CARJ / General / CARJ Briefing – Institutional Racism: Revisiting the Macpherson Report

CARJ Briefing – Institutional Racism: Revisiting the Macpherson Report

The UK recently celebrated the 20th Anniversary of the Macpherson Report which was published on 24 February 1999.  The media coverage of the Anniversary saw the police  being asked what progress had been made to eradicate institutional racism.  It seems an appropriate time to revisit the Macpherson Report and its ground – breaking  discussion of  ‘institutional racism’.

Prior to the Macpherson Inquiry, there had been concern about police community relations in UK society over a number of years.  In 1972, the Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration produced a report on Police Immigrant Relations which pointed out that relations between the police and the community were ‘under stress.’  Ten years later, Lord Scarman issued his report on The Brixton Disorders (1981).  In 1983, a research project by the Policy Studies Institute found that racialism and racial talk were pervasive in the force and that relations with young West Indians were disastrous.  Reports by NACRO in 1991 and 1992 found that young black men were more likely to be stopped and that black people generally were more likely to be prosecuted and remanded in custody than white people.

On 22 April 1993,  Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager, was attacked and killed by a group of white youths while waiting for a bus in Eltham, south-east London. The Inquest into Stephen Lawrence’s death finally ended in February 1997.  At this point, Stephen’s family made a formal complaint to the Police Complaints Authority (PCA). The PCA found  ‘significant weaknesses, omissions and lost opportunities’ including 28 major shortcomings in the original investigation, but it did not produce ‘any evidence to support the allegations of racist conduct’.

In July 1997, the Home Secretary announced a Public Inquiry into ‘matters arising from the death of Stephen Lawrence, in order particularly to identify the lessons to be leaned for the investigation and prosecution of racially motivated crimes’.  In March 1998 the Inquiry began, with Sir William Macpherson, a former High Court judge, presiding.  *


*For a fuller account of this history, see Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: The Macpherson Report,  A Background Paper by the Committee for Community Relations of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England & Wales, 1999.

The Macpherson Report

The Report of the Macpherson Inquiry, published on 24 February 1999, concluded that the earlier investigation ‘was marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership by senior officers.’  (46.1)

One of the conclusions of the Inquiry was that institutional racism affects the Metropolitan Police and Police Services elsewhere.  It also affects other institutions in our society. (46.27)  Perhaps the Inquiry’s most important contribution was that it produced a relatively straightforward descriptive definition of institutional racism. ‘Institutional racism’ consists of the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin.  In 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. (46.25)

The Report made some 70 recommendations that apply primarily to the police but can be applied to other institutions and organisations.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of England & Wales welcomed the Macpherson Report and urged all Catholic organisations and institutions to ‘look again at how they could better serve minority ethnic communities in our society.’

Later the same year, the Bishops Conference published Serving a Multi-Ethnic Society: Guidelines for a review of Catholic organisations and institutions in the light of the Macpherson Report.  These Guidelines remain relevant today and are available from CARJ.



CARJ, 9 Henry Rd, London N4 2LH.  020 8802 8080.  The Catholic Association for Racial Justice (CARJ) is an independent charity committed to working with others of diverse backgrounds and beliefs to bring about a more just, more equal, more cooperative society.  CARJ Briefings are primarily intended to give readers accurate and relevant background information on current issues.  Occasionally, a position or argument may be put forward provisionally for reflection and further discussion.

Additional documents


Macphersons Guidelines from Catholic Bishops


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