Not With A Whimper - Part 3

William McPherson

In this third and final part of my essay, I want to see if we can get a handle on what Macpherson meant by "institutional" racism, and to see what consequences might follow for the British police, so stigmatized. 

We left matters asking how the members of the Macpherson group could detect racism even when there was no overt evidence for it. The answer is that they could find racism because they put it there. This is called projection. 

Now, projection is a term that is familiar enough, but often our understanding goes no deeper than the term itself, as if it were a phenomenon that takes place in a mental black box. But to make it useful for our purpose, a bit more of an explication will be useful.

There are thoughts or feelings that we could not stand to have. We hate them and, if we acknowledged having them, we would hate ourselves for it. But even to consider the possibility that we have them is already to see ourselves as having them., even if only hypothetically. Quite a problem.  What are we going to do? One thing we can do is to experience them as being in somebody else. Then we can hate the other for having them, just as we would otherwise hate ourselves. We have, in effect, transformed an intrapsychic conflict into an interpersonal one

There are obvious advantages in doing this. We can let our hatred run at full strength; we can glory in it, seeing ourselves as righteous fighters for the good on the basis of our hatred of this bad stuff. We can even attack the other, under the premise that we are destroying the hated ideas in doing so.

Into whom would we project them? It is important to see that just about anyone will do, although someone who brings the forbidden idea to mind, even on the basis of the most tenuous association, would be an especially good candidate. The point is that what is important to us is not to make these attributions correctly, but to find a place for the ideas that is outside of ourselves. And our need to do this is incessant, since our fear of having the ideas is always there. So we can find someone to dump them into just about anyplace we are, because anyplace we go, it will be there.

Now we could be talking about any content of the mind here that would be unacceptable to a person. Homosexual inclination would be a good example, but in this case our interest is in racism.

The projection of racism is on extravagant display in the report of the Macpherson hearings. They mention five areas of evidence for the demonstration of racism:   (a) the treatment of Mr and Mrs Lawrence at the hospital on the night of the murder; (b) the initial reaction to the victim and witness Duwayne Brooks; (c) the family liaison; (d) the failure of many officers to recognize Stephen’s murder as a racially motivated crime; and (e) the lack of urgency and motivation in some areas of the investigation. 

Dennis, Erdman, and Al Shahi vivisect their findings of "racism" in these areas and show that, in every instance, whatever happened that was not optimal could be entirely explained by causes that are perfectly common and entirely understandable, showing that the imputation of racism is, in every case, egregious. For reasons of space, I can only consider one of them. But I think it is important to discuss an instance, just to give an idea for the feel of the thing, Remember that there was no evidence of racist feelings or behavior, but they found it nonetheless. Projection may be interpolated as the step between observations and otherwise unsupportable interpretations. 

A police officer named Little was reported to have said to Mr. Lawrence at the hospital to which Stephen had been brought: "we've got a young lad in there, he is dead, we don't know who he is, but we would like to clarify that point. If it is not your son then all well and good, but we do need to know. I am sure you would like to know as well."

The Macpherson group observed to begin with, that Mr. and Mrs Lawrence required careful and sympathetic handling, and that Mr. Little's approach was insensitive and unsympathetic, which is fair enough, but then they said this:

Although he had worked in multi-cultural societies and areas throughout his service and believed that he treated everybody in the same way his lack of sensitivity and his inaction, particularly at the hospital, betrayed conduct which demonstrates inability to deal properly with bereaved people, and particularly those bereaved as a result of a terrible racist attack. He failed to deal with the family appropriately and professionally. This was unwitting racism at work. (emphasis added)

But what if Mr Little was just an insensitive guy, toward whites as much as blacks, or what if he was tired, or feeling harried at that moment? These obvious possibilities were not refuted, or even considered. The cause of his insensitivity was racism, and that was that. 

One won't find a more classical example of projection, and this sort of thing was the norm.

Now let us consider what happens to those into whom we project these unacceptable thoughts. There are several possibilities here. 

One is that they can refuse them. "I'm not a _______," they say. But those who do the projecting will not be not dissuaded. For reasons that have nothing to do with the target of their projections, they are sure of their judgments. So what does one do? Prove that one is not? How could one do that? How could one prove that something is not in one's mind? Inevitably, then, the person accused will be unable to respond to the charge in any way that is not transparently inadequate.

