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Equality Laws: Racism and Police in the UK

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Law
Wordcount: 3304 words Published: 16th Dec 2020

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This report will look at how equality laws operate within the public sector in Britain, with a specific focus on racism and the police force. It will look at issues and inequalities both historical and to the present day. It will look at how equality legislation has changed the practices within the police force and evaluate the effectiveness of diversity legislation in today’s Multi-Cultural society.

What is racism and how did it originate? 

The ideology underlying racist acts usually includes the idea that human beings can be categorised and split into specific groups that are different in their social behaviour and innate capabilities which can be ranked as inferior or superior. This ideology can manifest into many aspects of social life. (Sully,1997)

Racism in Britain is largely due to a lack of education, ignorance and fear.  Racism is a larger form of simple human xenophobia; meaning a dislike or prejudice towards individuals with different cultures from other countries.

The roots of racism can be traced back to the period of slavery (Tyrer and Patel,2011). Slavery was not an invention of the middle ages, it had existed for over a thousand years. However, it became a more organised trade coming up to the end of the fourteenth century when people from Africa were taken against their will and enslaved. The development of ‘The Transatlantic Slave Trade’ between 1450 and 1850 started due to an initial increase in demand for sugar and then later for other goods such as cotton and silk. An estimated 17 million men, women and children were transported from Africa and Asian colonies to Europe and America into forced labour. (Rees, 1995)

By the early eighteenth century Britain had become one of the richest slave trading nations. A bill to abolish slavery in Britain was passed in the house of commons and the house of lords in August 1833. (Theredcard.ie, 2019)

Government Legislation

More than one hundred years later Britain’s first ever race relations law came into force. The Race Relations Act (1968) outlawed discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, ethnicity or national origins in public. Closely followed by The Immigration Act (1971). The legislation was revised in The Race Relations Act (1976) which now included indirect discrimination, and protected individuals from discrimination in employment, education and goods and services.

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However, it was not until The Race Relations Amendment Act (2000) that prohibited racial discrimination by public authorities in the performance of their public functions. This amendment resulted from the findings of the Macpherson Report (1999) from the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry which made 70 recommendations, 67 of which led to specific changes in the law. This resulted in changes and practices within the police force.      

The Equality Act (2010) then replaced the previous equalities legislation combining over 116 separate pieces of legislation into one single act providing a framework protecting the rights of individuals, promoting equality for all. The new act extended some protections to characteristics that were not previously covered and strengthened aspects of equality law.

The Equality Act (2010) now recognised nine specific groups; gender reassignment, race, religion, marital status, age, sexual orientation, sex, disability (mental and/or physical) and pregnancy and maternity as protected characteristics. (Legislation.gov.uk, 2019)

Racism and the police

The Brixton Riots (1981)

The UK was experiencing difficult times during the early 80’s as the country was in a recession. At a time of national recession, unemployment rates were high. Unemployment in Brixton stood at 13% and 25% for ethnic minorities. Unemployment among black youths was estimated at a high of 55%. Housing was of a substandard quality and as people struggled to survive, criminal activity increased. Such groups such as The National Front (a far-right, fascist political party) were also active during this era which only aggravated existing hostility with people from the black community who already had no faith in the police.

Racial tension began in January 1981 after a fire started at a private house party in which more than a dozen black youths were killed.  The black community were convinced that this was a targeted attack and it was racially motivated. Although the police investigated the fire, allegations were made that there was a distinct lack of empathy and the matter was not taken seriously. This led to further tension between these communities and the police in addition to the already present lack of trust. 

In March 1981, a non-violent and peaceful demonstration took place called the “Black Peoples Day of Action”. However, the police arrested and charged the demonstration organisers with Inciting a Riot. Although, these charges were dropped at a later stage it further heightened tensions. (Obv.org.uk).     However, the unfounded negative media reports that followed created a larger divide between the public and the police. Worried about the increase in offences such as robbery at the beginning of April 1981, the Metropolitan Police launched Operation Swamp 81.

