British Racism: why can’t we shift Structural & Institutional Racism?


A mistrust of something you do not understand, fear of the unknown, feeling threatened by something different to your idea of normality or fear for your security or lifestyle. That’s all racism is, right? Why then in a world where so much information is available at our fingertips, where people can travel more easily than at any point in history, and connecting with others is at the touch of a button thanks to the advances in technology, do things seem to have gotten worse in Britain in terms of tolerance and hate crimes towards others of different races and religions, and where does it all stem from?

Prejudice is, of course, a universal trait. We are all prone to prejudge others, it is human nature: it likely evolved from our survival instinct, as early humans needed to make instant decisions when assessing the threats they faced.

An Neo-Nazi EDL (English Defence League) march

Modern Britain had, until recently perhaps, been viewed as a relatively open-minded, multicultural, inclusive and tolerant country. Whereas American racism is very brash and blatant, British racism tends to be more subtle – the “I’m not racist, but…” approach. We think subtle racism is acceptable, we are reluctant to make sweeping statements in public or carry out hate crimes, so it mostly goes undetected.

But that view seems to have changed, particularly in the wake of Brexit and the increased threat from religious extremism, as a more outward and nasty form of racism seems to have reared its ugly head. So where did that racism come from, and why has it seemed to emerge so quickly in such an unashamed fashion?

The historical origins of racism

First of all, it is important to consider where racism originated. Throughout history, there has always been human tendency to identify an “us” and a broader “them”. Antipathy toward members of other groups gains much of its traction through fear – according to the “Male Warrior Hypothesis”, men have evolved stronger tendencies to form coalitions and attack other groups and to defend their own groups. So an innate mistrust and fear of people unlike us and ways unbeknown to us is part of nature, survival of the fittest. But this is primitive and is not enough to explain how racism came about, and how it continues to be so prevalent in modern society.

Prior to the advent of capitalism, racism as a systematic form of oppression did not exist. Ancient Greek and Roman societies were built on the back of slaves, but there was no concept of racial oppression. Slaves were inferior, no matter what their skin tone – warriors from captured African territories become soldiers in the legions.

At the dawn of capitalism, the elite realised they could use this idea of “us” and “them” to maintain power and control and prevent rebellion, divide and rule emerged. The concept refers to a strategy that breaks up existing power structures and especially prevents smaller power groups from linking up, causing rivalries and fomenting discord among the people, meaning that imperial powers could establish and maintain rule in their newly conquered lands and wealthy businessmen could stop workers rising up against them.

Racism, as we know it, began with the modern colonial slave trade. In the early years of colonial America, slavery was not racially based, plantation owners and the likes had attempted to use white slaves. Put bluntly, it became more profitable to use black slaves. The diaspora effect, dispersion of people from their homeland, meant African slaves were easier to control. Africans, whose children could also be enslaved, were more easily segregated and oppressed than Americans forced or sold into slavery.

Slave Market, Atlanta, Georgia, 1864, Photo by George N. Barnard

The capitalist class’ greatest fear was that slaves and servants/white workers would unite against them, and this fear was legitimate. Over time, the institution of racism became firmly established – both as a means of legitimizing slavery, but also as a means of dividing poor people against one another. The white workers who had lost their jobs to slaves were encouraged to hate the slaves, rather than those exploiting the slaves against their will – this stopped the whites and slaves merging forces and rising up against the capitalist class. Divide and rule.

Racism was in the interest of the slaveholding class, and hence became institutionalised. The seed and idea that black people were inferior had been well and truly planted.

Britain’s Age of Empire

Britain has a slightly different history with racism, though bearing the same origins, as they claimed lands throughout the world to be theirs in the name of empire. The British people were bombarded with the idea that their empire and country was mighty and vastly superior – a hangover that still remains to date.

Indian rebels tied to the front of British Empire cannons.

The British empire claimed lands which were not theirs for the taking, committing atrocious acts in the process. The empire justified this with the idea ‘that the British were the best race to rule the world’, a view expressed by Cecil Rhodes, the colonial administrator who founded the British colony of Rhodesia, in Central Africa (now Zimbabwe). They implemented divide and rule tactics, and even introduced homophobia to Indian culture, where it had previously not existed.

They used ‘false’ science to attempt to justify institutionalised racism: the study of teleology looked at design in nature. This allowed the ruling class to argue that Africans were, by nature, suited to hard work but not to thinking. They were, therefore, obviously made to serve white people. “The Negro, in general, is a born slave” wrote Sir Harry Johnston, a British colonial administrator in Africa in the 1890s.

