It’s twenty-seven years today since Stephen Lawrence was murdered in South London by a bunch of racist thugs. This past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about Sir William Macpherson’s 1999 report into this crime and the bungled police investigation which followed. Macpherson’s headline conclusion – that the Metropolitan Police’s incompetent inquiry was shaped by a systemic culture of institutional racism – has had profound effects on so many facets of life in the UK. For me, the report has been important in helping me to think about how the Clan Macpherson Museum at Newtonmore represents its longstanding and often problematic relationship with issues of race. As a member of the Clan Museum’s board, I’m interested in the report for two reasons: it was written by the current chief of the Clan; and one of the key recommendations of the report stressed the importance of education in combatting racism, in which museums like the Clan’s have a role to play, and which speaks to current debates about decolonisation and heritage.
Following the publication of the report in 1999, the likes of Asian Dub Foundation (in their song ‘Officer XX’, quoted above) and Paul Gilroy (in his important book There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack) were critical of Macpherson, arguing that his report didn’t go far enough in challenging police racism and, as such, allowed both the police and their defenders in government to push back against his recommendations, thus limiting its effect.
However, in considering this negative reception of the Macpherson report, we tend to forget how positively his findings were welcomed at the time in certain sections of the UK’s black communities. Stuart Hall, for example, writing in History Workshop Journal in the immediate aftermath of the report’s publication, argued that, while there was some danger in Macpherson’s rather equivocal notion of ‘unwitting’ and ‘unconscious’ racism, his recognition of ‘institutional racism’ was ‘a real advance’. Likewise, a year later, A. Sivanandan wrote in Race & Class that the report gave voice to black political campaigners in ways that they hadn’t before:
‘We taught Macpherson and Macpherson taught the world’ was how a black activist, who had given evidence to the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, greeted its findings. For her, it was not just the report’s conclusions that mattered – ordinary black people, who had borne the brunt of institutional racism in the police force and other public bodies, knew all about it – but the fact that, due to the unrelenting campaign of the Lawrence family, they were able, at last, to get their voice heard in a public forum which had the eyes and ears of the world focused on it.A. Sivanandan, ‘Commentary: Reclaiming the Struggle’, Race & Class, 42:2 (2000), p. 67.
And, of course, today, on 22nd April, we commemorate the life and legacy of Stephen Lawrence through the special day’s events organised by the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust.
In the Clan Macpherson Museum, however, there is nothing about this great achievement of Sir William, its current chief, and the report’s profound impact on British society. Given Sir William’s unwillingness to talk publicly about the Lawrence inquiry, the Museum’s silence is unsurprising. The Museum’s lack of representation of the Macpherson report also reflects a broader lack of engagement with the Clan and its members’ troubled relationship with race and empire, from slavery in the Caribbean to genocidal colonisation in Australia and other parts of the world.
The Clan Macpherson Museum, then, not only needs to recognise the achievements of its current chief, but it needs to do so in a broader spirit of openness about Clan members’ imperial pasts.
One of the recommendations of Sir William Macpherson’s report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence focused on the need to change the curriculum ‘in order to better reflect the needs of a diverse society’ and to prevent racism. In my teaching at the University of the Highlands and Islands, I’m currently enjoying introducing students to some of the difficult and troubling legacies of empire that still shape the UK in our module ‘The Empire Strikes Back: How the Empire Shaped Scotland‘. But Macpherson’s recommendation for better education about racism also extends to museums, not least of which in the Clan Macpherson Museum itself.
In the 27 years since Stephen Lawrence was murdered the pressing need to fight for justice and challenge the structural inequalities which give rise to such crimes as this remains – and education and decolonisation, in the classroom and in the museum, are just two tools in this ongoing struggle.