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May 28, 2014|
Racists are not, after all, a dying breed. After years of decline, the number prepared to describe themselves as racially prejudiced has risen since 2002.
This is not a crisis. But it is an early warning, and it should be treated seriously. If nearly a third of Britons – and this is not just white people talking about their attitudes to black people – are prepared to acknowledge a degree of prejudice, and if that proportion is growing, then the image of the UK as a tolerant and happily diverse society is not the whole story. Social cohesion remains a work in progress.
Measuring what we think is as much art as science. Explaining why we think it is even harder. But there is a clear correlation between political messages and rising concern among voters. Margaret Thatcher once talked of people's fear of being "swamped"; in 1987, when she was in No 10, researchers at the National Centre for Social Research found a peak of 38% describing themselves as prejudiced to some degree.
By the time of the prosperous, confident new Britain of the early Blair years, the share had fallen to 25%. But after 9/11 the emphasis on a link between religion, race and terror – a link made by terrorists themselves as well as by those responding to terror – was accompanied by a sharp reverse in the trend.
By 2011 – after three years that also saw the deepest recession in memory – the number of people prepared to describe themselves as racially prejudiced was back to 38%. Although lower-income and older people are still most likely to express prejudice, some academics suggest the biggest increase has been among middle-aged, professional men.
There are two possible explanations, and the truth may include some of each. First, frightened and angry people tend to pick on "others" to blame. Second, politicians trying to address those fears may legitimize and even encourage prejudices. It may be less that racism is on the increase than that it has become more acceptable to express it.
It works the other way too: after the Olympics and the triumph of non-white Britons like Mo Farah there was an 11-point drop in the numbers describing themselves as racially prejudiced.
The problem should not be overstated. When the former England football captain John Terry can be formally challenged over allegations of racist abuse, and politicians accused of racism feel obliged to take out advertising to deny it, there is no imminent catastrophe.
But nor should the research be dismissed or pushed to the margins. The findings show that public discourse really matters. It shapes opinion. And, whether it affects job chances or people's reaction to migration, educational ambition, housing prospects, or simply the risk of being a victim of stop and search, racism is still ruining lives.