Reactions this week to Harry and Meghan’s televised interview have illustrated the capacity for the issues of race and racism to divide opinion. Yet they also highlight the need to talk about race, if we want a society that is fair to all citizens. That can be harder because we each bring to that conversation our different experiences of living in this increasingly diverse society – making it harder to talk about race in ways that find common ground, and which can promote positive change.
British Future has been having these conversations with members of the public, in (online) discussion groups across the country and nationally representative research – with boosted samples of 1,000 and 2,000 ethnic minority Britons in two waves of polling conducted by Number Cruncher Politics. The findings, published in full later this month, have been submitted to the Race Commission, whose own recommendations are currently with the Prime Minister. Some of them are previewed in today’s Observer newspaper, alongside a commentary from British Future Director Sunder Katwala.
A quarter of the public (24%) thinks we talk about it too much already; but more of us (32%) think we don’t talk enough about race, rising to four in ten people from an ethnic minority background. Most black Britons (56%) feel that we don’t talk enough about race, and mixed race respondents also feel more strongly that race is not discussed enough, with nearly half (47%) sharing this view. Asian respondents, however, are just as likely to feel we talk about race ‘about the right amount’ (34%) as to feel we don’t talk about it enough (33%).
Younger respondents aged 18-34 – among whom responses from ethnic minority and white people are virtually identical – are much less likely to feel that we talk about race too much. Only 14% felt that race was over-discussed, compared to the 24% average across the UK. That contrasts with the views of white people aged over 55, who felt most strongly that we talk about race too much, with 36% feeling this way, while just 26% who feel we don’t talk about race enough.
“Because we’ve never really had these conversations about race and inequality, last year’s Black Lives Matter protests really stood out and, especially with young people, they were desperate for it to create change. We’re really tired of this discrimination. So, I’m happy that we did have these conversations.”
– Asian female participant, Preston.
One reason why that conversation is difficult is because people have different experiences of race in Britain, including the way our institutions treat people. Four in ten people from an ethnic minority background (43%) and a majority of black Britons (52%) feel that national newspapers treat ethnic minorities worse than white people. Only a quarter (26%) of white people agree. There is a similar gap between white and ethnic minority experience when it comes to how big companies are seen to treat people, with four in ten (39%) ethnic minority respondents (and 53% of black respondents) feeling they treat minorities worse, compared to a quarter (23%) of white respondents. A majority (56%) of ethnic minority Britons feel that they are treated worse by the police than white people, rising to 70% of black respondents, while just 38% of white respondents agree.
“I think the last six to nine months, since Covid and George Floyd in America, its brought race to people’s minds. And before that it wasn’t really spoken about – it’s only after recent events that we’ve spoken about black people and our health, or how we interact with the police.”
– Black female participant, Bucks and Herts.
With people coming from such different starting points, it is perhaps unsurprising that discussions about race can struggle to find common ground, particularly when they so often become centred on a binary question of ‘is the UK racist or not?’ Britain has made progress on race – but a self-congratulatory message, about being better than the past, will only cause frustration if it crowds-out those who feel we still have much more to do if we are to achieve race equality.
Our research did find much common ground between citizens of different ethnic backgrounds, particularly on the practical policies that could form an agenda for change. There is a shared desire, for instance, for stronger action on hate crime, including on social media; for greater efforts to tackle bias in recruitment for jobs; and an expectation to see Britain’s growing ethnic diversity better represented at the top of our major institutions.
“I think the balance is right when it comes to talking about it. Where the balance is wrong is doing something about it. We’ve been talking about it since the 70s. And maybe it’s not as bad as it was then, but it’s not a whole lot better. People are more aware of it now. But we’re still not doing enough about it. We need less hot air and more action.”
– White British male participant, North-East.
The issue of race has never been more salient, but for many people it can feel like a difficult topic to discuss, especially if that conversation turns into a shouting-match. So we will need to build more confidence in how we talk about race if we are to build common ground on how to address unfairness and inequality.