Is there Racism in 21st Century Britain?


To cite this article: Sturt-Schmidt, James (2018). Is there Racism in 21st Century Britain?, The Millennial [Online], Available at: (this page URL).

This essay will explore the prevalence and nature of racism in 21st century Britain, paying particular attention to Islamophobia and British politics, media, sports and education. It is important that the reader consider throughout that ‘race’ is interconnected with other social divisions, such as class and gender (Byrne, 2006), the dynamics of which this essay will be unable to explore.

Victoria Redclift believes that, following 9/11 and the 2005 London bombings, the UK has witnessed “hostility towards new ‘strangers’” (2014: p578). Here we can see a reflection of Memmi’s (1994) concept of ‘race’ in the creation of ‘strangers’ (‘others’) and a hostility towards them that is legitimised through this generalisation. Redclift explores the prominence of the extreme right, which pushes an ideology of white English victimisation that can be seen, for example, in the minor electoral successes of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the street activism of the English Defence League (EDL) and, less recently, in the minor successes of the British Nationalist Party (BNP). Redclift also comments on the rise of Islamophobia “at both the centre and extremes of political rhetoric and popular representation” (Alexander and James cited in Redclift, 2014: p579). She argues that “the ‘cultural’ ‘common-sense racism’ of the contemporary moment positions asylum seekers, new migrants and Muslims as the enemies within and without our borders” (2014: p579). From a brief overview of Redclift’s account, it is clear to see that racism is ever-present in the politics and general culture of British society, although its nature has arguably changed as Redclift writes that “the forms, shapes and hierarchies of racism have grown subtler” (2014: p580). Addressing Memmi’s observation that ‘almost no-one, wishes themselves to be seen as racist’, we must consider that the aforementioned political parties do little to avoid being seen as racist and the English Defence League in particular actively portrays itself as racist, believing it has the right to be so. Having attended Unite Against Fascism’s counter-protest to the EDL’s march in Birmingham last year, I can personally attest the overt racism of EDL members and their pride at holding such an ideology.

Writing on the topic of ‘race’ and racism in the 21st century, Howard Winant (2014) refers to them as ‘the dark matter’. Winant argues that racism is still prevalent in the 21st century, continuing from above in “an ongoing war against the weak” (2014: 2) disguised and dismissed by what Winant calls “an institutionalized forgetting of the provenance and meaning of race” (ibid.), what I term institutional ‘race’-blindness. This argument echoes that of Nisha Kapoor (2013) who, writing on the topic of what she terms ‘racial neoliberalism’, argues that social and political discourses are increasingly cleansed of racial terms but an “institutionalization of racism continues unbounded, legitimated through the ‘War on Terror’” (2013: p1028). She argues that, since the publication of the MacPherson Report (1999), any effort to address “racially structured ‘processes, attitudes and behaviours’ [MacPherson, 1999, s. 6.34] has been subsumed by a drive to remove the language of race” (Kapoor, 2013: p1029) and that the silencing of ‘race’ makes it a difficult endeavour to identify and address racisms. Despite this attempt to avoid addressing racism simply by not talking about it, we can see its existence in the five pieces of anti-terror legislation passed in the UK between the years 2000 and 2008. These policies use ‘terrorism’ “to invoke a western hegemonic discourse over the oriental other” (Kappor, 2013: p1030) and the so-called ‘War on Terror’ is used to legitimise the regulation of bodies which token-gesture equality laws deny. This can be seen in the extension of “police powers to hold suspects without charge for up to twenty-eight days” (Kapoor, 2013: p1041) by the Terrorism Act 2006 and the Terrorism Acts of 2000 and 2005 which allow individuals to be held for indefinite detention without the possibility of a proper criminal trial (Kundnani, 2007 cited in Kapoor, 2013). Kapoor concludes that racial neoliberalism “calls for the shift from anti-racism, […] which requires some historical memory, to anti-racialism” (2013: p1043. Emphasis added) which merely requires erasing reference to racism. In essence, Kapoor suggests that 21st century Britain is ‘giving up and moving on’ from ‘race’ by not talking about it, thusly eradicating the need to address the infinitesimal damages caused or address current inequalities and racist foreign policy. One can arguably see this as the most ‘tenacious’ manifestation of racism today in that it facilitates the continuing of proactive racism whilst deconstructing the existing precautions that identify and address it.