The last of the African colonies were granted freedom from British rule as late as the 1960s. Britain only formally handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997. The idea, or perhaps realisation, that Britain was not a superior race and leader in the world took a long time to accept, and still remains in the subconscious fabric of society. Some in society still overvalue our place and importance in the world.

Slavery, apartheid and colonialism have all been consigned to the past, so why does racial discrimination and hatred still exist in society? And why does there seem to have been a sudden spike in the severity of racism in this country?

The vested interest of the media and ruling class

Tabloid vitriol aimed at cementing racism in the public subconscious

When we feel angry or frustrated, we naturally look for someone else to blame for our problems – deflecting the blame from ourselves sometimes. As a community, we can do the same thing. People who look or talk differently to us are an easy target. Comments like “those people take our jobs” or “they only come here for the handouts” can be heard echoed around the nation. Nearly all the time, these statements are wrong, but they are reinforced by the media with articles and headlines such as the ones to the left.

The illusory truth effect, the practice of repeating something over and over until people believe it to be true has been used in full force by the likes of The Daily Mail, The Sun, and The Daily Express, among others. They willfully deceive and lie to their readers. Anti-immigration talk is rhetorical, to serve political agendas – it benefits the super wealthy owners of newspapers and media outlets to keep those in power who will give them tax breaks etc – keeping the country divided, and looking for someone else to blame rather than the greed of a capitalist class which have been the reason for the decline in living standards in the UK over the last 10 or more years. Immigrants, or people of a different race or religion, wrongly get the blame as they are often the easiest to scapegoat.

This decade’s target of choice is Muslims. The right-wing press pretends it doesn’t know what it’s doing. But the media stoke up racism on purpose – we must begin to reject their vitriol, or continue to face the consequences.

And it’s not just the ill-educated and working class that are susceptible as some might think, a large section of the middle class feel, if subconsciously rather than conciously, that they are losing their place in society as they face declining living standards and are faced with the reality that their children will likely be worse off than they were, and are vulnerable to play the blame game.

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. – Joseph Goebbels

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) took aim at some British media outlets, particularly tabloid newspapers, for “offensive, discriminatory and provocative terminology”. The Sun was ordered to admit a controversial story published last year that said one in five British Muslims had sympathy for Isis was “significantly misleading” by the press watchdog the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso).

Individual pieces can be exposed as lies, but fact-checking is already too late. The accumulation of headlines, day in and day out seeps into the public consciousness – the propaganda is wide reaching and difficult to shift.

If you have all that venom injected into the national bloodstream, there will be consequences. Over time, the drip-drip-drip of propaganda solidifies the message into simply “what everybody knows”, especially in the absence of a countervailing narrative. Which leads us on to the major political event that seemed to bring to the surface racist feelings and viewpoints – Brexit.

Which leads us on to the major political event that seemed to bring to the surface racist feelings and viewpoints – Brexit.

The Brexit effect

It could be argued that racism had been on the wane in the last 30-40 years, at least upon the surface of society as it gradually became less socially acceptable, but it seems that the EU referendum unleashed the xenophobic views that had previously been bubbling away under the surface – those that people felt they could not air in public, until Brexit changed that.

Nigel Farage in front of a Vote Leave poster featuring fleeing refugees.

The backers of leaving the European Union ran a very nationalist campaign, with slogans such as “taking back control” and using images of refugees fleeing from war zones with the words “breaking point” in large font (as seen right). They were totally unapologetic about the tribalism and hatred they stood for. The campaign focused on the idea that immigrants were to blame for all the countries woes. The language used to describe them was dehumanising and vile. They were swarms who overwhelm us, burdens and takers. We needed to take back control – with the anger and exasperation of the political system, the facade worked.

More than 13,000 racist or xenophobic tweets were sent in the week following the referendum. Hate crime rose sharply after the EU referendum, according to police figures.

While figures who used immigration as the main issue of the referendum campaign wouldn’t condone actual acts of racism, their words have vocalised, legitimised, and even normalised anti-immigration sentiment. The closet racist, who wouldn’t have previously felt able to spout their abhorrent racist views in public, now has been given the confidence to do so.

