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The Kill Of Stephen Lawrence Sociology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 5409 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Although the killing of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 was one of the few racist murders in British history to result in extensive media coverage, a public investigation and a change in the law, the reporting of black crime in the United Kingdom has remained subject to distortion and moral panic, especially in the conservative tabloid press. Since Lawrence and his family were portrayed as aspiring members of the middle class, the media in general did not really regard him as part of black culture at all, at least as the media has defined it over the last thirty years: guns, drugs, gangs, street crime, poverty and school drop outs (McLaughlin and Murji, 2001, p 263). Therefore, despite much sound and fury, there is no evidence that Lawrences murder and its aftermath led to fundamental change in the systematic racism of the British media, and other institutions such as the police and education system. Nor is there evidence that the racist ideology that is used towards blacks, immigrants, Muslims and asylum-seekers has disappeared as a resultfar from it.

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This dissertation will consider the definition of racism as socially and historically constructed, and part of the institutions and ideology of society, and then examine how it has applied to the treatment blacks and other ethnic minorities in the UK since the 1940s, focusing on the Lawrence case and its aftermath. Finally, it will consider whether racism in the media has gradually been transferred to other targets in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001 and July 2005, with less emphasis on street crime, gangs, drugs and the crack wars of the 1970s-90s. This does not mean that young black males are no longer the target of racist stereotyping in the media, since as late as 2007 even a committee of the House of Commons agreed that they still were, only that racist impulses and ideologies seem to go through phases in which certain targets receive more attention than others (House of Commons, 2007)


This topic first came to my attention several months ago during the summer, when it seemed that everyday young people were being killed by young males carrying knives. At the time the newspapers that covered these stories made it seem that it was only young black males that carried knives and the problem that the police had to deal with was not that of a few individuals who were carrying and using knives but that of a wider more prevalent issue with black culture.

At the time of reading these stories I found it quite strange that over time the underlying story seemed to be the same but the details had changed. For example, I remember not too long ago, it was young black males that were most likely to mug you, it was young black males dealing drugs on estates and young black males being involved in gang shooting (McLaughlin and Murji,2001, p 265). These acts seemed to, in my opinion come in waves. Due to reports like these, the general public is of the assumption that young black males are very dangerous individuals and should be feared (McLaughlin and Murji, 2001, p 265). I wanted to find out whether the newspapers and the media in general were justified in their approach on reporting black crime or whether they are scare-mongering for the sake of sales.


As stated above, the main aim of this dissertation would be to see if in fact the general media are in fact correct in the way in which they report crime or do they fuel public panic, and in turn fuel racism. I would like to find out whether the media is helping or hindering the general publics understanding of black people. Also, I hope that my research will enable me to answer questions on the way media is used and misused. In addition to that, I would like to find out whether the events that took place that lend to Stephen Lawrences murder was a turning point in the way that journalist conduct their articles and if after the Macpherson report has anything changed. Lastly I would like to find out if I am right in my assumption that the way in which the media (especially the tabloid press) have place black people on the back burner for the time being, and are concentrating on other ethnic minorities, such as Asian etc.


The term postmodernism is generally over used, as just about everything has a postmodern twist to it. For example the term postmodern can be used to describe music, art, architecture, film etc, but as well as all these, it is a sociological school of thought. According to Giddens postmodernism is the belief that society is no longer governed by history or progress. Postmodern society is highly pluralistic and diverse, with no grand narrative guiding its development (Giddens, 2006, p1029).

According to the postmodernist Ramon Flecha, racism is described as describes a condition wherein racial and ethnic differences become incommensurable and subjects fail to address the important issue of inequality in the face of difference (Gillborn and Ladson-Billings, 2004, p123). When one takes a closer look at history, one will realize that there is a major paradox in European imperialism. As colonisers, one of their goals was to disseminate their culture in their colonies. However, Singh believes that European cultural imperialism was dedicated to denying the colonised subject any identity other than one which that renders him/her a non-person (Singh, 2006, p 7). This cultural invasion happens when the invaders impose their own beliefs and views on another group and make them inferior by suppressing their creativity and expression (Freire, 1970, p 151). Colonisers have propagated their culture among their colonies but many of them still emphasized the importance of drawing a line between them and their colony. They regard their culture as superior to that of their colonies.

