Is racism on the rise?

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Black and white strike together

Black and white strike together. Pic: Socialist Worker

A recent survey suggests racial prejudice in Britain is increasing. Some argue this explains the rise of Ukip. Brian Richardson argues that the real picture is much more contradictory and complex.

Rising tide of race prejudice across Britain” screamed the front page headline in the Guardian at the end of May. This depressing declaration, which was repeated in similar terms across the press and media, came just days after Ukip topped the poll with 27.5 percent of the votes and 24 seats in the European elections.

These news stories were not simply a knee-jerk reaction to Ukip’s spectacular electoral success, however. Instead this conclusion was taken from the most recent British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey. Rather than being a snapshot poll, the BSA survey is widely regarded as a thoroughgoing and authoritative piece of research. It is an annual survey which has been conducted every year since 1983, and in its latest study it asked a representative random sample of 3,244 adults a series of questions.

The BSA pollsters first asked the following question 30 years ago, “Would you describe yourself as very prejudiced/ a little prejudiced against people of other races?” From that point on there was a consistent decrease in the number of people admitting to some level of prejudice between 1983 and 2001. In 1983, 64 percent of people said that they were not prejudiced at all while 31 percent said that they were a little prejudiced.

The number of people admitting to being very prejudiced was 4 percent. By 2001 those declaring that they were not prejudiced at all had risen to 73 percent with 23 percent admitting to being a little prejudiced. Just 2 percent declared that they were very prejudiced.

By 2013 the percentage of people admitting to some form of prejudice was 30 percent. In other words this is a higher figure than in 2001. Moreover, the BSA researchers observed that the number of people admitting to some form of prejudice had increased year on year for over a decade, with just one notable exception since that time. It is this trend that prompted the reports about a rising tide of racism.

It is also suggested that this increase in prejudice has fuelled people’s attitudes towards immigration. In truth, a majority of survey respondents have always believed that immigration should be reduced. Thus 63 percent declared that it should be when the question was first asked in 1995. By 2003 that percentage had increased to 72 percent. In 2013, 77 percent of people, a higher number than ten years ago, were in favour of a reduction in immigration.

On the face of it therefore, Ukip’s election results and these polling figures would seem to indicate a shift to the right in people’s attitudes to race — something which is, of course, mirrored elsewhere in Europe. The BSA survey is considered to be highly influential in shaping social policy and therefore it will come as no surprise that it is being studied with interest by politicians. It is already abundantly clear from the reaction of the mainstream parties that they are racing to catch up with and outflank Ukip on questions of immigration. They justify their actions on the grounds that they are “learning lessons” and responding to legitimate public concerns raised by surveys such as this one.

Dispiriting though these indicators are, they are hardly surprising when one considers the historical and political context in which ideas emerge. They do not simply arrive spontaneously and fully formed in people’s brains. Rather they are shaped and determined by a number of factors.

Karl Marx famously argued in The German Ideology that the ruling ideas in any epoch are the ideas of the ruling class. Both before and since then numerous scholars have shown that racism developed with the birth of capitalism and that it has been refined and adapted to serve the needs of those who have benefited from the system as it has evolved. Today it is of critical importance in justifying the ruling class’s imperialist projects and adventures and, as ever, as a means of dividing the working class.

2001, the year that supposedly marks the starting point for this rising tide, was of course, the year of 9/11, the “day the world changed” as the headline in the Economist magazine declared. Islamophobia wasn’t born the day after the destruction of Manhattan’s Twin Towers, but that event was undoubtedly the catalyst for the architects of the Project for the New American Century grouped around the presidency of George W Bush to launch its worldwide offensive against Islam. This lead has been enthusiastically followed by the likes of Tony Blair and David Cameron here in Britain.

The last decade has been dominated by the hysterical assertion that our security is threatened by rampant jihadis seeking to impose a worldwide caliphate. Barely a day passes without another scare story about the supposed onslaught of political Islam.

The usually quiet August “silly season” has instead been awash with stories about the spectacular emergence and advance of the self-styled Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria. British politicians and pundits are utterly obsessed with the number of “radicalised” young Britons who may have volunteered to join this grisly and sectarian outfit and the threat that they may pose on their return to these shores. Linked to that is the “Trojan Horse” scandal which supposedly involved intolerant Muslims seeking to inculcate non-British values in a number of Birmingham schools.

This relentless ideological onslaught is bound to have an effect on people’s attitudes. A number of studies suggest that this is in fact the case. For example, in 2013 researchers at Sheffield University’s Department of Economics considered the impact of the 2005 London bombings on the housing and labour markets. The authors of the report concluded that there was a notable fall in house prices and sales in areas of the London market perceived to have large Asian and specifically Muslim populations. In short, there was an increase in segregation which seems to reflect a growth in racial prejudice.

Similarly, the research showed a 5.8 percent increase in unemployment in the boroughs under consideration. The authors acknowledge that further work needs to be done, but the suggestion is that an increase in racial prejudice led to an increase in discrimination against Asian jobseekers.

Islamophobia has been the dominant form of racism over the past decade, but it is not the only manifestation. It draws upon, and in all probability, has helped to revive other forms. Racist scapegoating has historically been used to divide workers in times of recession and high unemployment. It should come as no surprise therefore that there has been an increase in this form of prejudice since the onset of a crisis that has blighted people’s lives since 2008.

Researchers at the London School of Economics Centre for Economic Performance carried out a study entitled When Work Disappears: Racial Prejudice and Recession: Labour Market Penalties. It is worth citing their conclusions at some length: “Regardless of the exact underlying processes, we robustly find that during recessions white workers are more likely to be racially prejudiced and existing racial inequalities in the labour market widen.”

