Sorry this is not a job advertisement.....
[note for non-UK subscribers - Britain saw, yesterday, the publication of
a report into the Metropolitan Police's failure to successfully prosecute
five white teenagers accused of the racial murder of Steven Lawrence, a
black teenager, in Eltham/Well Hall, SE London, in 1993. An accusation in
the report of 'institutionalised racism' within the Police has hit the
media, and the report is being heralded as the sparking point for a
complete overhaul of race relations and policing methods in Britain for
the 2000s. Emotions are running extremely high - Lawrence's memorial
stone was desecrated today, and names and addresses of police informers
were inadvertently published in the report. Chaos reigns.]
A comment on the Lawrence case.
I have never studied race issues in Britain, or read much about them. But
I was born in SE London and lived for 30 years, off and on, in Eltham,
within a mile and a half of all the events described in the Lawrence
Inquiry. I'm part of the white majority.
The accused killers attended school about 200 yards from our family home.
By no small coincidence, perhaps, the British National Party headquarters
were situated in Welling, some three miles away.
Like several other geographers on this list who were raised in this area,
I had already chosen to move away and to study 'other' cultures and
problems. When Lawrence was killed, I was living in Burkina Faso, West
Africa -in 1993 the Ouagadougou daily newspaper reported the story with
incredulity and sympathy - showing how the event triggered world news,
even traversing the Sahara desert to be talked about in Ouaga's squatter
settlements where I was living. I suspect it is news there once again.
Intense British interest in the Lawrence case since 1993 has focussed
primarily on whether, due to a culture of racial intolerance and
incompetence, the Metropolitan Police are responsible for a total failure
to bring the accused killers (five white youths from the Eltham area with
a known history of racial taunts and violence) to justice. A subtext has
been the history of white-majority racism in this region of London, with
the anti-racist publication 'Searchlight' suggesting this week that the
area is 'still not safe' for non-whites to live there, and that racism is
still endemic among the local population.
I would like to venture that that it is this subtext that requires
opening out and should form the basis for action. The report itself, and
it's dozens of recommendations, will undoubtedly precipitate a series of
reforms in the police force but - as was the case with the Scarman report
(1982) into the urban riots of the early 1980s - little concrete
improvement will be achieved without society-wide changes in attitudes
and behaviour. A close look at Eltham might, therefore, shed some light
on what needs to be done, and what needs to change.
Eltham is a mixed suburban area of about 60,000 people. 'Off the map' for
most non-Londoners, it has nothing special to recommend it to visitors
except Henry VIII's fine summer palace, and the historical accident that
the 'entertainers' Bob Hope and Boy George were born there (!). The
majority of housing is middle-income detached/semis and less affluent
council estates. Eltham saw a migration of inner city London residents to
it's new suburban, public housing from the 1930s to the 1960s - the
Progress Estate, near to the site of the killing, being the most pleasant
and praised for its design and layout, while the Brooke Estate, former
home of some of the accused, suffers high crime rates and a bad
reputation. The population is overwhelmingly white, although less so in
some council-run housing areas and estates. Areas of high non-white
population are five miles away in any direction - Lewisham, Woolwich,
Plumstead. On an average day in the main shopping street, non-white
individuals are very few, although numbers have risen of late with
job-market changes and the expansion of Greenwich University in the area.
Why Eltham? There are many edge-suburbs like this. Why should a culture
of 'whiteness' spill over into violence (on more than one occasion - the
Lawrence killing was not the first). I think there are reasons, that go
beyond the misplaced bravado and hatred felt by a few teenagers. Growing
up in the area, I found a casual acceptance of racial slurs and
statements. These did not appear to be 'generational' as apologists for
the elderly suggest. Racial taunts were as common among the youth of the
terraces of Millwall and Charlton football Clubs as they were in the
older generation in the corner shops, pubs and the markets. One might
dismiss the common remarks that 'they should all be sent back where they
come from' or the taunting of black classmates in school as merely
unfortunate - but it is hard, in the cold light of day, to condone such
Eltham is not an area where a wide range of formal and informal
institutions bring people together, enabling such views to be challenged,
cultures to mix, and views to be made public. Putnam's index of the
health of 'civil society' would produce a low score. The most vibrant
institutions in Eltham High Street of an evening are its seven pubs,
Macdonalds, and the Snooker Club (itself the location for the most
obnoxious and violent racist sentiments I have ever heard). This is a
divided community - betwen poor/jobless and moderately well off, between
the public and the privately schooled, between the council estate
families and the owner-occupiers. Yet the feeling that 'Britishness' and
national pride equates with whiteness, seems to fit into everyday
acceptance with extraordinary ease. It is not surprising to me that a
culture of racial intolerance, among young and old, has cultivated (or
condoned) the extreme violence of 1993 (and previous incidents). The
schools, churches, and other institutions I attended did nothing to
educate or to dispel racist views, even if they did not support them.
Many individuals of my parent's generation still cultivate these views,
openly. Shrugging off their attitudes ("he's a good bloke, even though
he hates blacks") , or keeping quiet, seems a common reponse.
There are questions here. Why should overtly racist views have become
passively accepted over generations, and persisted despite in-and
out-migration from the area? Is it 'fear of difference', 'economic
racism' and the struggle for scarce jobs and housing that drives it, or
learned behaviour? Is my feeling that civil society is stunted in such
areas backed up with evidence? Is SE London worse than other London
regions (I believe so)? Can a concerted campaign by school, church, local
government, youth groups, and other bodies effect more of an attitudinal
shift than has already been the case? Or will this 'ordinary place'
forever be tainted with the blood of it's past and the errors of our
local police to pursue the killers?
Thoughts welcome. I feel hesitant in calling for 'research' on these
issues when clearly others know far more than me already, and where
action - not just more and more studies - are urgently required.
Nonetheless, the geographical dimensions of 'institutionalied racism'
would bear further study in SE London, and this seems an ideal topic for
urgent ESRC support. Do contact me if you can shed light on these issues,
want to work on them, or have ideas.
Dr. Simon Batterbury
Dept. of Geography & Earth Sciences
Uxbridge Middx. UB8 3PH, UK
tel +1895 274000 fax +1895 203217
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