It is this difference where postmodernist beliefs of racism are founded upon. In Murphy and Choi, it is defined as a myriad of practices that are designed to subjugate a large segment of the population (Murphy and Choi, 1997, p3). In postmodernist belief, differences are recognized just as long as each racial group acts according to their race. Postmodernism racism puts more emphasis on the segregation rather than the hierarchy. With respect to the racism that existed fifty or a hundred years ago, postmodern racism recognizes multiculturalism and diversity. Old theories on racism were centred more on hierarchy and which race was more superior to the other. But times of crisis and uncertainty over the course of social and economic change have often proved to be the periods in which new racist ideas and movements have emerged and provided basis for social mobilisation and exclusion (Solomos and Back, 1996, p 211). So therefore over the past 50 years it is clear to see that anytime there was an incident of economic, social or health related down turns, ethnic minorities have been have been thrust into the limelight, in a way that could be described as negative. In the 70s and 80s it was black men who were a social menace, then in the 90s refugees from the former Yugoslavia were blamed for the lack of public housing and any subsequent rises in welfare benefits. Now in the 00s, with the west waging a war against terror people of Asian descent are now referred to as terrorist.

However, postmodern racism is not any different from the old racist beliefs. According to Leonardo, postmodern racism simply assumes the guise of tolerance only to be usurped by relativism, a proliferation of differences rather than a levelling of power relations (Leonardo, 2009, p216). It was stated earlier that times of crisis have prompted racist ideas to change but they have only changed in theory. Reality states that they have essentially remained the same, crimes motivated by racist beliefs have proven that up to the present, racial supremacy still lingers in peoples minds.

Lawrences murder is one of the few racially-motivated crimes that have been publicized. But it required a careful effort from the media to publicize his death. His economic background, for instance, was taken into consideration. Other black victims of racially-motivated crimes, for instance, do not receive sufficient publicity because the journalists thought that their image as a vagrant would not illicit a sympathetic response from the public (McLaughlin and Murji, 2001, p 276). Stephen Lawrence was the opposite because he came from a middle class family and his family was not, as stereotypes would say, the typical black family everyone feared.

The discrepancy between the medias treatment of Stephen Lawrence and Duwayne Brooks respective murders will easily reveal how media still holds racist beliefs. Moreover, it goes to show that media is sensitive to the fact that the general populace is still governed by old racist beliefs that there are certain races that are superior to the other. Postmodern racism, then, does not completely hold true and it may only be a sugar-coated version of the old-fashioned 19th century racism.


Firstly I will be looking in to the methodology that is to be used in this dissertation as well as any ethically issues that may arise from doing research and writing up my dissertation. In chapter 3, I will be looking at the background history of black people in the United Kingdom and the media. In chapter 4, I will be looking in depth at the Stephen Lawrence case and asking whether Lawrence was a turning point in media reporting and the publics perception of young black males in general. I will then be covering in chapter 4.1, when the media circus surrounding Lawrence died down whether the media returned to their old ways of racially biased reporting or did the Macpherson report make a difference in the institution that in the media world. Finally in chapter 5, I will conclude and make any recommendations that are fitting. After this the references will follow.


This dissertation is a library based dissertation so therefore it uses secondary research as I feel primary research would not be suitable for this dissertation. I will be concentrating on collecting all my information from books, journals and publications that focusing on media reporting of the Stephen Lawrence case, history of black people in the UK and post Stephen Lawrence.


