Lewis Hamilton became the target of racist abuse on social media on Sunday after winning the British Grand Prix, while a week earlier Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Sako were targetted following England’s defeat by Italy in the final of Euro 2020.
Such disgraceful incidents provoke the fear that racism is on the increase.
But it would be a great mistake to imagine that what happens in the lawless spaces of social media provides a true reflection of what is happening in wider society.
The letters column in a traditional newspaper has an editor, whose tasks include preventing that space from being infiltrated and taken over by racists, or other disgusting people, who set out to pollute debate and drive out reasonable contributors, the latter coming to feel they have better things to do than wrestle in the mud.
To work out whether racism is increasing or diminishing, it makes more sense to start with some polling carried out last summer:
“New research from Ipsos MORI shows that the British public have become avowedly more open-minded in their attitudes towards race since the mid-2000s. However, seven in ten still think there is at least a fair amount of tension in Britain between people of different races and nationalities, and there are concerns about inequalities in public services, the police and politics.
“The vast majority, 89%, claim they would be happy for their child to marry someone from another ethnic group, and 70% strongly agree. This is an improvement from January 2009, when 75% said they would be happy overall, and 41% strongly.
“Similarly, the vast majority (93%, nearly all of them strongly disagreeing at 84%) disagree with the statement that, “to be truly British you have to be White”. In October 2006, 82% disagreed, 55% strongly. The proportion who agree with the statement has fallen from 10% to 3% in the last 14 years.”
This encouraging picture was confirmed in March 2021 in the Sewell Report, issued by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which was chaired by Tony Sewell, pictured at the top of this article.
All but one of the ten members of the commission were from ethnic minority backgrounds, yet they found themselves accused of setting out “to whitewash the problems of racism in Britain”.
The row which blew up at the time of publication obscured the many astute observations in the actual report, too numerous to be summarised here, or indeed in the news coverage.
The Commission pointed to the “many instances of success among minority communities”, observed that family is often “the foundation stone” for this success, and went on to remark that family breakdown “is one of the main reasons for poor outcomes” in some communities:
“This Commission finds that the big challenge of our age is not overt racial prejudice, it is building on and advancing the progress won by the struggles of the past 50 years. This requires us to take a broader, dispassionate look at what has been holding some people back. We therefore cannot accept the accusatory tone of much of the current rhetoric on race, and the pessimism about what has been and what more can be achieved.”
As the Commission found,
“All the data tells us that the UK is far more open to minority advancement than 50 years ago. And while some doors at the top remain hard to lever open, people from some minority backgrounds are successfully taking up opportunities. In fact, as of 2019, the ethnicity pay gap – taking the median hourly earnings of all ethnic minority groups and the White group – is down to just 2.3% and the White Irish, Chinese and Indian ethnic groups are on average earning notably more than the White British average.”
But this should not be taken to mean that all is well:
“Overt and outright racism persists in the UK. Examples of it loom larger in our minds because we witness it not just as graffiti on our walls or abuse hurled across our streets, but also in the more private setting of our phones and tablets. The rise of social media platforms mean racist incidents can go viral in hours. What is too often dismissed as ‘trolling’ means many prominent ethnic minority people routinely receive racist abuse from people who cannot be traced and held to account.
“Making anonymous abuse harder online is a complex issue but should be a public policy priority. Speech resonates long after it is heard. Being made to feel that you do not belong, that no matter how patriotic, law-abiding and hard-working you are, you can be treated differently because of your skin colour, stands against everything this country holds dear. A multi-ethnic democracy like ours cannot function properly if people can denigrate their fellow citizens in such deplorable terms on the grounds of their race.”
It has become clear that social media platforms have to be held responsible for the material they publish. In the beginning, they abolished editors, which seemed like a liberation.
Editors, after all, were quite often excessively restrictive, and yielded to the temptation to spike letters which showed up the perfidy, or stupidity, or inaccuracy of whatever the newspaper had reported.
Then an aggrieved correspondent would have to try to get a hearing in some rival publication.
In those days racists could not just press a button on a keyboard and send direct to its target, under the cloak of anonymity, whatever vile abuse had just occurred to them.
The editorial function is now being rediscovered – with reluctance, for it costs money – by the providers of social media platforms.
So it seems likely that they will soon be able to prevent such easy distribution of racist slurs.
But that will not be the end of the matter. The question will remain of how far racism has been eradicated, and how far it has merely been suppressed, or driven underground.
It is possible that by purifying the internet, we shall create a perverse incentive, at least in yobbish minds which regard themselves as oppressed, and yearn to shock respectable opinion by somehow contriving to publish racist obscenities.
When I lived in Germany in the 1990s, there were a few marginalised thugs who knew the most shocking thing they could do was to declare their support for the Nazis, so duly did so.
And when I have reported on opinion in Britain’s pubs, I have sometimes found anger about unrestricted immigration, and restricted free speech, as in this piece for ConHome from 2014, attempting to account for the surge in support for UKIP.
If such concerns had been reported earlier and more prominently, it is possible that in 2004 Tony Blair would have decided not to risk allowing immediate, unrestricted immigration from newly acceded members of the European Union such Poland.
Racism should not be thought of as a problem that is worse in Britain than elsewhere. A study in 2019 by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights on ‘Being Black in the EU’ revealed, the Sewell Report pointed out,
“the percentage of Black respondents who experienced racial harassment in the past 5 years. The figure was 63% in Finland, 52% in Luxemburg, 51% in Ireland, 48% in both Germany and Italy, and 41% in both Sweden and Denmark. In comparison, 21% of Black British respondents reported such harassment, the second-lowest result in the countries surveyed. The UK had the lowest figure for Black respondents who experienced discrimination in job-seeking, education (either themselves or as parents), health, housing, public administration or other public or private services such as restaurants, bars or shops within the past 12 months.”
After thanking the mainly young people behind the Black Lives Matter movement for “focussing our attention once again on these issues”, the authors of the Sewell Report went on:
“But most of us come from an older generation whose views were formed by growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. And our experience has taught us that you do not pass on the baton of progress by cleaving to a fatalistic account that insists nothing has changed.”
Much has changed for the better, and sometimes the obsessive urge to define people in racial terms seems all wrong, as Matthew Parris explained in a recent piece for The Spectator:
“The dream for which my family fought in what was then Rhodesia is now not so much unfashionable as forgotten. The ‘dream’, I mean, of multiracialism; a growing irrelevance of skin colour or ethnic origins; the gradual convergence of the world’s peoples; the building on our planet of a shared culture, shared values, a shared membership of our human race; and a slow but steady dissolving of our differences.”
Most of us can at least agree that being British is a political, not a racial characteristic; as I argued in my last, unmemorably tactful attempt to tackle this subject for ConHome.