17 July 2020

What Britain thinks of race relations since Stephen Lawrence’s death


“Stephen Lawrence: Did Britain Change?” was the timely question that ITV sought to answer last night.

“Nowhere near enough” is the clear verdict from black and Asian Britain, in a major new, nationally representative poll of 3,000 people, including 1,500 from ethnic minorities, conducted by Number Cruncher Politics.

I thought about Stephen Lawrence most days in 1999, the year of the public inquiry into his death. His murder had changed the way that we talk about race in Britain. I was living on Eltham’s Well Hall Road, not ten yards from the plaque marking where he had been murdered some six years earlier.

The impact of the killing of George Floyd echoes that of Stephen Lawrence, though much more rapidly. That excruciating 9 minute video of Floyd dying spread around the world in days, whereas it had taken four years after Stephen Lawrence’s murder before most people ever heard his name. Yet responses to racial inequality in Britain have come in response to major events, with Macpherson’s 1999 report following that of Scarman after the 1981 riots. Once again, the question this summer is how far the energy unleashed in the wake of Floyd’s death gets channelled into sustained change, or fizzles out.

The ITV poll finds that ethnic minority respondents are as likely to say that racism in Britain has increased (32%) as decreased (29%) in their lifetime. Almost four out of ten white respondents felt there had been a decrease in racism, while a quarter felt it had increased and others stayed on the fence.

I find myself in the minority of almost a third of non-white Britain who feel that we did make significant, though incomplete, progress. I could compile a dossier of objective, statistical evidence for that case, though it may matter more that it reflects my own lived experience too. Experiences differ significantly. British Indians now have similar overall socio-economic outcomes to white people, but that is not true for black British groups, nor for British Muslims, who have felt a sharp increase in prejudice and suspicion since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and 7/7. The new research reflects these differences across ethnic groups – along with those of class, politics and education.

Gradual progress has been outstripped by rising expectations. There may be a reluctance to answer that “things got better” given an awareness of how often that is seized upon as an unwarranted vote of confidence in the status quo. Most of those who believe that there has been progress also want to see a focus on what still needs to change.

My children will never hear the volume of overt public racism that I encountered as a teenage Everton season ticket holder. But ending banana-throwing and monkey chants merits few laps of honour. The ITV poll offers a detailed, nuanced account of why most ethnic minority Britons report that racism in their everyday lives is not a thing of the past. The collapse in overtly racist attitudes between different generations is one of the most important long-term changes in our society. Yet I personally get more overt racism in 2020 than I did two decades ago. Racist trolls are now only a click away from anybody who talks about race in online spaces – and they will often find the Twitter platform rules are on their side in tolerating racism, despite the #blacklivesmatter hashtag pinned to its home-page.

Education has seen most progress. Ethnic minority Britons have been more likely to be university graduates than their white peers for several years now. Black 18-year-old school students are more likely, not less, to go into higher education, though less often to the most prestigious institutions. Yet this progress in education will generate rising dissatisfaction if change in the workplace does not now speed up too. The least contested evidence that systemic racial disadvantage exists in Britain is the robust studies showing that CVs with identifiably ethnic minority names get fewer interviews than if sent in under a different name with the same qualifications.

The biggest contrast between ethnic minority and white British respondents is in perceptions of how much still needs to change. That 77% of black respondents still see a culture of racism in the police was described as “devastating” by Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball in last night’s programme. The NHS has the strongest reputation for treating those of all backgrounds fairly – but black citizens are twice as likely as white people to see a culture of racism in the justice system, corporations and Parliament. A majority of ethnic minority respondents also felt that the press has a culture of racism – with only one in five confident that they do not.

Ethnic minority Britons do have a fairer share of voice in public life than twenty years ago. How many people noticed that Tony Blair and Jack Straw led an all-white Cabinet when they received the Macpherson report into Stephen Lawrence’s death? There had never been a black or Asian Cabinet minister – so the absence seemed entirely normal. There were only nine ethnic minority MPs out of 650 – and no Asian woman would reach the Commons for another decade. So the shift from one in 65 ethnic minority MPs to one tenth of the Commons today is an opportunity to put race equality onto the agenda. Ethnic minority citizens may also ask how far those who do make it to the citadels of power will have the confidence or permission to address race inequalities.

The ITV poll illuminates what we agree about too. The importance of education about Empire and its controversies in schools is common ground spanning ethnic groups and political perspectives – even if views differ when we debate what to do about specific statues and inscriptions. Sustained change will depend on finding the common ground on race equality – but we can’t make a start until ethnic minority voices count equally too.

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Sunder Katwala is Director of independent thinktank British Future. He chairs “Let’s talk about race” an online panel discussion with former Home Secretary Sajid Javid, Lord Simon Wooley, Lisa Eigbadon and Andrea Als of PWC, next Thursday 23 July. All welcome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.