Racism is a delicate issue and if the research is not conducted properly, the outcome could possibly be dangerous to all parties involved in the research, whether they are a minority ethnic group or not. It is therefore important that I must be sensitive towards the needs and safety of those who would likely to be involve in the study (Babbie, 2008, p 440). As this essay will be library based researched I must make sure that whilst conducting the research and evaluating my findings, I am as transparent as possible. I must also make sure that throughout the research and evaluation process I am aware of the studys objectivities and other significant details, therefore reducing any clear bias, which in turn would allow my work to be clear and objective. Also, I must make sure that whenever I quote anything it must be written in context and that I dont plagiarise. To make sure this doesnt happen I will make sure that all my references are correctly stated. And finally I will make sure that if during my research I find articles that disagree with any statements I have made are noted not ignored.



For the British media, especially the conservative, mass market tabloids, blacks have been defined by images of black crime for decades, especially as the economy began to decline in the 1970s as unemployment, poverty and social pathology increased in the declining industrial cities. If black crime has always been defined as a social problem in the media, racist attacks by whites against minorities almost never was before the Stephen Lawrence Family Campaign (McLaughlin and Murji, 2001, p 263). From a purely capitalist view as well, crime reports are among the most headline-catching of news commodities and media everywhere in the world follow the somewhat cynical principle of if it bleeds, it leads. Crime journalists almost invariably take their cue from the police as experts on the subject and also depend of police contacts for their very livelihoods, providing them a routine and predictable source of newsworthy stories. Naturally, crime journalists never want to alienate that source and end up left out in the cold, for the economics of the news business is a particularly raw, competitive form of capitalism (McLaughlin and Murji, 2001, p 264). Van Dijk studied 2,755 headlines in the British press in 1985-86 from The Times, The Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Mail and Sun, and found that except for The Guardian, almost all the reporting about blacks and other minorities was seldom positive, occasionally neutral, and often negative (Van Dijk, 1991, p52).

After the major shift in both fictional and news coverage of crime in the 1960s and 1970s, there were increasing complaints from the elderly, minorities and young people in general about how they were depicted. Elderly citizens were shown as muggable and disempowered, while the young and minorities felt like they were continually portrayed as dangerous youth, potential perpetrators of crime, and thus welcomed films and news stories with a civil rights focus and the questioning of police authority. On the other hand, young women were more aware of their possible victim status, particularly their vulnerability to male violence, and so welcomed coverage of such crimes, which had been mostly ignored before the 1960s (Reiner et al, 2000, p 120). In general, the cultural shift of the 1960s and 1970s has not been reversed in films and news accounts in the more conservative era of the 1980s and 1990s: there is still far more depiction of sex, drugs, violence, corrupt and tarnished authority figures than before 1965, and also an increasing tendency toward more anarchic and nihilistic violence or a Hobbesian war of all against all, mixed occasionally with more reactionary and nostalgic themes. Overall, the post-1960s media and film culture has remained less deferential and more de-subordinate and demystified than it was before 1965 (Reiner et al:, 2000, p121-22).

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For decades the British media portrayed Britain as a white society with a minority and immigration problem. Accordingly, the coloured population is seen as some kind of aberration, a problem, or just an oddity. One of the most popular BBC television programmes in 1958-78 was The Black and White Minstrel Show, supposedly set in the Deep South of the U.S., featuring actors blacked up. As late as 1998, only 2% of journalists in England and Wales were Arab, Asian or black even though these minorities made up 5.26% of the population, and the media often remained blind to ethnic minorities (Wilson et al, 2003, p 21). According to the British Social Attitudes Survey of 2003, 31% of white admitted to being racist, about the same percentage as 1987, and many people also practised aversion racism in which they believed intellectually in equality but at the same time felt aversion toward minorities with negative stereotypes, and thus avoided interaction with them if possible (Crisp and Turner, 2007, p 162-65).