A good measure of racism’s existence in 21st century British society is its presence in sports. The overall findings of Jamie Cleland and Ellis Cashmore’s online survey of 2500 football fans suggest that “half of all fans are still witnessing or experiencing some form of racism” (2014: p638). The authors argue that, in spite of preventative measures such as ‘Kick It Out’ and a reduction of racist chanting, the game’s governing bodies essentially ignore the problem and take a stance of ‘colour-blindness’. Cashmore and Cleland believe football clearly “remains a white institution” (2014: p640) when one looks at the heads of the various football associations (FIFA, EUFA and FA), club owners, directors, players, referees and fans who are predominantly white despite 25% of players in 2012 being Black or Minority Ethnic (BME) (Merick et al. 2012, cited in Cashmore and Cleland, 2014). Another of Cashmore and Cleland’s studies (2011) found that 56% of 1000 football fans thought that the distinct lack of black football managers was due to racism’s presence in clubs’ boardrooms. They contend that the widely held belief that racism in football has been eliminated allows it to function “in complex, nuanced and often covert ways” (Burdsey, 2011:7 quoted in Cashmore and Cleland, 2014) that cannot be detected by football authorities or stopped by anti-racist groups. We see in Cashmore and Cleland’s study of football a reflection of Redclift’s (2014) observation that racism has grown subtler, Winant’s “institutionalized forgetting of […] race” (2014: 2) and Kapoor’s “drive to remove the language of race” (2013: p1029).

The recently passed Stuart Hall (1995), a founder of The Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, provides us with an analysis of how racism operates through the media. His theory dictates that the media produces and transforms ideologies, gives coverage to racist views and racists (‘overt’ racism), naturalises representations of events and situations relating to ‘race’ which are instilled with “a set of unquestioned assumptions” (Hall, 1995: p20, emphasis in original) (‘inferential racism’), and transmits “a grammar of race” (1995: p21) (naturalised stereo-types of non-white characters). To what extent are these methods still utilised by the media in 21st century Britain? In their article Veiled Bodies, Khiabany and Williamson, examine how a “discourse of difference was constructed in the UK’s biggest selling tabloid, the Sun, throughout 2006” (2008: p70). They describe how the sun acted as a platform to Jack Straw’s (former home secretary and then Labour leader of the Commons) appeal to Muslim women in Britain to remove their niqabs to help community relations, which was in fact initially published in his weekly column in the Lancashire Telegraph. Here we can see Hall’s concept of ‘overt’ racism in action as the media acts to give coverage to racism and racists and transmits a ‘grammar of race’ through its representation of Muslim women as rejecting British society through the wearing of the veil, and replacing an image of them as victims with one of extremists.

Peter Martin’s (2013) mixed methods survey of everyday racism finds that, despite Britain being officially antiracist since the ‘race relations’ act of the 1960s, racism persists, manifesting itself in the ideology of ‘differentialism’. He states, “the denial of racism is now part of racist ideology itself”, (2013: p58) and writes of a ‘new racism’ being present in Europe that “shuns classical racist themes of a biological hierarchy of races – thus trying to avoid the accusation of being racist” (2013: p59 – emphasis in original) and instead argues the point of cultural difference. Martin explains that “while the hierarchical aspect of racism emphasizes the superiority of “us” over “them”, the differentialist aspect points out the importance of keeping “us” separate from “them”” (Philosopher Pierre-André Taguieff cited in Martin, 2013: p59). The findings of Martin’s study suggest that many people adhere to the criteria of ‘differentialists’ and may often perpetuate racialised discourse, but at other times oppose blatantly racist views or behaviour. Martin’s research shows that, on the level of the individual, racism persists in a similar way to in social institutions; in a way which discriminates and damages, but is legitimised by creating the inability to identify it as racism. This can be seen in what is arguably now a cultural catchphrase of Britain: “I’m not being racist, but…” It could be argued that the media’s technique of normalising racialised discourses and creating ‘unquestioned assumptions’ around race (Hall, 1995) is partly responsible for people’s attitudes towards other nationalities or ethnicities, which is often on the basis of cultural differences.

