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Sticking the knife into Middle England: Thirty years on from the murder of Stephen Lawrence

Monday April 22nd is Stephen Lawrence day in England.  It should be a time to reflect on the meaning of Stephen’s murder and a stark reminder of what intolerance and hate can lead to.

Stephen Lawrence was murdered on 22nd April 1993 in Eltham, a suburb on the edge of South-East London. Many of you will be familiar with the details, but here’s a brief summary of the event. Stephen was walking along Well Hall Road with a friend when he was confronted by a group of White youths. He was surrounded, repeatedly stabbed and died of his injuries. However, it took nineteen years to secure a conviction of two of the six initially accused of his murder.

The case was a bewildering mix of arrogance, racism and police incompetence. It was clear from the start of the investigation who the suspects were. Witnesses came forward. The ‘word on the street’ named the individuals involved and all could be placed near the scene at the time of the murder. But nothing happened. It took the campaigning of Stephen’s parents, and particularly his mother Doreen, to bring the case to public attention and mobilise both popular sentiment and legal action.  Finally, in January 2012, two of Stephen’s murderers were convicted. It had taken nineteen years for partial justice to be served.

Why does Stephen's murder matter?

Why do we now have such a thing as the Stephen Lawrence Day? Why does his murder matter?  In short, Stephen’s murder rocked society and led to fundamental legal reforms, not least the long-standing double-jeopardy law. (If you want more granular detail a Google search with provide ample results). Perhaps more importantly, the senseless murder of an eighteen-year-old Black adolescent lifted the lid of denial around England’s seething undercurrent of racial hostility.  

Prior to Stephen’s murder, the country had prided itself as a nation of ‘tolerance’.  Racism, though seething and erupting at times, was seen as a marginal issue; in part a response to the ‘proliferation’ of un-Britishness that immigration had set loose and often the product of over-sensitivity and over-reaction and, on occasion, as something owned by the lower echelons of the White Working Class. The cultural trope was that racism was niche, marginal, imagined at times, and something that was at worst ‘collateral damage’ for political mismanagement of immigration (sound familiar?).

Why did the Knife cut so deeply?

Stephen Lawrence was a friendly, kind, hard-working young man with ambitions to be an architect. He was, in so many ways, the kind of child we would all be proud to call our son. He was murdered simply because of the colour of his skin. Stephen didn’t come from a dysfunctional family. His upbringing could even be called quintessentially English. Work hard. Stay out of trouble. Respect your elders and authority. Live a good and honest life. As a family, the Lawrence’s embraced the values of Middle England.

The murder of Stephen Lawrence opened-up the under-belly of English society and shone a light on the deeper cultural truths that permeated everyday life. It also shone a light on the collective psychology which repressed the truth about racism and its prevalence, as well as the real and potential impact of racial hate. There was no getting away from what happened and no hiding from the realities that the murder was telling us about ‘our England’. In many ways, a line had been drawn in the sands of apathy and denial. The nation had to face uncomfortable truths. For some in society, Black lives really didn’t matter.  Some people even believed that Stephen got what he deserved – simply because of the colour of his skin. Perhaps most importantly, though, was the fact that the murder of a young, innocent Black adolescent, from a family embracing ‘our values’, made White passivity a problem.  The murder of Stephen Lawrence was a wake-up call for the right-minded White population of Middle England.

Why we must still remember Stephan Lawrence

What we saw with the murder of Stephen Lawrence was just how damaging the tolerated message of hate can be. Hate inspired people to think and feel that murdering a Black teenager was ok. The perverse logic on which hate is based convinced people that silence was the best option, and even that Stephen’s murder was ‘necessary’. We blame people for sins they have not committed. and use this to justify and explain our own unhappiness in the world. But the consequences of this cultural ignorance can be profound. The murder of Stephen Lawrence revealed the toxic consequences of a society that had lost touch with its own humanity. Let’s try not to lose touch with ours.

By Dr Mark Thorpe


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