In the media, blacks became synonymous with drugs, gangs and street crime, and misleading police statistics asserted that young black males were the majority of street criminals, generally unemployed and on welfare. Equally untrue in the standard media portrayal, their victims were often white, female and elderly (McLaughlin and Murji:, 2001, p265). Abercrombie and Warde agree that a conception of the black community as particularly crime-prone took hold in the 1970s in press treatments of attacks on and thefts from, innocent people in the streets. In 1983 The Sun actually ran a headline Black Crime Shock and stated falsely that blacks carried twice as many muggings as white sin London last year (Webster, 2006, p 32). In general, the media conveyed the image that the attackers were predominantly black and the victims predominantly white, no matter that there was no evidence for this. Just the opposite, the British Crime Survey of 1988 and 1992 showed conclusively that ethnic minorities are much more likely, in fact, to be the victims of crime than white people, and these crimes are under-reported because it is believed the police will not be interested and will not follow up a complaint. According to a 1981 Home Office report, victimization rates for Asians were 50 times, and for blacks 36 times, higher than for white people, but the media treated this information like it did not exist and almost never reported the extent and seriousness of racially motivated attacks on black communities (McLaughlin and Murji, 2001, p 268-69). Nevertheless, into the 1990s, young black males continued to be profiled and targeted for stop and search policing, especially in high crime areas. Studies of police attitudes found that they generally regarded blacks as trouble-makers, drug dealers, robbers and nothing else (Abercrombie and Warde, 2000, p258-59).

This moral panic against crime in the streets was also fuelled by Conservative politicians, particularly in the Winter of Discontent against the Labour government in 1979. In the Thatcher years, the Tories presided over an era of high unemployment and increasing poverty at the bottom end of the social scale, and knew that they could divert attention by promoting a law and order discourse that put the blame on the most socially and economically depressed sections of the community (Holohan, 2005, p 104). In Britain, as in the U.S. and many other countries from the 1970s to the 1990s, conservative and right-wing populist ideologies reflected a broadly right-wing consensus which, in many news channels (especially the tabloid press)justified as encapsulating the British way of life. This law and order consensus supported more police, more prisons and a tougher criminal justice system, particularly in response to the youth and minority rebellions of the 1960s and 1970s–and indeed, as part of a white backlash against these (Jewkes 2004, p58). For over twenty years, conservative populist punitiveness represented the main attitude of the British government to crime, poverty and the social problems associated with them, and there was no major opposition to imprisoning larger numbers of youth and younger ages, to prosecuting them as adults, more curfews, prohibition of unauthorized gatherings of young people, as well as harsher measures against immigrants, protesters, demonstrators, the homeless and young unemployed, particularly if any of the above were from minority groups. Newspapers like The Sun and Daily Mail have always had a vigorous intolerance towards anyone of anything that transgresses an essentially conservative agenda (Jewkes, 2004, p 59). Socially, economically and culturally, this era was a throwback to the late-Victorian period at the end of the 19th Century.

A 1992 book Beneath the Surface: Racial Harassment described a detailed study of racism in the London borough of Waltham Forest in 1981-89. It found that racial harassment was a fact of life there, including verbal and physical abuse, graffiti and fire bombings of houses of ethnic minorities. In July 1981 a Pakistani woman and her three children died in one of these attacks when petrol was sprayed into their house and set alight. The police did not seem interested in any of these crimes, and were even suspicious of the minorities who reported them. In 1998, The Observer reported that little has changed in the years since and described how one Muslim man was regularly threatened with stones, guns, knives, fire-bombs and death threats over a seven-year period. In 1992-94 alone, there were at least 45 deaths in Britain from what are believed to be racially motivated attacks, but none of them received nearly the same publicity as the Lawrence case (Abercrombie and Warde, 2000, p 260-62). After the riots of 1980-81, Lord Scarmans report emphasized the role of racial discrimination and acknowledged that there was a problem of racially discriminatory policing, as was still the case twelve years later in the Lawrence case. After the report came out, the police gave off-the-record interviews to the effect that London was experiencing a dramatic increase in muggings (McLaughlin and Murji, 2001, p266).

