Although the killing of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 was one of the few racist murders in British history to result in extensive media coverage, a public investigation and a change in the law, the reporting of black youth crime in the United Kingdom has remained subject to distortion and moral panic, especially in the conservative tabloid press. Since Lawrence and his family were portrayed as aspiring members of the middle class, the media in general did not really regard him as part of black youth culture at all, at least as the media has defined it over the last thirty years: guns, drugs, gangs, street crime, poverty and school drop outs. Therefore, despite much sound and fury, there is no evidence that Lawrence’s murder and its aftermath led to fundamental change in the systematic racism of the British media, and other institutions such as the police and education system, or the racist ideology as applied to blacks, immigrants, Muslims and asylum-seekers has disappeared as a result—far from it. This essay will first consider the definition of racism as socially and historically constructed, and part of the institutions and ideology of society, and then examine how it has applied to the treatment blacks and other ethnic minorities in the UK since the 1940s, focusing on the Lawrence case and its aftermath. Finally, it will consider whether racism in the media has gradually been transferred to other targets in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001 and July 2005, with less emphasis on street crime, gangs, drugs and the crack wars of the 1970s-90s. This does not mean that young black males are no longer the target of racist stereotyping in the media, since as late as 2007 even a committee of the House of Commons agreed that they still were, only that racist impulses and ideologies seem to go through phases in which certain targets receive more attention than others.
Postmodern and critical theories hold that ideas about race are socially and historically constructed rather than race being some immutable biological or natural characteristic, and that racist ideologies and practices take on a life of their own and become incorporated into the structures and institutions of society, beyond simply the personal hatreds, prejudices and discriminatory practices that occur every day on the personal, individual level. Postmodernists sometimes sound like Gunnar Myrdal, who called racism a “moral dilemma”, but it is also “myriad of practices that are designed to subjugate a large segment of the population” (Murphy and Choi 1997: 3). At times, the changes in the law that have occurred in Britain and the U.S. since the 1960s lead to a sense in the media and among politicians that racism is no longer a problem, and “postmodern racism assumes the guise of tolerance only to be usurped by relativism, a proliferation of differences rather than a leveling of power relations” (Leonardo 2009: 216). Hardt and Nergi described postmodern racism as “a form of segregation,
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