Operation Swamp 81 was activated by the police in which large numbers of black youths in the Lambeth Borough were subjected to stop and searches under the Sus Law Power (1824). This was seen by many in the community as a racist police operation. This operation would turn out to be the start of a massive revolt against the police and on the 10 April 1981 a hostile crowd developed which led to the Brixton Riots. 

Over three days and nights rioters, mainly young black men were confronting and physically fighting the police. They attacked buildings, damaged properties, looted and set fire to vehicles in the street. More than 300 individuals were injured, and extensive damage was caused up to an estimated figure of £7.5 million.

The Scarman Report (1981)

Published on 25 November 1981 following the enquiry into the Brixton riots found that the rioting was sparked by an already aggravated community who rightly or wrongly believed they were being subjected to racial harassment. He called for a new emphasis on community policing and advised the government to end racial disadvantage and tackle the disproportionately high number of unemployed black youths which was as high as 50% in Brixton. (Archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk, 2019).

The key findings of the report were that complex political, social and economic factors had created a disposition towards violent unrest. 

  • The riots were not premeditated but were a spontaneous reaction through a build-up of resentment sparked by a catalogue of negative incidents.
  • There was a complete loss of confidence in police practice within the community. 
  • The younger generation of the black people in the community were anti-police due to oppressive delivery of policing and harassment over the years.
  • The rioting was a protest society by individuals fuelled by deep seated frustrations and feelings of deprivation.
  • The violent attacks upon the forces of law and order provided the opportunity of compelling public attention.
  • The police lacked understanding of the social issues faced and so the policing being delivered was ineffective.
  • Brixton had declined to such a level that although plans for redevelopment had been put forward on numerous occasions they were never implemented. This meant the whole area was in a state of decay with poor housing in addition to a decline in trade due to the impact of recession.
  • There was a multi-cultural community in a deprived inner-city area with unemployment at its highest with a whole generation of young black people.
  • The police had a requirement to maintain law and order of a diverse community without really understanding their needs. This meant that standards for successful policing were impossible to meet.

The Stephen Lawrence murder case

In April 1993, Stephen Lawrence, a young black youth was murdered in a racially motivated attack whilst he was waiting for a bus in Well Hall, Eltham. Stephen Lawrence was with his friend, another black youth called Duwayne Brooks when they were confronted by a group of six white youths. They were verbally abused before Stephen was fatally stabbed. He bled to death whilst running to make his escape approximately a hundred yards from the scene.

Even though Stephens friend had called 999 requesting an ambulance only a police car arrived at the scene and no attempt at emergency first aid was made by the police officer.  

The police investigation failed in this case from the onset as even though information was provided to them naming the five white youths possibly involved in the murder, none of the leads were followed up. The police investigation only started to move forward after a visit to the Lawrence family from Nelson Mandela (political leader and first black president of South Africa) who made a public statement saying that “Black lives were cheap in the UK just like they were in South Africa”.     

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This admission caused great publicity and focused a spotlight on the police and their investigation into the murder case of Stephen Lawrence. It specifically highlighted the issue of race and raised questions about their inquiries. Police arrested all five subjects in April 1993, but the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) dropped the case, as it was deemed that the evidence from the key witness was unreliable.

It took a further 18 years for the Lawrence family to get any kind of justice for their son. In January 2012, after a six-week trial two of the original suspects were found guilty of murder. The police file remains open considering any further evidence regarding the other three individuals involved in this racially motivated murder.     

The Stephen Lawrence murder was a landmark case as it led to the partial revocation of the rule against double jeopardy. The law of double jeopardy meant that nobody could be tried twice for the same crime. The Lawrence murder played a key part in the partial abolishment of this rule supported with the findings from the Macpherson report. The Criminal Justice Act (2003), abolished the double jeopardy rule for high profile crimes. Therefore, under the new ruling, an individual can be tried again for the same offence if there is “new, compelling and substantial evidence”, which had not been previously available. (Whitehead and Hughes, 2012) 

The Macpherson Report

This landmark inquiry by Sir William Macpherson into the murder of Stephen Lawrence marked a crossroads for the police service in terms of how they dealt with racism within their own ranks, in addition to their treatment of the public.’