Jamaican immigrants had begun to arrive in the UK in 1948, although even the Labour government of that era preferred white European immigrants if it could find them, even if they could not speak English and understood little about Britain. Indeed, government officials went out of their way to discourage immigration from Africa, Asia and the West Indies, which was not unusual at the time, given the whites-only immigration policies in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States that had been in place for decadesand did not change in the U.S. until 1965. The British government even tried to divert a ship carrying 492 Jamaicans to East Africa in 1948. Given the shortage of white immigrants, Britain had no alternative except to obtain most of its cheap labour supply from its colonies, semi-colonies and former colonies in Asia, Africa and the West Indies, although with much bad will on both the governmental level and in (white) public opinion (Skelton, 1999).

Blacks had been in Britain long before this wave of immigration, of course, but it seems to have made little impact on historical memory or popular consciousness. Britain had slavery during the 17th and 18th Centuries at least until Lord Mansfield abolished it in 1772. To be sure, only 10-20,000 slaves had lived in the country during any given year compared to millions in Brazil, the United States and West Indies and the number of free blacks was never large (Segal, 1996). Prior to the post-1945 immigration, few whites in Britain would have ever encountered many blacks at home, except of course for American soldiers in World War II. At that time, however, many white Americans were actually surprised to find that the British press was generally sympathetic to blacks whenever racial conflicts, brawls and other incidents took place on British soil (Katznelson, 2001).

Jamaicans were the largest group to arrive in Britain from the West Indies during this unwelcome ingathering from the colonies. While the majority of White British were antagonistic to all those from the Caribbean, it can be said that the deepest resentment was toward the Jamaicans (Skelton, 1999, p 232). Initially, they settled in Lambeth, Brixton, Clapham and Camberwell in South London, which was considered ideal for blacks and other minorities since it had suffered extensive bomb damage and was full of vacant, old and dilapidated Victorian houses. In other worlds, it was an instant, ready-made ghetto. Black immigrants were crowded into these run-down houses, charged unreasonably high rents, and/or faced housing discrimination. They only got the jobs that British workers would not take and called slave labour or shit work, and often could not even get that. Like many such ghettos in the past, theft, fencing of stolen merchandise, prostitution and drug dealing were commonwith many shops offering illegal goods and services under the counter to supplement their incomes and others acting as fronts for gangs and organized crime. In short, like similar ghettos in the U.S. and many other countries, it had a large informal or underground economy which existed in tandem with the mainstream economy and societyalthough minority young people were mostly cut off and alienated from this (Sanders, 2000, p 33). Mainstream media reported the crime but not the historical, social and economic context of this ghetto society.

From the start, the police and media associated young Jamaican males with street crime, which became an idea so pervasive and powerful that soon everyone who saw a young Black man on the street was convinced they were about to be robbed (Skelton, 1999, p 232). In the 1970s, it was not uncommon to see young Black men being taken to the side of public pavements and being forced to empty their pockets by two of three police officers at a time (Skelton, 1999, p 233). Parliament passed sus laws that allowed the police to stop and frisk anyone acting in a suspicious manneran early example of racial profiling, and arresting and harassing suspects from crimes like shopping, walking or driving while Black. In the media, there were virtually no counter-representations of young, black men, while in the civil disturbances of the 1980s and 1990s it ran the most sensationalistic stories claiming that Britain was becoming a riot-torn society (Skelton, 1999, p 234) caused by an alien disease and angry young blacks who did not share the values of law-abiding society (Skelton, 1999, p 234). Certain geographical areas like Brixton in London, Toxteth in Liverpool and Handsworth in Birmingham were racialised in the media and always associated with danger, destruction and lawlessness (Skelton, 1999, p 234).


