The Judiciary and Institutional Racism

Nadine El-Enany

‘Let justice be done though the heavens fall,’ the deputy High Court judge Richard Mawrey said as he ruled that Lutfur Rahman’s re-election as mayor of Tower Hamlets on 22 May 2014 was void. Mawrey found Rahman guilty of a series of corrupt and illegal practices, including bribery, undue spiritual influence, payment of canvassers and falsely accusing his Labour rival of being a racist.

On finding Rahman guilty of ‘undue spiritual influence’, Mawrey describes the way the offence was used to overturn the votes of Irish Catholics in the 1800s:

Time and again... it was stressed that the Catholic voters were men of simple faith, usually much less well educated than the clergy who were influencing them, and men whose natural instinct would be to obey the orders of their priests... This principle still holds good... a distinction must be made between a sophisticated, highly educated and politically literate community and a community which is traditional, respectful of authority and, possibly, not fully integrated with the other communities living in the same area... it is the character of the person sought to be influenced that is key to whether influence has been applied.

He concludes that ‘it would be wrong... to treat Tower Hamlets’ Muslim community by the standards of a secular and largely agnostic metropolitan elite.’ The implication is that the typical Muslim voter is not capable of the rational judgment and circumspection of her 'White-British' counterpart.

John Biggs, the Labour mayoral candidate, said in 2013 that all Rahman’s councillors ‘are from the Bangladeshi community and the primary focus of his policy making has been on the Bangladeshi community... what we don’t want to have is small communities that are separate from each other and are very inward looking because the world will pass them by.’ Rahman called the remarks ‘racially insensitive’; Mawrey says, on the contrary, that they are ‘indubitably true’. But Biggs’s comment plays to a stereotype of the Bangladeshi community. The message is that Bangladeshis are the problem: their leaders are corrupt, their failure to ‘integrate’ is a result of their preference for an ‘inward looking’ lifestyle, they are ignored by the world because of their own deficiencies rather than because they are victims of structural discrimination and Islamophobia.

According to Mawrey, Bangladeshis in Tower Hamlets are not a ‘beleaguered minority in a sea of hostile racial prejudice’ because they make up 32 per cent of the population there. Metropolitan Police figures, however, show that between April 2012 and September 2014, there were 100 Islamophobic hate crimes recorded in Tower Hamlets, more than in any other London borough.

People who ‘call out’ racists are ‘playing the race card’, Mawrey says. He characterises the reaction to the 1993 election of a BNP councillor, Derek Beackon, as ‘bordering on hysteria’ and says it was ‘used, for decades afterwards, to justify the claim that racism stalked the Borough and that only constant vigilance would prevent Tower Hamlets from becoming a fascist, not to say Nazi, outpost’. He calls the BNP and the EDL ‘a very useful bogeyman with which to affright the citizens, especially the non-white citizens, of Tower Hamlets’. Yet those citizens have reason to be vigilant. The EDL has marched through the borough three times. Beackon’s win came shortly after the murder of Stephen Lawrence, one of a spate of racist attacks in South East London after the BNP established their headquarters there.

For Mawrey, all this is ancient history. He is sympathetic towards police officers who ‘feel that the imputation of “institutional racism” made by the Macpherson Inquiry, albeit 16 years ago, still dogs the Force’ and makes it hard for them to do their job properly. More to the point, allegations of police racism have not subsided since the Macpherson Inquiry. In 2013, the Metropolitan Black Police Association said that the force was still institutionally racist. Black people are six times as likely to be stopped and searched, and Asian people twice as likely, as their white counterparts. In 2013, Stephen Lawrence’s brother Stuart lodged a racism complaint after being stopped in his car by police 25 times.

That a judge can put forward the view that the ‘natural instinct’ of Muslims is to defer to their religious leaders and that Bangladeshis are a ‘less sophisticated’ and ‘less well educated’ people raises the question of whether the charge of institutional racism that Mawrey is so quick to dismiss cannot also be laid at the door of the judiciary.