search persons and vehicles—at a time and place where an appropriate authorization exists—to look for articles that could be used in connection with terrorism. Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act allows a senior officer to authorise the stop and search of persons and vehicles where “he believes that to do so would help to prevent incidents involving serious violence.”

Following the publication of the MacPherson report in 2000-2001, although the overall number of stops and searches by U.K. police dropped by 17 percent, the number of Black people who were exposed to this police tactic actually increased by 4 percent. In London, where the overall instances of stops dropped 40 percent in 2000 and 6 percent in 2001, the number of Blacks and Asians stopped in those years rose by 6 percent and 3 percent, respectively, while for Whites they dropped by 14 percent. In 2003-4, there were 738,016 stops overall by U.K. police forces. Blacks accounted for 15 percent of these stops, Asians 7 percent, and the category “other” 1 percent, the rest being white (see Table 1).

Table 1 Stop-and-searches by ethnicity in England and Wales 2003-2004
Race No. of stops Percent of total stops
Whites 548,076 74
Blacks 108,265 15
Asians 54,083 7
Other 10,963 1
Not Known 16,629 2
Total 738,016 100

The increased use of stop-and-search has been staggering. In 1989, 202,000 stops occurred in the U.K. Those figures grew to 690,000 in 1995, and then to 1.1 million in 1998. The numbers only began to drop after the political atom bomb of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report. In 2002-3, Black people were 6.4 times more likely and Asians twice as likely to be stopped and searched as white people. In 2002-3, searches for Black people were up only 55 percent compared to the 230 percent increase of the previous year; for Asians they were up 22 percent from the previous year’s 302 percent, and for white people 43 percent from 118 percent. It is important to emphasize that “the largest of all increases have been experienced by those who are classified by the police as ‘Other’ (90%) and ‘Not known’ (126%).” One explanation suggested by Statewatch is that “these two categories are being used by the police to disguise the actual characteristics of those being stopped and searched.”

In addition to the disproportional application of the tactic, it has also proven to be ineffective at actually preventing crime. Despite all the time, resources, and energy put into stop-and-search, very few people are actually arrested. According to Home Office statistics, 87 percent of the total people stopped were found not to have violated any law and were not arrested.

Not only are Black people victimized by a policy that was in theory written to be racially neutral, but they are also victimized by laws that were meant to address issues almost universally associated with whites. Section 60 of the Crime, Justice and Public Order Act (1994), which allows for stops and searches, was written to penalize football hooligans (many of whom scream alcohol-enhanced racist epithets at Black and Asian players on their home team) and noisy revelers. Both of these groups have few Black or Asian participants. Section 60 stops do not require even the façade of “reasonable suspicion.” In effect, when allowed to act with impunity and little restriction, the apparent natural inclination of street officers, at least tacitly sanctioned by higher ups, is to apply the policy in a racially discriminatory manner.

Under PACE stop-and-search provisions, officers are allowed to determine when “reasonable” suspicion exists, which means that the policy is not a prima facia violation of rights. This is not the case with Section 60 of the Crime, Justice and Public Order Act. The broad leeway under PACE easily becomes a mask for racial profiling by another name. Racial profiling entails a predisposition on the part of law enforcement officers to make judgments regarding the supposed inherent criminality of Black people. Anti-racist and human rights campaigners may very well want to pursue a test case that would clarify what constitutes pre-arrest “detention,” “reasonable suspicion,” and legality of the policy of stop-and-search in light of a human rights context and legal framework. Again, it can be argued that deprivation of liberty takes place when a stop occurs and, at least momentarily, detention unfolds.

As in the United States, there is a disproportionate rate of arrests and incarceration of Blacks and Asians. When arrests do occur in the U.K., whether under stop-and-search or otherwise, they continue the trends of racial discrimination. Broken down by race, the rate of arrests for whites is 26 per 1,000, for Asians, 29 per 1,000, and for Blacks, 89 per 1,000 in 2003-4. Black and Caribbean people are six times more likely to be arrested than whites. According to the Home Office, although people of African descent constitute 3 percent of the population, they are 9 percent of all arrests.

Black and Asian people constitute about 20 percent of the prison populations of the U.K. In 1995, Blacks and Asians accounted for 16 percent of the prison population. That rose to 18 percent in 1997 and up to 20 percent by 2004-5. Black men are sent to prisons at twice the rate of white men, which accounts for their constituting 14 percent of the prison population. This translates into 1 in every 100 Black British adults being incarcerated, according to recent figures from the Home Office. When disaggregated by nationality, Black foreign nationals are roughly 43 percent of all foreign nationals who are imprisoned in the U.K. Under the Blair government, the Black prison population grew from 7,585 when he came into office, to over 12,000 by the 2001. When broken down by gender the numbers are even more dismal. According to Home Office figures, Black women, who are about 1 percent of the population, are 25.3 percent of women in prison compared to whites (69%) and Asians (0.8%).

The National Black Police Association, which started in 1998, has sought to address the issue of racism within the police services and to promote more Blacks and Asians joining the force. It has supported the effort by community groups to end racial profiling and disproportionate arrests, sentencing, and incarceration of people of color.

The Resistance

In the struggle for racial equality, and especially in the wake of the Lawrence campaign, a number of minority and minority-led organizations emerged to struggle against racism and social marginalization both inside and outside of the criminal justice system. Few groups other than cultural and social institutions exist that are solely comprised of only Black or Asian activists. Most political and community-based anti-racist organizations and institutions are led by both Blacks and Asians and generally include whites as well.

