Institutional racism has come, in Britain, to be understood as
the collective failure of an organisation to provide and appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin.
Those words come from the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. The elements of institutional racism lie, not so much in the expression of direct or personal discrimination, as in the actions of institutions – acts, processes and the promotion of outcomes which are discriminatory.
Both the leading candidates in the electoral contest have been criticised, with some reason, for making stereotypical or prejudiced comments about race. Boris Johnson has made offensive comments about Muslims, women, homosexuality, Liverpudlians, Africans, ‘orientals’ and heaven knows what else. Jeremy Corbyn is accused more often of condoning racism more than of making racist statements, with the main exception of accusing Jews of not understanding British irony; but the racism he has appeared to wave aside includes accusations of conspiracy, divided loyalties, sinister influence and Holocaust denial. I don’t think we can appeal for ‘zero tolerance’ of inappropriate comments, because – like going ‘back to basics’ in moral conduct – it asks more of us than we’re capable of living with. Everyone has some prejudices, even if we might hope that public figures would think twice before they gave vent to them.
We should be more directly concerned with about the levels of institutional racism that have been on display in both the Conservative and Labour parties. Both parties have factions who want to deny that there is any problem. Some right-wing commentators have claimed that Islamophobia has been invented; Labour supporters often refer to ‘smears’ (itself a racist accusation, claiming that complaints are based on deliberate fabrication and conspiracy). The Conservative leaders promised to hold an inquiry into anti-Muslim hatred, and have backtracked; Labour stands accused of institutional racism and a toxic environment. We need to understand the effect on institutions that is produced, not by racial hate as such, but by ‘Othering’ – painting minority groups, such as Jews or Muslims, as alien. The damage is done not when we call people names, but when we accuse them of alien patterns of thought, divided loyalties, dishonesty and ulterior motives. Those, rather than outright racial hatred, are the sentiments which lead to denial, rejection and the inability to deal with justified complaints.