In 2018 Donald Trump claimed to be “the least racist person anybody is going to meet” in an interview with Piers Morgan. Made just months after the former president called attendees at a neo-nazi rally “very fine people“, Trump’s statement was so ridiculous as to be funny. Yet such hyperbole is dangerous in not only obscuring the nature of contemporary racism, but reducing it to the sphere of mocking triviality.
It’s tempting to think such puffery would be mocked in Britain were it to come from a domestic figure. And yet here, if anything, such self-flattery is an order of magnitude more extreme, with such an outlandish claim being the implicit conclusion of the recently published Sewell Report. In the event of its recommendations being implemented, it claimed Britain would be a “beacon to the rest of Europe and the world” on matters of race. Is Britain racist? The report implies it’s the least racist country there is.
Many find such a conclusion every bit as delusional as Trump’s assertion. After all black British men are nine times more likely to be stop-and-searched than their white counterparts, while the prime minister once referred to Muslim women wearing burkhas as “letterboxes”. Meanwhile, the recently departed Prince Philip’s record of racist comments was described as a “tendency to be forthright” by the BBC, while statues and portraits of slave traders and imperialists can be found in every British city.
Yet for Sewell, however flawed its past, Britain has made great progress over recent decades, with the educational success of minorities in particular meaning it “should be regarded as a model for other white-majority countries”.
So which is it? Is Britain really “a beacon to the rest of Europe”? Or is such rhetoric itself an indication of the country’s continued inability to speak honestly about the issue?
According to the 2019 Being Black in the EU survey, Britain is among the best countries when it comes to racist harassment, with 21% of UK respondents saying they had been subject to harassment in the previous five years – lower than France (32%), Germany (48%) and Finland (63%).
Nevertheless, experience of racial slurs remains overwhelmingly common. A YouGov poll last year found that two-thirds of black Britons claim to have had a slur “directly used against them or had people make assumptions about their behaviour based on their race”. That figure rises to 75% for people of Chinese heritage.
Returning to the EU survey, 18% of Black Britons reported being stopped over the previous five years – with almost half claiming that was the result of racial profiling. While such a figure is inexcusable it is far lower than France (29%), Germany (34%), and Austria (66%).
The UK scored similarly when it came to perceived discrimination based on ‘ethnic or immigrant background’, with 23% of UK respondents saying they had experienced such prejudice, compared to 52% in Germany and 48% in France. While none of these figures make for happy reading they would appear to confirm the conclusion of the Sewell Report: while undoubtedly flawed Britain is better on racism than comparable countries in Europe.
Yet this is a long way from how black Britons would describe the status quo, with a poll by the Henry Jackson Society finding 57% of Black Britons believe the UK to be a racist country, with that figure – perhaps unsurprisingly – falling to 29% for the public at large. On policing, 54% of Black Britons told CNN they believe the police are institutionally racist, compared to just 27% of white respondents; while Black Britons were more than twice as likely to find statues of slave traders offensive. Is Britain racist? It depends who you ask. The majority of those subject to anti-Black racism think it is.
A more detailed approach can be found in a 2018 study by Pew Research. Here respondents were asked 22 questions relating to immigration and domestic minorities and given a score ranging from 0 to 10. These questions included whether immigration should be reduced; if respondents were unwilling to be neighbours or relatives with Muslims or Jews; and whether immigrants from certain places are not honest or hardworking.
Here Britain performs less impressively, recording a median score of 3.0. While that put it ahead of Italy, Portugal, Austria and others, it trailed behind France, Norway and the Netherlands. Far ahead was the best performer of all, Sweden, which boasted a median score of just 1.2. The idea Britain is a ‘beacon’ for other countries in Northern Europe appears rather farfetched.
British Attitudes to History, Empire and Race.
Finally is the issue of empire. While the country’s colonial period is broadly behind it, a sizeable minority of the British public regard its former status with fond nostalgia. It is difficult to accept Britain is a leader on racism when 32% of respondents to a YouGov poll said its empire was “something to be proud of”, while a similar number believed its colonies were better off for being subjects – higher than anywhere else.
Such a conclusion is as ridiculous as it is horrifying. In 1700 the Indian subcontinent accounted for 23% of global GDP, a figure which fell to just 3% by 1945. English settlers engaged in genocide on at least two continents and, as recently as the 1950s, Britain employed concentration camps and torture in Kenya and Malaya. This is without touching on the Opium Wars, the Bengal and Irish Famines and dozens of other atrocities. How can a country not be racist when a significant number of people feel ‘proud’ of such things?
Britain’s rose-tinted memory of its past is likely the result of never being subject to military defeat. While an astonishing 27% of British respondents wished their country still had an empire, that figure falls to 9% for Germany and Italy and 7% for Japan. It would be appalling if a third of Germans were proud of the genocide of the Herero people in southern Africa, yet it appears that is how many in Britain seemingly feel about the extermination of the indigenous people of Tasmania and elsewhere.
People’s views on Britain’s imperial past are especially pertinent given the notion Britain is the ‘least racist country of all’ chimes with how the Empire understood itself. This was exemplified in a speech given by the King Emperor on Empire Day in 1940. “There is a word our enemies use against us,” declared George VI: “imperialism. By it, they mean the spirit of domination and the lust for conquest. We free peoples of the Empire cast that word back in their teeth. It is they who have these evil aspirations.” Even while controlling the largest empire in world history Britain’s elite claimed it was an anti-imperialist conduit for liberty.
One can only presume that the constant rhetoric of being the best and biggest is a consequence of Britain no longer possessing that world empire, but instead being a medium-sized power. This loss of status – coupled with a profound inability to honestly assess its past – renders its political culture unique. Thus despite historic cliches of understatement the national conversation increasingly speaks in superlatives: ‘world-beating’, ‘world class’, ‘the most ambitious’. Why should overcoming racism be any different?
This explains Britain’s inability to accept that by the standards of Northern Europe it is entirely middling in the fight against racism. While that does undoubtedly represent progress, such a framing enables the continued obscuring of prejudice and injustice: Black people comprise only 3% of the population of England and Wales yet account for 12% of its prison population; meanwhile a police officer has not been prosecuted for the killing of a Black man since 1971 – and even then they were charged with manslaughter and the charge was subsequently dropped. Rather than receive justice the likes of Mark Duggan, Sean Rigg, Sarah Reed and Christopher Alder had their names dragged through the mud by the police. And while 68% of white British households own their own home – that falls to 40% for those from a Black Caribbean background, and 20% of those with Black African heritage. Whatever your feelings about the politics of homeownership, in a country where economic opportunity is so defined by it, such figures are extraordinary.
Britain has a long way to go in how race shapes experiences of policing, work and housing. Pretending its best in class may salve the conscience of the establishment but it means systemic inequality can be ignored with a smile. In many ways, however, the hyperbolic claims of the Sewell Report are all too familiar: increasingly Britain is a country where mediocre progress is presented as outstanding. Measured against our neighbours we are entirely unexceptional in the fight for racial equality; the instinct to so vehemently declare otherwise is perhaps most instructive of all.