In a study of experiences of racism, Vicki Harman (2010) interviewed thirty lone white mothers of mixed-parentage children. This study arguably serves as a reliable measure of racism in Britain as the ‘white privilege’ of the mothers in this study means racism is more visible to them and they may become “more conscious of their own whiteness, and [subsequently] the nature of race relations in the United Kingdom” (2010: p191). [To understand how social class could intersect with the findings of this study, it is important to note that twenty-three of the thirty mothers were receiving state benefits.] In the findings of the study, Harman begins by outlining how the women’s family reacted to their having a mixed-parentage child, which for many started with the announcement of their pregnancy, which for one woman meant being called a “”nigger lover”” by her sisters (2010: p181). Whilst some families’ attitudes softened with the birth of the child (although embarrassment and disapproval persisted), in one example a mother describes how her daughter received a card from her grandparents on her tenth birthday signed only with their first names, with no ‘lots of love’ or kisses. In an example of more extreme, overt racism, a participant describes having had “dog poo put through the door, […] horrible phone calls, […] racist hate mail, […] BNP parading round the flats, […] washing stolen, [… her] son’s bike stolen” (2010: p182) and having been spat and sworn at. This particular participant’s son also suffered a “violent racist attack at school, leaving him with post-traumatic stress disorder” (ibid.). Harman’s study found that many of the mothers’ children experienced racism at school, which often led to them changing their child’s school, and, on one occasion, a mother found her concerns regarding the matter seemingly dismissed by the white male teacher. It is important to note, in the interests of avoiding racism being seen as an exclusively white process, that these children were often bullied by children of various ethnicities. Having already looked at institutional racism, its persistence through British foreign policy and its existence in sport, this study (alongside that of Peter Martin, 2013) offers a striking portrayal of the everyday overt racism that can be witnessed in 21st century Britain.

To conclude, on the one hand racism’s existence in 21st century Britain, whilst undeniable, should perhaps not be termed ‘real and tenacious’ but ‘silent and ambiguous’ as there has been a clear political shift towards an ‘institutionalisation of racism’ (Kapoor, 2013) whilst political discourse is made ever-more ‘race’-blind. The rise of Islamophobia, ‘differentialist racism’ and the ‘I’m-not-being-racist-but’ attitude of many Britons show that racism continues on the level of the individual in a way that is as difficult to identify and address as its existence in institutions. On the other hand, the overt racism proudly paraded through the streets of Britain by the English Defence League, the xenophobic rhetoric of the UK Independence Party and the many examples of overt racism in Harman’s (2009) study demonstrate that racism not only persists, but it does so in a very real and very tenacious way indeed. Whilst dealing with the identifiable racism in contemporary society, it is essential that research and theory be directed at dismantling the ambiguity shrouding institutionalised racism, exposing it to the scrutiny of the world and shaming those responsible.



Byrne, B. (2006). White Lives: The Interplay of ‘Race’, Class and Gender in Everyday Life. London: Routledge

Cashmore, E and Cleland, J. (2014). Fans, Racism and British Football in the Twenty-First Century: The Existence of a ‘Colour-Blind’ Ideology. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. Vol. 40, Issue 4, pp638-654.

Cashmore, E and Cleland, J. (2011). Why aren’t there more black football managers?. Ethnic and Racial Studies. Vol. 34, Issue 9, pp1594-607.

Hall, S. (1995). ‘The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media’ in Dines, G. and Humez, J. M. (ed’s.) Gender, Race and Class in Media: a Text-Reader. Pp18-22. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage.

Harman, V. (2010). Experiences of racism and the changing nature of white privilege among lone white mothers of mixed-parentage children in the UK. Ethnic and Racial Studies. Vol. 33, Issue 2, pp.176-194.

Kapoor, N. (2013). The advancement of racial neoliberalism in Britain. Ethnic and Racial Studies. Vol. 36, Issue 6, pp1028-1046

Khiabany, G and Williamson, M. (2008) Veiled bodies – naked racism: culture, politics and race in the Sun. Race & Class Vol. 50, Issue 2, pp69–88

Martin, P. (2013). Racism, Differentialism, and Antiracism in Everyday Ideology: A Mixed-Methods Study in Britain. International Journal of Conflict and Violence. Vol. 7, Issue 1, pp57-73.

Memmi, A. (1994). Translated by Steve Martinot. Racism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Redclift, V. (2014). New racisms, new racial subjects? The neo-liberal moment and the racial landscape of contemporary Britain. Ethnic and Racial Studies. Vol. 37, Issue 4, pp577-588.

Winant, H. (2014). The Dark Matter: Race and Racism in the 21st Century. Critical Sociology. Vol. 40, Issue 1, pp1-12.


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