Brendan Simpson speaks to Doreen about Black History Month, Human Rights Act and our struggles towards equality
With many events taking place as part of Black History Month 2011 we felt it would be a good time to speak with recent SRtRC Hall of Fame inductee Doreen Lawrence and find out her views on the month. Brendan Simpson went down to the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust offices to chat with Doreen and speak with her on her work and views on racism in aspects of our society.
You held the most recent Stephen Lawrence Memorial Lecture last week - how did it go?
It went really well; we had Zaha Hadid as our speaker, who won the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Sterling Prize last year and has won it again this year. It was an exciting thing for us because she was announced the winner on October 1st and on October 4th she comes to speak for us. So we were incredibly lucky to have been her next engagement after winning the prize. It was a very special evening.
We had up to 400 people attend the lecture, also with many prominent people from the RIBA, it was chaired by Angela Brady who was recently named RIBA President. The audience is usually a mixture but I think there were far more younger trainee architects there this time.
What is the purpose of these events?
Our reasoning for setting up the lecture was to use it as a way to inspire younger people to get into the profession. That is why one of my main aims for running the lecture is to try and invite as many young people, mostly 6th formers, to attend and many of those who have been awarded one of our bursaries. To have someone like Zaha speaking of her experiences to those young people who are just starting out in the profession is incredibly valuable.
Show Racism the Red Card recently inducted you into our Hall of Fame in an event at Parliament. It was an incredible moment when you received your award to a standing ovation. How was it to see how much your work has meant to so many?
I think it is good to see, but I’ve always tried to shy away from the publicity because it is not something I am that overly comfortable with. However, the work that has been done over the years and all the support I have been given that has allowed me to do the work I have has been incredible. The support itself has been very good, but to then be recognised for it is even more special. I’ve always said that is isn’t just me – there is an army of people behind me – and I think it was important to recognise them, because nobody can stand on their own in doing the work I do here.
To be recognised by the hall of fame and hearing of many others have also been recognised in that way is quite special. When I brought it back in to show the staff here, everybody was saying, "Wow! That is great...I must go and tweet about it!"
October marks Black History Month. How important do you think it is that we celebrate Black History Month?
There is a double edged sword about Black History Month for me; it is great there is some recognition for it but I feel it is something that should be an everyday thing – Black people and Black history do not just exist for a month. I think it something that should be incorporated in schools and curriculums, so it doesn’t just come as a stand-alone and something special that you have to do. It needs to be part of young peoples’ every day.
It is great that they recognise all the schools and students that go out and do things to commemorate it and recognising all the black heroes that exist or existed, which I think is quite important. So having that is great but I don’t think it is just something you should do for a month.
In your own school experiences, did you feel black history was represented?
There was no such thing as black history when I went to school! I went to school in the seventies and we hadn’t even heard of black history.
Is there any particular historical person or people who you admire most?
I would say Nelson Mandela, by the mere fact that when he was released from Robben Island he didn’t talk about revenge but spoke about uniting his country and bringing people together. I think to have someone like that in the modern age is brilliant, and Mandela is a person who you can really aspire to be like.
That is how I see the role of the Trust, because I could have gone down the road of revenge but that is not what life is about. You should not fall to revenge because then that makes you just as bad as those who were inflicting the violence on you in the first place.
There has been a lot of talk in recent days about making changes to – or even abolishing – the Human Rights act. What are your thoughts on this?
Why would you want to get rid of that? That fact that we’ve been through so many wars around the world and, at the time of the European Convention on Human Rights was brought in, there had just been a major world war. So it made sense for them to form something that made sure your rights as a human being were protected.
The act is there to make sure that people are treated fairly, so what can be wrong about it? You may want to make it better, but don’t get rid of it.
We have seen Tim Collins (a candidate for Police & crime Commissioner) speaking about his wish to end ‘politically correct policing’, tying in to wider issues such as Police Race Relations. Are you concerned with the increased use of the term “political correctness” as a way to undermine important steps towards equality?
I think it is a term that is like a beating stick, in that if people don’t want or like something, they will use the phrase in a way that tries to get people to think they are actually trying to do something positive, but are being stopped by ‘political correctness’.
The reality of it in this sense is that there was greater scrutiny on the police and they were forced to explain why the people they were stopping were mostly of an ethnic minority.
A Ruddymede report into the monitoring of ethnicity showed that “most police officers appeared to view ethnic monitoring as irrelevant at best; at worst, it was resented and/or feared as a stick deliberately designed to beat them with”. Police forces are now no longer required to record the ethnicity of people they stop. Last month it was revealed that five out of the ten forces most likely to use stop-and-account powers disproportionately against black people now no longer record this information. Do you believe that failure to record this information (in a bid to "reduce bureaucracy”) will lead to racism going unchecked and unchallenged?
I think it does anyway and I think we will be seeing a move back to what it was like in the 80s. Who will be monitoring this aspect of policing the information that comes from it? Nobody. There would be nothing recorded, so how do you know what is going on, other than the word of the individual?
The Police could then say ‘we are the authority and what we say goes’, which is why this information being recorded is so important, because you need to be able to hold the police to account. They need to have our consent and we, as a society, need to know that they are carrying out the role in the right and proper way. If not, then we have to ask whether we want to have them as the people policing us at all?
How far do you believe the police have moved forward in combating racism and striving towards equality, and what are the key challenges that remain?
That’s a difficult one. I would say there are some officers, quite a lot in fact, that have moved forward, but there are still a minority of those who haven’t.
It doesn’t really affect me in the same way as is does other people in the street and the only thing I can go by are the reports I have heard from individuals who tell you what their daily lives are like. What I do hear, especially for young black men, is that things don’t seem to have improved all that much.
One of the key challenges the Police need to meet is the halting of racial profiling; it happens quite a lot and it needs to stop. You can’t see a group of kids walking down the street and treating as though they are automatically up to something – especially when you do not think the same way for a group of white kids, as you do a group of black kids. Racial profiling needs to stop.
I can say there are some genuine people in the police service who see a problem with racism within the organisation and are working hard to eradicate it. However, there are still the minority of officers who do have these views and it is this minority that makes it worse for the others.
Huge thanks to Doreen for speaking to us. Please visit the Stephen Lawrence Trust website to find out more about the work of the Charitable Trust