One of the largest organizations is the National Assembly Against Racism (NAAR). Founded in 1994, NAAR has been at the forefront of many campaigns, including efforts to limit and denounce the political gains of the far right, organizing students to fight against racists on campus, lobbying successfully to have the city of London apologize for its role in the slave trade, and defending victims of racist attacks and police abuse. In August 2007 London Mayor Ken Livingstone issued a formal apology on behalf of the city as part of the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. NAAR is fighting to win an apology from the British government as a whole. The campaign also calls for canceling debt in the developing world and for reparations.

The National Civil Rights Movement does work similar to NAAR. It has organized numerous campaigns for justice around deaths in custody and racist murders. While it has not worked closely with NAAR (indeed, they are rivals in many ways), it has helped to broaden the base of support in the U.K. for justice regarding some of the most notorious cases of racist killings and police murders of recent years. They championed the case of Michael Menson, for example, who in February 1997 was beaten and set afire in North London and later died. NCRM has also been active around the case of former Black Panther and reporter Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was accused and convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer, and has helped to organize local initiatives in the U.K. to publicize his campaign for justice.

Also involved in legal efforts is the Society of Black Lawyers. Founded in 1973, it is the principal institution for the U.K.’s activist Black and Asian lawyers, barristers, and solicitors. The organization promotes and seeks to increase the number of Black and Asian lawyers, and works to help those in minority communities who, facing discrimination and marginalization, require legal assistance. The SBL is led by Peter Herbert, a longtime activist, who is of Caribbean descent. He has led many campaigns against racism within the legal profession itself. Herbert received the U.S.-based National Bar Association’s Human Rights Award in 1998 for his work on behalf of the U.K.’s minority communities. While vigorously defending some of his Black clients, he was twice threatened (though unsuccessfully), with having his law license revoked for violating a policy passed by the U.K. Bar Council that prohibits attorneys from speaking in the first person to the media when representing a client. To date, he is the only lawyer in the history of the U.K. to be charged with this violation.

Other groups have sought to not just react to racist acts on the part of the state or others, but to be proactive in fighting for equality. This has meant a more aggressive participation in the political process, an unprecedented experience for most Black and Asian communities. Launched in July 1966, Operation Black Vote is the first and only initiative to focus on the issue of the exclusion of Blacks and Asians from the U.K.’s formal political establishment. It has campaigned to encourage Blacks and Asians to register and to vote, created internships with elected and appointed officials, and challenged elected officials about their representation of minority community issues. OBV has also worked closely in recent years with U.S. civil rights organizations including the Rainbow Push Coalition, the NAACP, and other groups. It is led by Simon Woolley, who is Afro-British.

Another organization that has sought to mobilize minority communities regarding their rights is the 1990 Trust. For nearly 20 years, the Trust has been at the center of anti-racism and human rights campaigns in the U.K. It has both worked on grassroots issues and engaged in substantial lobbying around the legal rights of Blacks, Asians, and other marginalized groups. The Trust’s leadership is comprised of Blacks and Asians, and it has expanded its work to address issues in other parts of Europe and to make links with other international human rights groups including Black organizations in the United States. In August 2007 it sponsored a five-day bus tour throughout the U.K. for Reverend Jesse Jackson to speak about common concerns of exclusion and equal rights, and to build an effort to challenge U.K. corporations that were involved in the slave trade. Trust leaders have also been to the United States a number of times and are seeking to strengthen their ties with activist groups.

Launched in 2000, the Black Londoners Forum (BLF) serves as a legislative watchdog for Black and Asian communities regarding the Greater London Authority (GLA), London’s local government structure. Its membership includes more than 1,800 community-based groups. BLF has conducted education campaigns around important legislation, published policy papers, and played an advisory role to London’s former Mayor Ken Livingstone and the citywide elected council of 25 known formally as the Greater London Assembly. By providing a voice for London’s Black and Asian communities, BLF has helped to empower the city’s growing minority population that will within the next 10-15 years be in the majority.


In a broader context, these trends are occurring in a period of dramatic transitions across Europe. Deindustrialization, increased immigration, and the collapse of social democratic governance with its generous welfare policies are feeding the social tensions that are expressed in a number of ways including racial and cultural nationalism and xenophobia. Globalization and the shift of manufacturing to the global South over the last three decades has helped to destroy much of Western Europe’s industrial areas, leaving a wasteland of high unemployment, social marginalization, and hopelessness for many. The transition to a low-paid service-driven economy, coupled with a need for new labor to do this work, is now the impetus for the rise in immigration from the global South. At the same time, the austerity that results from the collapse of the welfare state in Western European countries has given rise to a fortress mentality, which vehemently opposes new immigrants—let alone refugees and asylum seekers. The new racism is appeased by the move rightward by social democratic parties such as the U.K.’s Labour Party under former Prime Minister Tony Blair and similar parties in Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Germany, and elsewhere. Resentment that is racial, ethnic, and religious masks as national pride and cultural defense, but emerges as economic protectionism, racism, and intolerance.

The Spring 2005 French and Dutch rejections of the proposed European Union Constitution delayed what appeared to be a significant advance for Europe’s minorities included in the Charter of Fundamental Rights that was incorporated into the document. The Charter sought to extend throughout Europe a number of rights that exist in some, but certainly not in all, EU member states. Although EU-skepticism is driven by a number of factors, including opposition to the neo-liberal policies that are destroying forms of social democracy, there is little doubt that immigrant-phobia and racism have been central issues in the rejection of broader power being given to the EU.

More significant, the themes raised by right-wing forces in Europe: ending immigration, deportation of so-called “bogus” asylum seekers, hysteria about Black criminality, and a thoroughly racialized view of the terrorist threat, have resonated with and dominated mainstream political discourse. Beyond the pretext of terrorism, the long-term anxieties associated with a reconfigured Europe manifest in racial intolerance, xenophobia, and social marginalization. They underscore the difficult challenge to end racial, ethnic, and religious profiling in the period ahead.