The Macpherson Report published in 1999 analysed institutional and individual behaviour of the police during the murder investigation of Stephen Lawrence.

It highlighted key failings of the police during the murder investigation. 

  • Police officers that arrived at the scene failed to administer first aid to Stephen Lawrence.
  • Key witnesses of the murder, including Duwayne Brooks, who saw his friend Stephen murdered in front of him were not treated appropriately as victims by the police.
  • Accusations of insensitivity and racial stereotyping were made by the police investigating team directly due to Stephen’s ethnicity.
  • Racist and offensive language was used by numerous police officers when referring to the victim.
  • Liaison officers were unprofessional, unhelpful and insensitive towards the victims’ family following the murder. 
  • The Lawrence family were not kept informed by the police about the cases progression. 
  • Despite grounds for the suspects to be arrested due to numerous informants naming the same group of individuals. The police failed to make any arrests, allowing vital evidence to be destroyed.
  • No progression was made on the surveillance of the subjects due to poor input and organisation.
  • Thorough searches of the suspects’ houses were not carried out even though the police had received information on the location of the murder weapons.
  • Contrary to evidence provided by key witnesses the police officers in charge refused to accept the crime was racially motivated or to even consider this as a possibility.

The Lammy Review (2011)

The Lammy review is an independent review regarding the treatment of and outcomes for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) individuals in the Criminal Justice System (CJS). The final report was published in September 2017 and highlighted significant issues that remained in the (CJS).

For every 100 white males given custodial sentences for drug offences, whilst the figure was 141 for black males. For all those found guilty at Crown Court, 112 black men were sentenced to custody for 100 white men. Of those convicted of sexual offences for every 100 white men, 208 black men and 193 Asian men received custodial sentences. (BAME) men were 16% more likely than white men to be remanded in custody. (BAME) defendants were more likely than their white counterparts to be tried at Crown Court, with young black men around 56% more likely than young white men. In prisons, (BAME) males were almost five times more likely to be imprisoned in a category A prison than white men. In the last decade the number of Muslim prisoners has almost doubled. 41% of youth offenders were from ethnic minority backgrounds, compared with 25% a decade ago, despite prison numbers falling by 66% in that timeframe. Whilst, 51% of UK born (BAME) population felt that the (CJS) discriminated against specific groups of individuals in comparison to 35% of the UK born white population. (Lammy, 2017) 

In response to these findings, David Lammy MP said:

“These emerging findings raise difficult questions about whether ethnic minority communities are getting a fair deal in our justice system. We need to fully understand why, for example, ethnic minority defendants are more likely to receive prison sentences than white defendants. These are complex issues and I will dig deeper to in the coming months to establish whether bias is a factor.” (Lammy, 2017).


From the research conducted and the findings for this report clearly there will always be an element of individuals who hold racial prejudices and racism does still exist in today’s society, even though there is no place for it.

Although government legislation has greatly improved from the original Race Relations Act (1968) and race is listed as one of the nine protected characteristics within The Equality Act (2010), discrimination through race still exists.   

Ten years on from the Macpherson Report (1999) in 2007/2008, 28% of people from ethnic minority communities felt that they would be treated less favourably by the police or another criminal justice agency because of their race.

A recent analysis showed that in three of the biggest police forces – Greater Manchester, West Midlands and West Yorkshire – the percentage of non-white officers was less than a third of the proportion of non-white people in the overall population. In Cheshire, white people are five times more represented in the police force than black and ethnic minorities. There are 3.8 (BAME) police officers per 10,000 (BAME) people, compared with 19.2 white police officers per 10,000 white people. Though Cheshire police expressed that it was trying a series of ways to attract more non-white police officers, including recruiting from outside its usual geographical catchment area. There needs to be more concerted efforts to recruit higher numbers of (BAME) into the police force, and changes in training and law enforcement.  


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