Written by
Dr Farhan Samanani

This conference was convened by Cumberland Lodge and The Runnymede Trust in Windsor Great Park, to bring together scholars, policymakers, campaigners, students and other voices to discuss and debate the pressing issue of race in Britain today.

Dr Samanani is a social anthropologist in the Department for Socio-Cultural Diversity at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, in Göttingen, Germany.

When talking about race and belonging in Britain today, it is hard not to look backwards. The year 2018 marks a number of pertinent anniversaries. For instance, it is 25 years since the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, and 50 years since Enoch Powell made his (in)famous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in response to the drafting of the 1968 Race Relations Act. It has also been 50 years since The Runnymede Trust was founded with the mission of ‘nailing the lie’ on racism, and 70 since the 1948 Commonwealth Immigrants Act was passed, planting the roots of a legislative tangle that led to the Windrush Scandal earlier this year.

Race relations 50 years on

Since then, many facets of race relations have improved. Today, the majority of Britons not only accept that the UK is a multicultural country, but believe that this is a positive thing. Compared to just 50 years ago, there has been a tremendous shift away from overtly racist language and discrimination in public discourse and everyday social relations. And there are signs that things will continue to change: the Government Race Disparities Audit – the first concerted effort by any democratic government to identify and report on race-based inequalities across all available data – is providing a powerful tool for catalysing change.

Yet, at the same time, other aspects of race relations seem stuck on repeat. The first panel of the ‘Race in Britain’ conference opened with Professor Nasar Meer exploring the ‘absent presence’ of race in British social life today, grappling with the paradox that while overt racial discrimination is much less common, race-based inequalities remain stark. Professor Meer asked how we have become able ‘to perpetuate racism without using the word’, and suggested that instead of confronting questions of inequality and bias head on, much of our public conversation around race has ‘detoured’ around these issues, disguising their enduring impact.

Changing language of racial bias

Our conference Briefing Report provided an example of this: examining a range of polls on British attitudes to race, we found that attitudes towards diversity shifted depending on how the question was asked. For example, many of the same people who expressed support for multiculturalism also agreed with statement that diversity had ‘undermined British culture’. Professor Meer highlighted the way in which such slippages suggest that, rather than overcoming racial bias, for many Britons the language of racial bias has simply changed, often into less overt and easily contested forms. Ongoing racial inequalities and discrimination can be dismissed, for example, by pointing to Britain’s role in ending the slave trade – with the suggestion that in this moment the nation moved beyond racism – or by arguing that it is not racist to be concerned about the economic impact of immigration.

Various speakers at the conference went on to build on this theme. Some highlighted how popular stereotypes of threatening, ‘un-British’ foreigners have been reframed in terms of religion rather than race. Here too, discrimination often slips between categories. Prejudice against Islam results in harassment not only of British Muslims, but of Sikhs and Hindus as well. Meanwhile, the recent shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the US was raised by delegates as just one example of how anti-foreigner sentiment can often spill over into anti-Semitism.

Other speakers working on the frontlines of policy and activism highlighted the ways in which public policy often misses its mark by adopting an overly narrow and rigid understanding of racial or class inequality. Speakers from within the Gypsy, Roma and Irish Traveller communities highlighted how narrow understandings of racism, as visible discrimination against people of ‘non-white’ ethnic origins, have led campaigners and policymakers alike to overlook the wide range of overt and covert racism faced by people from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Through these varied contributions we gained a vivid portrait of the many forms in which racial inequalities and discrimination endure today.

Racial inequality today

In their ‘state of the nation’ address on the present state of racial inequality, Professors Claire Alexander and James Nazroo from The University of Manchester’s Centre for Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) pointed out that, ‘racism still remains the main way in which we are able to account for inequalities for minorities today’.

To illustrate this, they took a data-driven approach to looking at social and institutional outcomes for different minority groups, such as rates of unemployment, pay, or access to healthcare or justice. Although these outcomes varied across different minority groups, and over time, groups tended to experience their rates going up or down in parallel, meaning that inequalities persisted over time. For the CoDE researchers, this pointed to a common driver for outcomes affecting all minority groups, and they argued this was best understood as racism, which took ‘structural’, ‘institutional’ and ‘interpersonal’ forms.

Discussing the history of organised action against racism in Britain, the CoDE team noted that there has been a move from collective organisation across minority communities to an increasingly fragmented political landscape, where activists have started to focus more on what separates the experiences of different minority communities, rather than what unites them. Against this trend, they called for minorities to organise in response to overarching patterns of enduring racism.

Engaging with the roots of inequality

Delving into these roots, several speakers traced how the tenacity of race-based inequalities is rooted, in part, in Britain’s colonial history. The recently deceased scholar and activist, Ambalavaner Sivanandan, coined a famous phrase to describe the migrant presence in the UK: ‘We are here because you were there’.

At the conference, speakers examined the particularities of the British colonial presence abroad and the legacy of this presence today. Some emphasised the need to attend to different patterns of inequality emerging from different aspects of empire, including those of slavery, indentured servitude, colonisation through settlement, and colonisation through control. Others connected these colonial relations to the political tensions of today, including the Windrush Scandal, the Home Office policy of ‘hostile environment’, and a general belief that immigration inherently produces social disturbance. Delegates also explored ways of beginning to confront this history, such as through a cultural form of reparations, which would more fully acknowledge the damages of colonialism and grapple with the sudden shift from a multi-national and global Britain, to an insular and exclusive one at the end of Empire.

Looking ahead

While there was plenty of looking backwards at the conference, this wasn’t simply an opportunity to remain fixated on the past. For almost all of the invited speakers, looking backwards was simply the start of exploring how to transform the future. Alongside talk of reparations, the conference highlighted new inter-faith and inter-community coalitions, new policy initiatives, and new approaches – such as the Race Disparities Audit – to identifying persistent inequalities.

Some of the most striking conversations, here, came out of discussions around class – which formed a prevalent theme throughout the conference. While historically, the white working classes have been imagined as being opposed to immigrants and minorities, several speakers highlighted the ways in which shared experiences of precarity, underemployment and exclusion today have the potential to support new, more encompassing class solidarities, and to facilitate organising on a larger scale.

It was clear from the conference that many substantial challenges remain around race, inequality, identity, and belonging in Britain. ‘Nailing the lie’ on racism is proving a more stubborn and complex project than the metaphor might suggest. Yet the event brought together a diverse range of people, thinking deeply and working with commitment and passion to tackle these complex problems. The conversations left one with the feeling that as much as there is a need to look back, there is much to look forward to as well.

Resource Type
Published Date
21 November, 2018