Phelim Mac Cafferty: Why we still have to fight institutional racism

Councillor MacCafferty
Councillor MacCafferty

We commemorated the murder of Stephen Lawrence on April 22.

Stephen was only a few years older than me and as a teenager the injustice of his case and death had a huge impact. While as a student I campaigned for my students’ union to be renamed the Stephen Lawrence building, attending the inquiry into Stephen’s murder, I distinctly remember the murderers hurling abuse and punches. In their fight for justice, the lives of Stephen’s parents were turned upside down. Nelson Mandela backed their case, and writer Maya Angelou’s allowed her famous poem ‘And Still I Rise’ to become the title of Doreen Lawrence’s harrowing autobiography.

At the time, the Macpherson Inquiry talked about institutional racism and the toxic role it plays in preventing justice being served for all communities. Such racism was exacerbated by things like the humiliating supermarket vouchers for immigrants from the last Labour government. But the reality is that for decades, fires have been stoked by ministers of all governments, quick to scapegoat immigrants and treat anyone who doesn’t look or sound like ‘us’ with suspicion. This week a UN special envoy will explore how the Brexit campaign fuelled racism.

The recent Windrush scandal shows that institutional racism is alive and well. Theresa May’s flagship ‘hostile environment’ policy has ruined lives. As a migrant myself (albeit a white one) I’ve seen aspects of this xenophobia. But we have a cruel detention system for migrants, and much of the language used is utterly dehumanising.

Local Government is not immune. I am exceptionally proud of my Green councillor colleagues from ethnic minority communities who have helped me understand the world from their angle. Yet our council, like many others across the country, still does not look like the communities it serves.

The profile of migrant campaigns here in Brighton and Hove attests to a city that is much better for opening its arms to the world. Our solidarity will culminate in Refugee Week (June 18-24) with a celebration of our diverse city. The 25th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s murder reminds us why we must battle racism and xenophobia: the fight continues.

Phelim Mac Cafferty is the convenor of the Green Group on Brighton and Hove City Council.