Importantly, they add, however: “We find only small general population increases in prejudice during periods of high unemployment. However, we find large increases for white males who are full-time employed, have high levels of education and are middle aged. The increase is especially large for the interaction of these groups.”

This is a particularly interesting observation. It contradicts the more common assertion that racism is the preserve of an underclass of ignorant, excluded and hard-faced people living on estates blighted by generational unemployment. The authors suggest that rather than simply being workers, at least some of these people will be “employers, managers or those with political power within organisations”.

This observation highlights the issue of institutional racism at the hands of the state and those with power and influence which the BSA survey does not address. Black, Asian and minority ethnic people are still systematically marginalised and excluded in terms of access to education, homes, jobs and public services.

We are more likely to be victims of crime yet more likely to be criminalised and incarcerated. Indeed, if the term “rising tide” can be applied to anything it should be the exponential increase in stops and searches of black and Asian people by the police since the “war on terror” was launched in 2001. This institutional racism, something that emanates from those at the top of society, has a far more profound effect upon our lives than the views of survey respondents.

Socialists have always argued that there can be no room for complacency on the question of race. As Marx’s observation indicates, we recognise and understand the material reality that can persuade workers to accept ruling class ideas. We also recognise, however, that ordinary people’s ideas and attitudes are not static. They are not simply vessels that passively receive and retain the ideas that are pushed by our rulers. Instead, as Marx noted, workers also learn from their own experiences.

On a superficial level the BSA survey acknowledges this. However, there has been one year that saw a “notable exception” to the reactionary trend. That year was 2012 when the success of athletes such as the mixed race heptathlete Jessica Ennis and the Somalian born Mo Farah at the London Olympics helped to generate a short-lived feelgood factor.

In a more profound and thoroughgoing way, racism is challenged by the daily episodes of integration that occur in local communities. Children from different ethnic backgrounds play and learn together, while young people study alongside one another and increasingly fall in love with each other and start families. Perhaps most importantly, people come together in a variety of workplaces. It is this integration that cements relationships and which provides us with hope for the future.

As is so often the case, lurid headlines about a rising tide did not tell the whole story. In actual fact, 68 percent of people in that 2013 survey said that they were not prejudiced at all and only 3 percent were prepared to admit that they were very prejudiced. In other words, despite the racist onslaught we see from politicians, the powerful and the press, most people reject racist ideas to a greater or lesser extent.

When one drills down into the responses a little further a number of other significant points are unearthed. Thus, for example, the place where people are least likely to describe themselves as racially prejudiced is London, perhaps the most multicultural city in the world and the place where people are most likely to interact and share experiences. Just 16 percent of people in inner London describe themselves as being prejudiced.

Looking at the age profile, just a quarter of 17 to 34 year olds regard themselves as prejudiced compared with 36 percent of people aged over 55. So, again, among people for whom mixing with others has just been a natural feature of their lives, prejudice is anathema.

It is these findings that encouraged Sunder Katwala, director of the think-tank British Future, to suggest that prejudice is in fact on the decline. He has noted that, “in 1993, 44 percent of Britons said they would be uncomfortable were their children to marry across ethnic lines. Today inter-ethnic marriage concerns just 15 percent of Britons, falling to just 5 percent of those under 24.”

It is no coincidence that Ukip’s Euro election results were worse in London than anywhere else in the country. Their London spokesperson Suzanne Evans denied making the widely quoted declaration that this was “because people in London tend to be younger, more multicultural and educated”. It is little wonder that she tried to distance herself from this gaffe but Ukip does try to dismiss the London phenomenon as unrepresentative and indicative of a metropolitan elite who are unaffected by the real effects of “excessive immigration”.

Despite his optimistic assertion about the decline of racial prejudice, Katwala is right to observe that “racism has not disappeared. Prejudice towards particular ‘pariah’ groups — particularly British Muslims and Roma and Traveller communities — still present tougher challenges.” It is worth noting for example, as Katwala does, that even where respondents acknowledge the beneficial impact of immigration, they still argue that controls should be tightened.

Contradictory ideas
It is these responses that emboldened Nigel Farage to make his vile speech at Ukip’s spring conference about a train journey that made him feel as if he was living in a foreign country. He does not deny that those fellow commuters are working; he is even prepared to grudgingly accept that they may make a positive economic contribution. This does not matter, however, because for him the impact on British workers, the squeeze on local services and the cultural impact are negative.

The simple truth is that, rather than having a fixed set of attitudes, most people hold a range of often contradictory ideas in their heads at one and the same time. That is why socialist intervention with clear, consistent and principled ideas is of critical importance. Socialists should always be the tribunes of the oppressed taking up every argument about racism in whatever form, whether Islamophobia or scapegoating, in every workplace, college and locality. Similarly, initiatives such as anti-racist demonstrations, support for anti-deportation campaigns and the promotion of positive multicultural events and activities are vital.

The real antidote to the poison of racism is struggle in which people come together, learn from each other and realise that they have far more that unites than divides them. In particular they learn that they have a common enemy, a ruling class that seeks to exploit all workers and cynically uses racism in order to protect and preserve its power.

For many years talk of struggle has seemed like so much whistling in the wind, but there are signs of change. There have been a number of modest but important victories in a series of workplaces which have encouraged people to think that industrial action can win.

This summer over a million public sector workers went on strike. Those workers have quite literally paid the price for the austerity drive that this government has imposed over the past six years. Moreover the recently introduced Immigration Act is intended to ensure the continuation of this offensive by turning British born workers into immigration officers snooping on and scapegoating their foreign-born workmates. These industrial disputes are set to return this autumn. When they do, their picket lines and protests will present a true picture of modern multicultural Britain. Our task will be to intervene both to build those struggles and to encourage those involved to draw the wider lessons about the need for lasting unity across racial, ethnic and national divides.