British Journal of Criminology: Volume 44, Number 6 Pp. 854-865
The Development of Black Police Associations: Changing Articulations of Race within the Police
by Simon Holdaway and Megan O'Neill
Black Police Associations have been established in 35 of the 43 constabularies in England and Wales. The pace of their development has been considerable, marking a significant change in the organization and articulation of race relations within the police workforce … They bring their membership of ethnic minority officers and support staff into a formally recognized structure, fulfilling a number of functions. A seat on constabulary committees is secured; individuals are given support; social events are held; and the profile of ethnic minority staff is raised.
The Home Office recognizes the importance of associations in a number of ways. Financial and other support is given to the National Black Police Association, whose offices are provided by the Home Office. Membership of Home Office and constabulary working groups and committees is offered to its officers. Local associations have become indicators of good practice within Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary inspection framework. Black Police Associations are therefore based securely within the contemporary police landscape, shaping one feature of a wider, sometimes turbulent, terrain of police race relations.
[Omitted here is a lengthy passage about the ‘feelings’ of non-White officers and the rise of the complaints culture. Long story short: non-White officers often felt isolated working mainly with Whites whose culture and attitudes were different from theirs (I can think of one answer to that problem that appears not to have been considered), and started to sue the force charging racial bias when passed over for promotion. The upshot is the Met decided in 1990 to hold a series of seminars to investigate the non-White officers’ complaints.]
cont… This has been etched into the history of associations as ‘The Bristol Seminars’, held at Bristol Polytechnic in July 1990. All ethnic minority officers serving in the Met, together with a sample of white officers, were required to attend discussions in small groups about many aspects of their work. A report of the seminar was written by ethnic-minority officers, detailing, in clear terms, a very different experience of employment for white and for ethnic-minority officers. In the preamble to the report of the seminar, it is said that:
Many officers from the white group, however, remained distrustful and uncooperative; most did not acknowledge that their black and Asian colleagues had any specific problems and were therefore unable to address themselves to these problems.
[Every non-White officer attends but merely a sample of the White officers... The report of the findings is written up by exclusively non-White officers. If the intention had been to prejudice the findings and place on record the greatest number, widest range and most provocative examples of non-White officers’ experiences that’s how you’d do it. And the converse: you’d also have set things up to minimise coherent opposition to minority race-based claims.
You can understand the White officers feeling a mite aggrieved at having to attend this kind of seminar. They were of the view (recorded in the section I cut) that where officers had legitimate grievances there existed a functioning complaints procedure. But in this period we were entering the era of ‘institutional racism’ where an aggrieved party does not need to show that his antagonist has done anything wrong, he merely has to show that he is aggrieved for ‘racism’ to be demonstrated. Holding these seminars and structuring them in such a way as they did seems to suggest that the Met had accepted the non-White officers were suffering some form of unjust treatment at the hands of their White colleagues. And yet the evidence is vague and the ‘punishment’ collective. What employee would not feel aggrieved? Even I would feel hard done by - and I am racist!
The requirement that Whites should uncritically accept the non-Whites’ claims and ‘acknowledge’ the problem exists before changing accordingly is a demand that would return again in the Macpherson Report ten years later: ‘there must be an unequivocal acceptance that the problem actually exists as a prerequisite to addressing it successfully.’ It’s really a way of outlawing dissent. The problem, racism, exists because non-White officers say it does, so an uncooperative White officer is tolerating racism. And it doesn’t matter that the systematic focus on non-White perceptions is objectively racist, because any White officer, as in society generally, who dares to say White people also have race-specific interests in these matters is ‘racist’ anyway.]
cont… The report of the seminar raised the status of ethnic-minority officers, setting out their perspectives and the changes that they believed necessary to create a compatible working environment. Crucially, it also brought a large number of officers together, fostering a developing consciousness of the highly racialized context of their work; that racial prejudice and discrimination were a common experience; and that, together, they could develop a strategy to lobby for change.
