June 6, 2011 by Antony Lerman
One highly significant consequence of the UCU vote on the EUMC ‘working definition’ of antisemitism has been the claim that the decision means that the UCU has rejected the Macpherson Report’s definition of racism. And that this justifies attacking the UCU for denying Jews the Macpherson-conferred right to be the sole arbiters of what is and what is not antisemitism. This was already anticipated before the debate. In the Jewish Chronicle on 26 May, Martin Bright wrote:
Senior figures in the Jewish leadership have voiced concerns [about the UCU motion on the EUMC ‘working definition’] to Trevor Phillips, chair of the EHRC. A letter has been sent from the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Community Security Trust, urging the body to make a stand on the issue.
The Jewish organisations have suggested that Mr Phillips re-emphasise the recommendations of the Macpherson Report into the murder of the south London teenager Stephen Lawrence.
This defined a racist incident as ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’, and is now the definition used by police when antisemitic attacks are reported.
The Board, the JLC and the CST have also written to UCU general secretary Sally Hunt and TUC general secretary Brendan Barber to ask them to sign up to the Macpherson definition of racism.
Among those commenting since the vote, a similar and perhaps even identical strategy is being advocated. For example, Adam Langleben, writing on the Left Foot Forward website, says:
[The ‘working definition’s] widespread adoption would appear to be in line with the recommendations of the MacPherson Inquiry, whose report following the death of Stephen Lawrence stated that an incident is racist if: ‘… it is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.’
Langleben then goes on to quote the Macpherson Report’s definition of institutional racism and states: ‘This seems to be exactly what has occurred in the UCU.’ He concludes:
Jewish organisations are now calling for an EHRC formal inquiry, a demand supported by John Mann MP. For the UCU, not only to ignore the concerns of its Jewish academics and community members – but to actively vote to dismiss them out of hand – disgraces the Left.
If ‘disgrace’ accrues to anyone in this debate, I’m afraid it’s to those arguing in this fashion.
If by ‘definition of racism’ what is meant is a comprehensive definition of the term, the fact is that the Macpherson Reportdid not provide any such thing. It had a lot to say on the subject, because the failures in the police investigation of Stephen Lawrence’s murder were largely due to conscious or unconscious racism. But Macpherson gave only two definitions in relation to racism. The first appears in the Report as follows:
DEFINITION OF RACIST INCIDENT
12. That the definition should be:
‘A racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’.
13. That the term ‘racist incident’ must be understood to include crimes and non-crimes in policing terms. Both must be reported, recorded and investigated with equal commitment.
The second is a definition of institutional racism:
The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.
It’s surely obvious that neither separately nor taken together do these definitions comprise a comprehensive definition of racism. However, they are both used to attack the UCU.