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The shifting state of racism in Britain

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Many claim that opposing immigration is not racist—but as Ken Olende explains, the scapegoating of migrants has seen racist attitudes in Britain shift onto new targets
Issue 2405
Tories were called out for their racist campaign in the run up to the last general election
Tories were called out for their racist campaign in the run up to the 2005 general election (Pic: Nic Walker on Flickr)

Are people’s attitudes in Britain becoming more racist? Most people  would strongly deny having racist views. Even Ukip describes itself as a “libertarian, non-racist party”.

Ukip tries to make a distinction between racism and opposition to immigrants and immigration. Many people who regard themselves as non-racist see no contradiction between that and opposing immigration.

Many commentators think anti-immigrant racism can’t be directed against white people, such as Bulgarians or Romanians. Yet the main group to face systematic racism in 19th century Britain was white Irish people.

Opposing migrants is racism—and this kind of racism has got worse in Britain in recent years. The number of people in Britain who see immigration as a problem has risen over the past 20 years.

More people also see the issue as politically important. This shift wasn’t caused because the last two decades were periods of historically high immigration.

Views on immigration have shifted dramatically since the 1990s—when it wasn’t seen as a major concern by either politicians or voters. Less than 5 percent of the population thought it was an issue in the 1990s. 

By 2007 this had risen to almost 50 percent. The shift comes from the way our rulers, particularly the Tories, use migrants as a scapegoat to try and shift the blame away from the rich and the bankers.

The vile message has been relentless. Remember the “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration” billboards in the 2005 election. Racism is not just a series of ideas that rise and fall within ordinary people.

It is structured into class society and affects things such as the kind of jobs or housing people can access. Our rulers encourage racist attitudes partly to justify this discrimination.

The most recent British Social Attitudes (BSA) report to be published said, “The proportion who view the economic impact of migrants negatively increased by nine percentage points between 2002 and 2011, from 43 percent to 52 percent. 


“Negative judgements about the cultural impact of migration increased by 15 percentage points during the same period, from 33 percent to 48 percent.”

But there is a contradiction between what people believe  based on politicians or the media and their own experience. So more than 70 percent of people think that immigration is a problem nationally. 

But asked if it is a problem in their area the figure collapses to 20 percent, according to the Perceptions and Reality report from pollsters Ipsos Mori this January. 

Politicians and the media constantly force their point that the divisions on immigration exist because the issue has never been debated. David Goodhart recently wrote Britain’s Dream, a particularly nasty book on immigration.

Goodhart is typical in arguing that all discussion of immigration in Britain was halted after Enoch Powell’s racist “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968. He says it, “put back by more than a generation a robust debate about the successes and failures of immigration”.

The idea that we need a “robust debate” flies in the face of 40 years of near constant pontificating about immigration.

But still The Sunday People  newspaper argued earlier this month, “We need a proper debate on immigration as we head towards the General Election—and Nigel Farage should be part of it. But not if Ukip makes racism respectable.”

The BSA report said that policy makers think “hardening public attitudes towards immigration demand a restrictive policy response”.

It also notes that misinformation is central to people’s ideas, “When thinking about immigration, people are far more likely to have in mind asylum seekers, who made up 4 percent of immigrants in 2009, and least likely to have in mind students, the largest group in 2009 at 37 percent.”

While people surveyed did not see immigration as a central issue, nevertheless, “nearly 40 percent of respondents also supported large cuts in migration in 1995, when net migration inflows were very low.

Part of this overall demand for reduction therefore seems to be insensitive to present migration levels—and may perhaps instead reflect a ‘default preference’ for reduced migration in all circumstances.”


People surveyed by Ipsos Mori hugely overestimate the number of immigrants in Britain. On average they assume a figure of 30 percent rather than the actual 13 percent.

The report notes, “when we tell people the real scale of immigration in surveys, the most common response is to not believe the figures”. However attitudes can change for the better.

Real changes have come from experience. Findings have shown that people are less bigoted when they mix with people from different backgrounds. So has the working class suddenly become more racist? Ukip support has certainly grown. 

But 45 percent of Ukip supporters voted Tory at the last general election against 7 percent who voted Labour. Labour has wrongly argued that controlling immigration will stop racism.

Labour MP Roy Hattersley famously said in 1965, “Without integration, limitation is inexcusable: without limitation, integration is impossible.” 

But it wasn’t the cutting of immigration that cut the levels of racism in the 1960s and 1970s. The National Front built its fascist base after all primary immigration had been stopped. 

It was the fight against racism and a wider working class fight from below that drove back racist ideas.

Racism rears its head in work,  school and the justice system    

Racism remains a real issue in Britain. This can be clearly seen by continued institutional racism. 

Discrimination continues in the school system. Irish Travellers and Roma are the most excluded groups. Black Caribbean and Black African boys follow closely behind, then British Pakistani, Bangladeshi and white working class boys.

When these groups leave school they are confronted with yet more institutional racism in the workplace. The Challenging Racism in the Workplace report in 2013 looked at how the recession affected employment.

 It concludes, “Black (African and Caribbean) men and women were 2.5 times as likely to be unemployed as white people.”

The report found that there was “Evidence of ‘ethnic penalty’ on employment for most black groups and these penalties worsened as the recession proceeded particularly for Black African men.” 

Savage cuts have lessened what challenges there are to racism from public or private employers. Instiutional racism is also evident within the police and justice systems. This is clearly seen in the rate of black people who are stopped and searched and charged for drug possession.

White people are proportionately more likely to use illegal drugs than people from ethnic minorities. Yet a recent report from Release, The Numbers in Black and White, shows that white people are far less likely to be arrested or charged. 

The report states that seven white people in 1,000 will be stopped by the police over drugs, compared to 45 per 1,000 black people. 

Black people in London are also five times more likely to be charged for possession of cannabis than white people. 

Even a Home Office select committee report in 2007 said that, “white males aged from 10-25” were “far more likely” to have committed an offence within the last year than other young males in other ethnic groups.

It found that white males were 28 percent more likely to commit an offence compared to between 12 and 19 percent for other ethnic groups. But the survey found that once young black people committed an offence, they were more likely to come to the attention of the police.

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