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Is Britain a Racist Society?

Paper Type: Free Assignment Study Level: University / Undergraduate
Wordcount: 1984 words Published: 12th Oct 2017

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Is Britain a Racist Society


Solomos and Back (1996) have argued that racism takes different forms in differing social relations and at different points in history. Racism should not therefore, be regarded as an unchanging phenomenon. Racism is understood differently by different commentators, for example Goldberg (1993) is of the opinion that there needs to be a distinction between racial discrimination and racism. He contends that racism is often expressed for its own sake and those who are guilty of racism may not see it as such, it may just be something they have heard while growing up and taken on board without really understanding what it means. Racial discrimination on the other hand generally refers to specific acts. However, Solomos and Back (1996) maintain that there may be no clear dividing line between these two things and that the nature of the relationship between racism and discrimination may be far more complex than is first thought. The experience of those racialised minorities who settle in Britain has to be located in debates about colonialism, post-war migration, changing labour markets and the different traditions and histories of various ethnic groups (Bilton et al, 1996). This assignment will outline the issues that have resulted in patterns of discrimination that have emerged in Britain. It will then proceed to ask the question whether it might be said that Britain is a racist society. Race and ethnicity is a huge subject area and because of word constraints this paper will concentrate on the existence of institutional racism. Institutional racism refers to ethnically based patterns of discrimination that have become embedded into existing social structures and institutions (Giddens, 2001).

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The European expansionism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries inevitably led them into contact with the racialised other, what Hall (1992) has termed ‘the west and the rest.’ Beliefs about the capacities of different people gave colonisers some sort of justification for the inequalities that existed in colonial societies. Western science was a key player in defining the concept of race, and how some races were inherently inferior to others. This parallels the justification of science that gender and class inequalities were rooted in biological differences (Gould, 1984). This colonial definition still has ramifications in that life chances and inequalities of wealth and status are still connected with race. At the same time race remains a basis of identity and of defining difference and sameness (Bilton et al, 1996).

Patterns of Immigration

The many different ethnic groups in Britain and other industrialised countries are the result of immigration. While there have been members of other races in Britain for hundreds of years, the twentieth century has seen a significant increase in the numbers of people from ethnic minorities who enter Britain. Britain is more than ever before assuming the mantle of a multi-racial, multi-cultural society. The present situation dates back to the end of the Second World War when there was a labour shortage in Britain. The response of the Government of the time was to encourage migration from members of Commonwealth countries.

The 1948 British Nationality Act granted favorable immigration rights to Citizens of Commonwealth countries (Giddens, 4th ed. 2001:264). The labour shortage that existed after the Second World War meant that there were job opportunities for those people who decided to come to Britain and during the 1950s and 1960s Britain experienced a wave of immigration on an unprecedented scale.

Cashmore (1989) has noted that differences between black and white erupted into the racial violence that took place in London’s Notting Hill in 1958. There was no legislation on race discrimination and so it was not uncommon to find landlords advertising their property and ending with the words no coloureds need apply. These issues highlighted immigration and race relations as subjects of controversy. They prompted a number of discussions within the cabinet whose response was to debate a number of different measures to control the numbers of West Indian, Indian and Pakistani immigrants to Britain (Braham, Rattansi and Skellington, 1992). Eventually in 1962, amidst Enoch Powell’s infamous rivers blood speech, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act was introduced and commonwealth immigrants were only allowed entry if they satisfied a number of criteria. The justification for this act was that the huge influx of commonwealth inhabitants was contributing to an economic crisis in Britain. However, as Cashmore (1989) observes the Act did not cover Irish immigrants but was directed specifically at black immigration. What concerned politicians, the media, and the vast majority of the white population was the numbers of Commonwealth immigrants who were entering the country.

Numbers of commentators and anti-racist campaigners have declared British immigration policy as racist and discriminatory against non-whites (Skellington, 1996). The 1981 British Nationality Act tightened the conditions under which those from the former commonwealth countries could enter Britain they could no longer register as British citizens after five years but had to apply for naturalisation (Giddens, 2001). Legislation has tightened further in 1988 and 1996. The ethnic minority population of Britain is now in excess of three million people with highest concentrations in London and the West Midlands (Owen, 1992). Giddens (2001) contends that while Black and Asian groups are discriminated against as a whole compared to white people, there are also distinctions between groups and these are visible in employment patterns. In the areas of immigration and employment it would seem that non-white ethnic minorities do suffer discrimination and experience more disadvantage than white groups.

