Watching the news at the moment means reliving the horror of that night in April 1993, when an 18-year-old boy was knifed to death simply because of the colour of his skin. At the time of the attack, Stephen Lawrence was waiting for a bus. I have passed the bus stop on a number of occasions and cannot get over the very ordinariness of the spot where he was killed: just as ordinary as the simple act of waiting for a bus. Revisiting the tragedy elicits a visceral emotional response, as well as immense admiration for the courage and tenacity shown by his family and friends for pursuing this over the past 18 years.
Stephen's death exposed fault lines in race relations in Britain, in particular the persistence of institutional racism. It is to be hoped that the re-emergence of his story will encourage us to examine racism in Britain and address the racial inequality that still exists. Surely it is not acceptable that, according to the government's own statistics, unemployment in the black community is twice that of the white community and that child poverty is also disproportionately higher. Equally, I hope that we in the Jewish community will use this opportunity to examine our attitudes towards "the other".
Attitudes within the Jewish community to black people, and their attitudes towards us, are hard to gauge. Other than a study by the Institute for Jewish Affairs in 1995, I know of no research that looks at this specific issue. Accordingly, any analysis is necessarily based on individual experience and hearsay. Anecdotally, there are perceptions of significant antisemitism in both the black and Muslim communities. There are also perceptions of negative attitudes towards black people and Muslims within the Jewish community.
But perceptions are not the same as facts. There is relatively little contact between black and Jewish people and, with the exception of interfaith activities, little contact between Muslims and Jews. The absence of contact creates a vacuum in which myths and negative attitudes can grow.
It is a sad irony that minority groups' awareness of the use of stereotypes about them does not exempt them from using stereotypes to describe other groups. I meet with a wry smile the suggestion made to me by some in the Jewish community who say: "We Racial murder affects us all cannot be racist because we are Jewish". We need to counter any racist attitudes within our communities, be they about black people, Muslims or Jews and wherever they are found; in the playground, at the office or around the dinner table.
There is much that we can do to build better relationships between black, Asian and Jewish people. As a way of doing so, 10 years ago a Black-Jewish-Asian Forum was set up by the Jewish Council for Racial Equality.
Now in its 20th year, its agenda has not only been about the racism which lurks within our own communities, but also what unites us, from combating racist groups such as the BNP and the EDL, to our shared experience of immigration, which lead us to campaign for a Britain that offers justice to asylum seekers and refugees. In addition, it has been a place where strong friendships have grown.
Our community, like other communities, needs to consider the wider question of institutional racism. This means having an in-depth look at our communal institutions to ensure that effective race equality measures are in place. To reinforce this, race equality education must be integrated into schools including in faith schools. Community cohesion is set to be severely tested during this time of economic uncertainty.
It is all the more important, then, that we join with others to remind the government that racial equality must be central to their political agenda. It's the very least we can do to honour Stephen's memory.
Dr Edie Friedman
Published in the Jewish Chronicle, 2nd December 2011