On the morning following the launch of the Cumberland Lodge Report by Dr Farhan Samanani, Race in Britain: Inequality, Identity, & Belonging, the quite exceptional David Lammy MP appeared on my Twitter feed. He was talking about a project run by the Guardian to combat the harmful stereotyping of black men based on their choice of clothing. Hoodies are not, he spelt out, criminal. Most white people don’t need to worry about how they will be perceived based on their choice of clothing, so why should everyone else?
It’s embarrassing that this project is necessary in 2019, but a glaring example of who those stereotypes are being perpetuated by was front-and-centre a few scrolls down through that same Twitter feed. There, Rory Stewart MP was getting publicity for describing three men he had met on Brick Lane as ‘minor gangsters’. Top marks to anyone who can guess the colour of their skin…
Is racism less overt today than in the past?
At the launch event on 24 October, Farhan Samanani noted that the general sentiment of the Cumberland Lodge Report is that, while racism in the UK still persists, it is less overt than it has ever been. Migrants who have lived in the UK for 50 or so years would generally argue that things are ‘getting better’, according to the research.
But younger generations - the children and grandchildren of those migrants - tend to disagree. Whilst the perceptions of younger generations do have their upsides, in that young people generally have higher standards as to how we should treat one another, their views also point to how far we still have to go.
Samanani pointed out that one of the most troubling findings in the report was not just that hate crimes are at a historic high, nor the fact that most hate crimes go unreported, but that a huge number of hate crimes are not even understood to be hate crimes by their victims, so normalised are the behaviours involved.
Opportunities for change
The Race in Britain report proposes three main themes in terms of where change might happen:
- Through contact - literally just opportunities for people from different backgrounds to come together, build relationships, and, eventually, develop solidarity.
- Through community – which, for most people living in the UK right now, is less of a possibility than it has been for a generation.
- Through narratives - as sources of power, and as a means by which to understand the current climate.
Dr Zubaida Haque, Deputy Director of the Runnymede Trust, challenged the idea that there is no longer overt racism within British society, pointing to Liam Neeson’s confession of murderous thoughts towards black men, as a prime example. This happened in February 2019 - Neeson’s exceptionally ill-judged comments (which clearly belonged in a therapist’s office, rather than in the public eye) coincided with the 20th anniversary of The Macpherson Report.
The report examined the death of Stephen Lawrence and pointed heavily towards institutional racism within the police as a key cause. Haque argued that we are in fact going backwards, and that many of the report’s recommendations have still not been realised, two decades down the line.
Haque pointed to the role of anti-discriminatory legislation, arguing that it sends strong messages that can help to change the national culture. Her final example related to the horrific policies of the British Government’s ‘hostile environment’. In that same February, one of the Foreign Office’s deportation charter flights out of the UK carried 13 children under the age of 10; 11 individuals with indefinite leave to remain; and one individual who had a British passport. But here’s the crux: every single one of those individuals was a person of colour.
Fellow panellist Sunder Katwala, Director of British Future, picked up on Haque’s mention of ‘the politics of emotion’, highlighting the significant role that affective responses play in these debates, both in the newspapers and on the streets. He recalled his family’s own history, pointing to the visceral impact that Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech understandably had on his father, who immigrated to the UK from Gujarat in India just a week after it was delivered. He added some nuance to the picture, pointing out that, on the subject of race, almost every statement that could be made has some truth for someone, somewhere.
So what, then, was missing from the conversation? I would argue that political leadership is a thread running right through each of these examples. On the one hand, you have the critical leadership Lammy displays in actively seeking to break down stereotypes, and in the process exemplifying the type of courageous conversations that need to be had. On the other hand, you have Stewart’s casual racism, Powell’s explicit racism, and the former Prime Minister Theresa May’s direct influence through policy that led to the ‘hostile environment’.
I would argue that, until the political leadership in this country changes, opportunities for better legislation, an end to the ‘hostile environment’, greater contact, stronger communities, and crucially, leadership-driven narratives, are unlikely to change the outlook for race relations in the UK.