Racism and Employment

Many of the jobs that the post-war new arrivals took on were low status, low paid jobs often with long hours and shift work. Rex and Tomlinson (1979) contend that a dual labour market exists in Britain. The primary labour market consists of better paid work with on the job training, the secondary labour market on the other hand has little job security and few if any opportunities for training and promotion. In a 1960s survey the Policies Studies Institute found that the majority of immigrants worked in manual jobs. Discrimination on the basis of race was common and even those who were qualified to do better jobs ended up working in factories or on the transport system. Many employers refused to employ workers who were not white (Giddens, 2001). During the economic recession in the 1980s the PSI found that apart from African Asian and Indian men, the unemployment rates were twice as high among ethnic minorities as they were among white workers. During the 1970s an increasing number of men from ethnic minorities became self-employed. More recently Britains ethnic minorities, while still suffering from inequalities in pay and promotion vary in their occupations (Madood et al,1997}.

Modood et al (1997) has noted that there are still a disproportionately large number of Pakistani and Bangladeshi men in manual jobs. At the same time Asian run businesses and shops are found in almost every British town and city and are still growing. They are more likely to be self-employed than whites. Tariq Modood (1991) has argued hard work, along with the support of family and community is what has led to this economic success.

In their study of Punjabi Sikhs who had settled in Leeds Ballard and Ballard (1977) found that there was a strong element in first generation immigrants to maintain the distinctiveness of Sikh culture. Second generation retained an attachment to their parent’s culture but acted in more Westernised ways outside the home. They also had a greater interest in materialism and educational issues. Some Muslims served in the British Army during the First World War and settled in the UK. Again, the size of the community increased during the immigration of the 1950s and 1960s. Many of them found work in the mills and factories of the Midlands and the North of England. The most disadvantaged in the labour market are young Caribbean men. They earn less than other groups and are twice as likely as their white counterparts to be unemployed. Even African male graduates who may have the same qualifications as white male graduates are seven times more likely than whites to be unemployed (Berthoud, 1999). However, Iganski and Payne (1999) have argued that in recent years certain non-white groups have achieved economic success. Their findings suggest that this success is due to postindustrial restructuring and that such changes in the labour market are stronger than racial discrimination and disadvantage.


This paper poses the question of whether Britain is a racist society. In doing this there was a concentration on institutional racism, that is to say racism that has, inadvertently or not, become embedded in the social structure. Patterns of immigration and successive government response to these issues tend to suggest that British immigration policies are racist. Patterns of employment have also been racist and have led some commentators to argue that the British labour market operates on two levels one of which is not easily accessible to ethnic minorities. More recent research, however, tends to suggest that although racist policies do exist in the labour market, the changes that de-industrialisation and globalization have brought are destabilizing institutional racism in employment.

1500 words


Ballard, R. and Ballard, C. 1977 “The Sikhs”in J.L. Watson ed. Between Two Cultures, Oxford, Blackwell

Berthoud, R. 1999 “Young Caribbean men and the labour market:a comparison with other ethnic groups” York, YPS

Braham, P. Rattansi, A. and Skellington, R. eds 1996. Racism and Antiracism. London, Sage.

Cashmore, E. 1989 United Kingdom? London, Unwin Hyman

Giddens, A. 2001. 4th ed. Sociology. Cambridge, Polity Press

Goldberg, D.T. 1993 Racist Culture. Oxford, Blackwell.

Hall,S. Critcher, C. Jefferson,T. Clarke, J. and Roberts, B. 1979 Policing the Crisis. Mugging, the State and Law and Order. London, Macmillan.

Harris,C.1988. “Images of Blacks in Britain1930-1960” in Allen, S. and Macy, M. eds. Race and Social Policy. London, Economic and Social Research Council..

Iganski, P. and Payne, G. 1999 “Socio-economic restructuring and employment: the case of minority ethnic groups” British Journal of Sociology 50

Modood, T. 1991 “The Indian Economic Success” Policy and Politics 19

Modood, T. et al, 1997. Ethnic Minorities in Britain: Diversity and Disadvantage London, Policy Studies Institute.

Owen, D. 1992. Ethnic Minorities in Britain: Settlement Patterns 1991 Census Statistical Paper No. 1, National Ethnic Minority Data Archive.

Rex, J and Tomlinson, S. 1979. Colonial Immigrants in a British City London, Routledge Keegan and Paul.

Skellington, R. and Morris, P. 1996 2nd ed. Race in Britain Today Milton Keynes, Open University Press.

Solomos, J and Back,L.1996. Racism and Society. London, Macmillan Press.


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