Black and white vision: are we seeing racism everywhere?

Sunday 14 October, 14:0015:30, Pit TheatreIdentity wars: race and society


Early this year, Labour MP David Lammy criticised Oxford University for not being representative of modern Britain, particularly in terms of racial diversity. When Will Norman was appointed London’s new cycling commissioner in May, he started by promising action to tackle the lack of diversity among cyclists. There is little doubt that Britain’s racial diversity is not reflected in every sphere of life. But is this necessarily a result of racism or is it better explained by more complicated factors, including inherited disadvantage, social class and even cultural preference?

When Theresa May became prime minister, one of the ‘burning injustices’ she promised to tackle was racial injustice. Following other recent government reports, including the Race at Work survey, the McGregor-Smith Review into workplace racism and the Lammy Review into the criminal justice system, the much vaunted Race Disparity Audit was established to examine disparities in everything from education, home ownership and criminal justice to lifestyle indicators like smoking rates and fruit and vegetable consumption. But before any research even had begun, May promised the audit would reveal ‘difficult truths’ about race. So is there a danger in taking for granted that Britain has a race problem, especially after Brexit, and falsely attributing every example of racial disparity – or even injustice – to racism?

After all, surveys suggest that racial prejudice has declined markedly over the last few decades and is at an all-time low. Racism is deeply unfashionable, and arguably the very fact that we are so concerned about racial disparities shows that discriminatory attitudes are increasingly a thing of the past. A number of public figures from ethnic-minority backgrounds wrote an open letter to The Times, criticising the government’s ‘crude’ and ‘tendentious’ approach to auditing race. They pointed out that in many areas, gaps are closing and in some areas, minority ethnic groups outperform their white counterparts. The labelling of disparities as a form of ‘racial injustice’, without evidence, risked promoting a grievance culture and sowing distrust with public services – harming the very communities the audit was established to help.

On the other hand, with the political sphere rife with rows about an alleged spike in hate crimes since Brexit, rising Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, disputes about cultural appropriation, white privilege and a Home Office policy of creating a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants, are those suggesting racism is in decline being willfully complacent? After all, despite considerable controversy over ‘stop and search’ for decades, Home Office figures for 2016/17 still show a significant disparity, with four stop and searches for every 1,000 white people, compared with 29 stop and searches for every 1,000 black people. When people aspire to ‘colour blindness’, are they failing to acknowledge the very real ways in which racism continues to exist, ‘erasing the experiences of black people’, as one commentator put it?

What is the reality of race and racism in modern Britain? Do we need to redouble our efforts to challenge racism in order to bring about greater equality? Or does viewing social issues predominantly through a racial lens distort the real picture and undermine the progress that has been made?