Identifying a sympathetic victim is a well-known strategy of civil rights movements, and one of the best known was Rosa Parks, whose arrest on December 1, 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to a white person on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama was the spark that lit the modern civil rights movement in the United Sates. E.D. Nixon, the head of the Alabama National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and chief organizer of the Montgomery Voters League had been looking for a test case against the segregation laws for quite some time. He knew that it would have to survive legal challenges all the way up to the United States Supreme Court, and for this purpose the right type of victim was essential (Hare, 2005). It was no accident when Rosa Parks, the secretary of the local NAACP and member of Martin Luther Kings church, was arrested as part of the long-planned test case. Jonnie Carr, head of the Montgomery Improvement Association for thirty years, had invited Parks to join the NAACP and the two women started a friendship that would last a lifetime (Hare, 2005, p 25). Carr, who would later challenge Montgomerys segregated school system I the courts and win the case in the Supreme Court, said that Parks was so quiet that you would never have believed she would get to the point of being arrested (hare,2005, p26), but she did. Once she was committed to this course, she did not look back, and was famous for her quiet courage and determination. She continually received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan during the bus boycott and the legal case, and had to move to Detroit, Michigan in 1957. Even so, she continued to work with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, helping to organize the March on Washington in 1963 and the election of John Conyers to Congressone of the first blacks elected in the 20th Century (Hare, 2005).

Other blacks had been arrested before Parks for refusing to give up their seats, but Nixon, Carr and the other organizers did not regard them as the right kind of victims to generate exactly the right kind of publicity they required, or to stand up to the ordeal that was certain to follow, including the very real possibility of death. On March 2 1955, fifteen-year old Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white person, and when she was convicted of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, the young straight-A student burst into tears (Hare, 2005, p4). Eighteen-year old Mary Louise Smith was arrested on October 1, 1955 for refusing to give up her seat as well, but Nixon and his fellow organizers did not believe she was quite right for the campaign, either, because of her age and some issues in her background (Hare: 2005). In Rosa Parks, they found their ideal candidate: a mother, gainfully employed, regular churchgoer, mature and respectable, someone Martin Luther King could proclaim as one of the finest citizens: of Montgomery (Hare,2005,p 30). She could play the role of innocent victim of injustice very well, and be the wife and mother that a white audience could identify with, even though as a civil rights movement activist and organizer, she knew from the start that she was part of a legal test case and media campaign.

To be sure, Stephen Lawrence had never planned to become a victim in this way, but civil rights and anti-racism organizers in Britain knew that they could portray him and his family as respectable, middle class people who were really not so different from the white readership of the Daily Mail, and thus generate the type of media interest and political pressure that racist attacks and murders had almost never received in Britain beforeor since, for that matter.

Prior to 1997, the Mail had shown little interest in the Lawrence case and only the announcement of a public inquiry seemed to get its attention. On February 14, 1997, however, it ignored legal and ethical guidelines and controversially printed the names and photographs of the five white suspects, and pronounced them guilty of murder under the blazing headline If We Are Wrong Let Them Sue Us. From 1997-99 it published at least 530 stories on the murder and Macpherson investigation, which some cynics always regarded as a ploy to boost circulation or the result of Stephen Lawrences father Neville once having worked as a plasterer for Paul Dacre, the Mails editor. In an editorial on February 15, 1999, the paper explained that it had thought long and hard before publicly naming the five white men, but this was an extraordinary situation and demanded an extraordinary response (McLaughlin and Murji,2001,p 272-73). Many newspapers covered the Lawrence murder, but the Daily Mails high-profile campaignset the agenda for the terms of the public debate about whom and what was responsible for the murder. This was unusual and unexpected because never before had a racist murder been so graphically and repeatedly described and condemned by a right-wing newspaper in the United Kingdom (McLaughlin,2005,p 163).

In the Stephen Lawrence case, the standard media portrayal of blacks as lazy, criminal and violent was inverted in order to present the victim and his family as clean, drug-free hard-working, educated and middle class, while his five white killers were shown as members of the unemployed underclass, living on welfare in public housing. In this way, the media could uphold the standard narrative of race and class while making Lawrence an exception to the general rule: a good black and an innocent victim. This was not the case for the other young black man attacked with him at the same time, Duwayne Brooks, described as a sort of marginal character perhaps involved with gangs and drugs, unlike Stephen Lawrence, who aspired to become an architect and join the middle class. As for Brooks, journalists


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