[Raised their status and set out their perspectives… how nice - for them. / If you set out to racialize a context there’s a better than average chance you’ll subsequently be conscious of that context being racialized. / I’ll bet the racial prejudice implicit in the seminars and the discrimination explicit in their structure and focus were an unacknowledged part of the ‘common experience’ - even though you must ‘acknowledge’ the racism, even objectively demonstrable racism, before you can remedy it...]
cont… It is important to remember that the seminar was organized by the Met’s senior ranks, who required ethnic-minority officers to attend. The reasons for it are not clear, save that the number of industrial tribunals gaining pace may have prompted some senior officers to act. Whatever the formal intention, the heightening of a racialized consciousness amongst ethnic-minority staff and their expectation of change was an unintended consequence of the seminar. As far as the development of associations was concerned, the seminar created a strong network of ethnic-minority officers, who continued to meet socially.
[It is more likely that the ‘heightening of a racialized consciousness’ amongst ethnic minority officers was an intended consequence of the seminar. This is perfectly consistent with the general tenor of ‘multiculturalist’ discourse at the time and is a practically inevitable consequence of a process designed to ascertain a picture of these officers’ racial consciousness! It’s a point often emphasised with regard to issues of local councils deciding not to fund Christmas celebrations that the impetus for these excesses comes more often from raceless managerial elites than from ornery minorities. It’s also quite possible that it was seen as beneficial to make White officers as White officers feel uncomfortable and pressured. An early variant on Ian Blair’s hanging ‘em out to dry approach.]
cont… Regular social events were held at central London venues for officers who had attended Bristol and their partners. Attendance at what became known as the ‘Bristol Reunions’ grew quickly, with upwards of 300 people purchasing tickets. The officers who organised the events have said that they became a major task, eventually needing a committee to coordinate arrangements.
Their organizers described the events as ‘safe’, meaning they had three key characteristics. First, officers attending could be sure that they would not be the subject of racial jokes and banter, or other expressions of racism. Secondly, the required dress code was formal - a style that members of Afro-Caribbean communities within the police liked. Thirdly, there would be no rowdy behaviour, no drunkenness, no spilling of drink over each other and no atmosphere of bravado, common to many police rank-and-file gatherings. (Authors’ note: This was the perception of officers. We are not sure about its accuracy. It may have been an exaggeration - a stereotype against which ethnic-minority reunions could be compared.)
[I love that. You can feel the authors’ discomfort at having to recount a litany of racist stereotypes and double standards - this coming from their designated victims of racism.]
The social events are of particular interest when considering the move from an individualistic to a collective understanding of ethnicity within the police. Officers who attended the reunions chose to do so because they perceived themselves to be united by their categorization and ascription to membership of an ethnic group. White partners of black officers were given a proxy ethnic status and welcomed. What Handelman has called an ‘ethnic network’ was forming in the Metropolitan Police. Officers chose to meet with their ethnic peers. They identified each other and their attendance at reunions in relation to an ethnic ascription, to being black. Reunions offered opportunities to make an investment in and to exchange resources that could be gathered and fostered as members of an ethnic network. An awareness and group consciousness of being a member of an ethnic group was one such resource - an affinity with other black officers. Stronger alliances between officers became a possibility. It was feasible to cultivate and strengthen one’s sense of ethnic identity, to sustain relationships based on the criterion of ethic ascription.
[Yes, I too am wondering how they write approvingly of all this when their knickers would be in a real old twist if it was a network of White officers they are describing.]
The reunions were shot through with meanings of ethnicity of relevance to employment within the police. Cultural symbols recognized by members of the one ethnic group were displayed and affirmed. Organisers of the events talked about their formality, the smart dress code required, the rules of decorum, of manners, of speech, and so on. Some of these were described as distinct characteristics of events that ‘black people attend’. They were recognized and strengthened by these gatherings.
