Tag Archives: British Social Attitudes Survey


Q: So, the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey has discovered nearly a third of people in Britain admitted being racist on some level. In 2001, that figure was just 25 per cent and researchers believe little headway is being made to tackle bigotry. Quite a sharp rise, eh?
A: Wait a second: always look at research carefully before you accept its findings. This is poorly-designed research. For a start, it’s a survey: a blunt instrument to try to explore what is, after all, a complex aspect of social life. And look at the question: “Would you describe yourself as very prejudiced/a little prejudiced against people of other races?” This is like something from a not-very-good research project in the 1960s. For a start, the concept of “race” has been so thoroughly discredited that it has no place in a serious research project. Then there is the phrase “prejudiced”: again, this is a term that seems seems straight from a time capsule.
Q: So you don’t like the way the research has been designed?
A: It’s not so much me: this research would not get past a peer review on a scholarly journal.
Q: What do you make of its major findings though? I mean, even if we substitute racism in place of “prejudice” would you agree with its conclusions in the broadest sense — are we becoming more racist?
A: Who are “we”? I suspect, when people ask the question, they mean whites. But the UK is not a white society: it is a genuinely multicultural society. OK, I know people will rush for my jugular and point out that whites dominate the major institutions in British society. They might also point out that most of the key positions are held by white men. I’m not naive enough to think racism and, for that matter, sexism are vestiges of the past. They continue to affect modern Britain, even in the 21st century. But do they affect society in the same way, with the same impact as thirty years ago?
Q: I see what you mean: 30 years ago, young African Caribbeans were rioting on the streets, weren’t they?
A: Yes, and there were what were called “Sus laws” that allowed for stop-and-searches that amounted to what we now call “racial profiling.” And Britain responded to this. I know equal opportunities policies were not perfect; but they did have some effect. And then there is the human rights legislation from Europe. It’s absurd to assume these have not changed British society.
Q: But the Stephen Lawrence enquiry in 1998 exposed institutional racism in the police, didn’t it?
A: Absolutely. As I said, I’m not denying racism exists. But its impact is diminishing. After the Lawrence case, Britain went through years of hand-wringing. There were improvements in policing: not the kind of improvements that were going to make all traces of racism disappear. But improvements just the same.
Q: You sound like a bit of a liberal. This is a surprise because I always associate you with cynicism.
A: But I think is ridiculous to keep repeating the same criticism. The world changes and we have to remain critical; but this means we have to change the critique to reflect the world. There isn’t such a thing as racism: there are several different racisms. I made this point way back in 1986 in my book The Logic of Racism (which, if I may offer a shameless plug, has just been re-published, though at a crazily high price). My point was that we were labouring with a misleading concept: racism was not a thing, it was a style of reasoning that, sometimes, affected the way people behaved. We can’t control human thoughts but we can manage behaviour and that’s what policies are designed to do. I’ve no doubt racisms still affect the way people behave, and I include language as a form of behaviour. But the negative consequences of that behaviour on people’s lives have been lessened. Anyway, the evidence of our senses tells us that people of different faiths, different cuisines, different lifestyles and so on, get along much more freely than they did even as recently as ten years ago. We now have a generation of people who are not afraid of cultural difference as their forebears were. They actually welcome difference. Cultural differences have enriched, not diluted British society.
Q: In sum, you completely dismiss this survey.
A: I do. I think it’s fatally flawed. It is like a study from another age. We shouldn’t take any notice of it. Don’t bury your head in the sand and kid yourself racism has vanished. But don’t be alarmed by this survey: it presents a distorted image of what Britain is like today. @elliscashmore