Is Britain really becoming more racist?

Black and white hands together

Journalists like their stories to fit into an accepted current narrative. With domestic politics dominated by concerns over Europe and immigration, and the rise of the far-right elsewhere in the EU, it is understandable that editors are alert to evidence of rising racism in Britain.

But today's figures are not evidence of rising racism. In fact, if anything, the trend is of flat or declining levels of self-reported racial prejudice.

The statistics come from the annual British Social Attitudes survey which, since 1983, has interviewed one or two thousand people and asked if they are "very prejudiced", "a little bit prejudiced" or "not prejudiced at all" against people of other races.

Adding together the "very" (3%) and "a little" (27%) figures from this year's survey produces a total of 30% - up from last year (26%) but well below the year before (38%).

Yes, the current figure is higher than the lowest figures ever recorded (25% in 2000 and 2001) but then you could equally argue it is well below the high point of 38% recorded in 1987 and 2011.

Social Attitudes Survey

What is most informative is the broad trend in self-reported racial prejudice. Falling from the 1980s until the end of the century, then rising during the first decade of the new millennium, and now flat or falling.

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We cannot be sure what people mean when they agree they are 'a little bit prejudiced against people of other races'”

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To be honest, we need a few more years of data before we can tell whether that fall is real or not. But to suggest that the latest figures represent a return to the racism levels of the 80s is clearly premature.

There is another difficulty with this data - it is a self-reported measure. We cannot be sure what people mean when they agree they are "a little bit prejudiced against people of other races". Could it be that the phrase today has as much to do with anxiety about the arrival of East European migrants as a belief that those from a different racial group are inferior?

The rise in self-reported prejudice during the noughties coincides with years of mass immigration, much of it made up of white Europeans. The figures may reflect concern about the impact of that as much as a true measure of racism.

Police figures of reported racist incidents are not a perfect proxy for racism levels either, but they provide further evidence that the trend is down or flat. Today's survey suggests younger people are significantly less likely to say they are prejudiced than their parents' generation. The trend among 17-34 year-olds is down while the trend among the over-55s is up.

The survey identifies some stark differences in self-reported prejudice - 19% among graduates but 38% among those without qualifications, 26% among professionals and managers but 41% among unskilled manual workers, 16% in booming inner London and 35% in the more economically sluggish West Midlands.

The key here, perhaps, is people's response to the cultural and economic impact of globalisation - attitudes towards foreigners will depend on whether one sees it as an opportunity or a threat.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 906.

    It would have been interesting to ask if any particular target-groups were 'top-of-mind' among respondents who self-identify as 'prejudiced. That could then have been compared with the every-day experiences of people from groups identified and then also compared with stats. of official reports of prejudice suffered. Surprises might then emerge about where in the UK prejudice really resides.

  • rate this

    Comment number 905.

    @902. Karen Jules-Louis "I think EVERYONE has a little racism or prejudice inside them for whatever reason."

    Racism is a learnt behaviour through parenting & media . You don't see toddler having any knowledge of race until they grow old enough to understand it. My awareness began about 7. At 13 I was aware that my skin colour is perceived as bad.
    Offensive to ppl who race is no issue as adult...

  • rate this

    Comment number 904.

    The 'only' east European/European 'immigrants' nobody seems to complain about are footballers? Why? Do UKIP voters support premier league teams? Would the premier league be 'better' if only 'indigenous' Brits played in it? Is it no longer about being 'better'? in the 80's the 'national' dish was curry - now people seem to complain about seeing to many 'Indians'/'Pakistani's'! sad/strange times!

  • rate this

    Comment number 903.

    The UK is becoming more right wing, less tolerant of differences & full of people who are scared of their neighbours. Does this scare me? Yes because it started with a crackdown on the sick & disabled through welfare reform, now its aim at non Brits sometimes Islam, how long till only those of a specific race get jobs & services. All of this stems from the economic downturn, sound familiar? 1920's

  • rate this

    Comment number 902.

    I think EVERYONE has a little racism or prejudice inside them for whatever reason. I'm on the outside looking in and I see and hear about foreigners going to the UK just to get benefits that are better there than in their own countries, how companies will hire foreigners because they will pay them less than a British worker. This too can cause people to be racists/prejudice. Sad but true.


Comments 5 of 906


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