Another possibility is to identify with the projection, forming the complex Klein calls projective identification; one would internalize the condemnation coming from the other. The result would be to feel that the accusations are justified , which would make a sincere refusal impossible. The response is likely to be guilt,  shame,  and self-hatred.

An alternative is to do to others what has been done to oneself. Somebody has projected something into you, or you even imagine they have, or that they will. It doesn't much matter which, since it is in your mind as a possibility. You can try to get rid of it in the same way by projecting it into someone else, so becoming another righteous fighter in the cause. Before long, the cause becomes a social movement in its own right, albeit with a political, rather than a functional identity.


I want to move now to consider the effect the finding of institutional racism could have had on the British police, especially given the organizational endorsement of the charge rendered by Sir Paul Condon. We are looking particularly to see how the effect could have been an inhibition in their response to the riots of August, 2011.

In this, bear in mind that this charge was not a onetime thing. Calling it "institutional," rendered it, in effect, a defining feature of the organization, which, not being tied down to anything discernible and specific, could not be demonstrably outgrown. That would make it for all practical purposes, permanent. Along these lines,  the Macpherson report called for the future training of police to be, from that time forward, designed to root out this racism, a process that assumes that the suspicion of racism would be essentially everlasting. 

One could hypothesize the transformation of the organization in a number of directions, which, however apparently different, could occur simultaneously and build upon one another. 

1) The development of a bunker mentality. The police could see themselves as being under siege, permanently subject to undeserved, arbitrary attack, from which they would not feel capable of defending themselves. They would believe that they would be condemned, no matter how reasonable their case. They would come to feel like a secret sect, separate from the society which they had undertaken to protect, and which they would come to resent. Systems of control and accountability would come to seem like agencies of oppression, which the organization would feel the necessity of defending itself against.

Obviously, such separation would lead to a systemic failure of engagement that could not help but have a negative impact on the system's responsiveness and its general effectiveness.  We should also not be surprised to find, growing out of the resentment, a degree of schaedenfreude and passive aggression: "They created this mess, now let them live with it." 

2) Operating at a deeper level, the system could become morally submissive. Having accepted the accusation of institutional racism, the system would be in the permanent condition of condemning itself, of finding itself guilty.  And this guilt would  not be for anything specific that one had done, but for who one is, which gives it the aspect of shame. Under the circumstances, it would lose confidence in its own spontaneous judgments, which, after all, are an expression of who one is. But, such confidence is necessary for a rapid response. Therefore, in a system of this sort the tendency would be for the police to question their motives, to hold them suspect, rather than act on them. The moral order would be inverted. Initiative would pass over to those seen as likely to bring charges of racism, which would be the bedrock of moral authority, and upon whom the system would become dependent. It might even come to see attacks upon it as legitimate and proper punishment. It is easy to see that such a police force would find it difficult to impose order on a group upon which they experienced such dependence. 

We were looking to understand the causes of the inhibition of police counter-aggression. This, obviously, would do it.

3) The dynamic of dealing with a projection by projecting it elsewhere would redefine the mission and ultimately the nature of a police force. The police force would come to adopt "antiracism" as an identity.  Then, instead of being a social subsystem whose goal is to enforce the society's laws, it would become a paramilitary force following political objectives. 

But this dynamic can be based on people's apprehension about the possibility of being accused in this way, rather than on specific accusations as such. The result would be that it would tend to expand exponentially. It would also easily move outside the bounds of the police to other sectors of the society, perhaps even including former High Court judges such as Sir William Macpherson.

As the movement expands, "racism" becomes increasingly broadly defined; and antiracism, which inevitably has a rather tenuous focus, becomes subject to subsumption under deeper and more comprehensive political categories, such as those, for example, that formed the elite condemnation with which we started. Depending on the political steering currents in operation, a police force redefined in this way could come to see itself as directed against existing society itself, which it would come to see as inherently, perhaps "institutionally" racist, not to mention every other bad thing. Under the circumstances, increased identification with rioters, of whatever race, whose assault against society would come to be seen as legitimate and political in its own right, could be expected. The police force's capacity to impose order on a riot would, of course, become increasingly problematic. In the end, they might even join in.

As I have said, these tendencies, though distinct, could occur simultaneously and reinforce each other. For example, the separation from society could easily provide a setting for the politicization of the police.

In closing, it is good to reflect that none of this was foreordained. The condemnation of one’s society is not something that just happens. There is always a choice involved. Why British society, and Western society generally, through its elites, chose to condemn itself, and in the course of that made it impossible for it to defend itself, is outside the scope of this essay.