Most of these features, however, can only be understood when juxtaposed to other, more negative meanings. The formality of events attended by black officers was in contrast to the perceived informality and, at times, perceived delinquency of those attended by white officers. The formal dress code was characteristic of ‘black events’ and in marked contrast to the casual code of white events. The language used was free from negative, racist expletives and connotations, common to the rank and file. The socials were ‘safe’, controlled by and for ethnic-minority people, free from the disruption threatened by ethnic-majority colleagues.
Bristol reunions created a space within which black police officers were not assumed to be like white officers. To attend a Bristol reunion was to be a black police officer and a black person within a ‘safe’ environment - the opposite of the ‘unsafe’ environment of other police gatherings. In a sense, to attend the Bristol reunions was to not attend socials organized by white officers; it was to declare that one was not white and, by default, to categorize the ethnicity of white police officers. One was, in many ways, the opposite of the other, orchestrated to counterbalance the damaging, as Wilson emphasized in his evidence to Macpherson, pervasive occupational culture … Ethnicity was and is not expressed in and of itself, but to gather capital for ethnic-minority officers and, perhaps, their partners.
[A common complaint in the section I cut was that White officers tended to see the ethnic-minority officer not merely as another officer, but as an ethnic-minority officer. Here we have that complaint turned on its head. Apparently they wanted to have their distinctive non-Whiteness recognised all along - just not by Whitey - even though they intended it be recognised at his capital expense.]
cont… […] The reunions were more symbolic than instrumental. Constabularies do not change because ethnicity is affirmed and ethnic opposites are defined at social events. Much more is required if ethnic resources are to be used in relationships of power; a range of alternative policies need to be developed to touch pressure points of racial prejudice and discrimination within constabularies; and the voices of black officers need to be heard as authentic, persuasive and demanding of change. Deeper incursions into police territory were required if changes of policy and practice were to be realized. Something more robust and visible than an ethnic network was required.
[If ‘more is required if ethnic resources are to be used in relationships of power’ how did White racism come to define the police force without any visible policies, pressures, voices or incursions, robust or otherwise? The Whites didn’t even have a Whites-only association where they defined their members by contrast with tolerant, smart and sober Blacks! How’d they do it?]
cont… […] A momentum to develop the Bristol reunion network increased and an association was formed. Membership of the new association was inclusive, offered to black and Asian officers and support staff. The association took a vigorous stance when supporting colleagues alleging discrimination in employment.
[Placing those last two sentences together … what does it say about the authors’ smug self-confidence in the justness of their racist-anti-racism?]
cont… […] The association could not be seen as divided in any way or by any tactic that senior command might deploy. A unified, black police association was to challenge a unified, white constabulary.
In 1997, the Metropolitan Police Black Police Association announced its public launch at New Scotland Yard. The Commissioner was invited as the keynote speaker but his permission to hold the very public event that attracted the attention of the national media was not requested. The association took the initiative away from the Met, pressing its senior command to make a decision about whether or not they offered support. In effect, the Commissioner was presented with a fait accompli. His failure to offer no or qualified support could be seized upon as an endorsement of the status quo, including its racially discriminatory features. The Commissioner responded in his keynote speech at the launch, acknowledging that his choice was to either offer the association his full support or to sit on the fence, which was not an option. The Metropolitan Police Black Police Association was launched - the first ethnic-minority police association in the United Kingdom.
[This reads like a Hollywood movie: the Black freedom fighters snatch victory from the unified White constabulary ... sorry ... conspiracy in the final scene, outwitting the head Nazi with their superior smarts (racists are always dumb and Blacks are always clever in the movies). A Morgan Freeman voiceover would tell us over triumphal music that the freedom fighters went on to achieve recognition from the rest of the country’s elite, other top cops, the government, the media and academics. And not just their organisation but their righteous ethos, too. And that is what happened... Pretty much... Except for the absence of any White person anywhere near the levers of power who objected to the creation of the Black Police Associations and their agenda... In fact, every White person anywhere near the levers of power raced to embrace the associations and their agenda. But aside from that ...]