It is also worth considering that the conditions that lead to the backlash of the EU referendum were created by those who turned a blind eye to people’s concerns, whether valid or not. Those who simply labelled those with such racially based concerns as bigoted rather than engaging in debate and trying to change people’s persuasions and help them see through the media rhetoric also share some of the blame. Those feelings were kept to themselves and often bubbled under the surface – Brexit gave air time to such arguments as to make them seem valid and acceptable.

The imperial hangover, and the delusional belief that Britain is still the world’s leading power and could demand a “cake and eat it” deal from the remaining European member states is still something that baffles – typical of the attitude of someone mired in a sense of identity forged in the imperial period. An Englishness that believes itself to be superior and able to demand anything it wants. Other nations have a more critical view about our age of empire as opposed to our unapologetically positive view of our past.

Brexit has exposed Britain’s grotesque underbelly of intolerance, ignorance and hatred, and because of Britain’s negotiating stance, bravado and bluster over substance and reason, inequality will continue to rise – and likely racism with it.

The effect of Middle East turbulence and International Terrorism

Blaming Brexit exclusively for the rise in hate crimes and racist outbursts would be simplistic and short-sighted however. Terror attacks took place in Nice and Munich around the same period and the Orlando shootings happened just before the EU referendum.

A man carries his dead child after a coalition strike in Iraq

Western military presence in Islamic countries in the Middle East, meant to fight terrorism, has instead incited increasingly widespread and vicious international terrorism – leading to an increase in distrust and profound hatred towards all Muslims.

The resulting destabilization of the entire region and its descent into chaos and bloodshed has produced the biggest mass population displacement, including into Western countries in Europe and afar. Giving more fuel to the anti-immigration debate among nationalists.

Is there any country that has been a greater advocate of Islamic fundamentalism than Saudi Arabia? – whom Theresa May and the British government believe are allies and provide with arms. Meanwhile, those who raise uncomfortable questions about how our actions affect radicalisation are labelled as “terrorist sympathisers”. So we must not be so quick to lay all the blame abroad, and close our eyes to involvement closer to home.

People who emigrated from the old Middle East colonies of India and Pakistan have always suffered from racial abuse. But people have moved away from using terms such as ‘Paki’, ‘curry muncher’ etc. The attacks are now more targeted, using very focused language – words such as ‘terrorist’, and ‘rapist’ – this, surprisingly, echoes the attack lines spouted by the tabloid media.

An Islamophobe airs her views in public

Counter-terrorism measures are fuelling racism, a UN rights expert warns. And of course, measures to keep the public safe have to be in place, but terrorism, as specifically so called “radical Islam” seems to attract disproportionate public attention (surprisingly again, from the media and especially the tabloids). Terrorist attacks in major Western cities bring saturation media coverage, vigils and shows of solidarity on social media – attacks in cities like Baghdad do not. Lone Muslim attackers are labelled as terrorists, whereas lone white attackers are labelled as “loners” or “mentally ill”.

Not all Muslims are terrorists. The overwhelming majority are law-abiding peaceful citizens. Did we blame all Christians for Anders Breivik’s massacre of 85 Norwegian teenagers back in 2010? Yes, sometimes people with brown skins do bad things: but so do people from every other race. We must be careful not to condemn everyone from a certain background because of the actions of the tiny minority who commit terror atrocities – however, a deal of the public seems to have fallen into this trap and narrative.

Sub-conscious & Institutional Racism

The covert nature of structural racism is difficult to hold to account. You can’t spot it like you can a St George’s flag and Neo-Nazi slogans at an English Defence League march. It lives under the surface, it operates beneath our conscious awareness.

“You can’t have capitalism without racism” – Malcolm X

Again, human psychology creates the conditions for this kind of discrimination to exist. Either by individuals who have subconscious prejudices in positions of power, or those that are more likely to say hire an employee that they see more of themselves in – willfully or not, there’s a strong pull to recruit “people like us”, who “fit in”. It manifests itself in a CV tossed in the bin because the applicant has a foreign-sounding name. Racism is woven into the fabric of our world.

It is not just about personal prejudice, but the collective effects of bias. It is the kind of racism that has the power to drastically affect people’s life chances. Highly educated, high-earning white men are very likely to be in positions that influence others’ lives – teaching, prosecuting, examining college applicants and hiring staff. They are almost certainly the kind of people who set workplace cultures.

The notion of “unwitting”, unconscious behaviour, is used by some to almost excuse discrimination – because it remains to the benefit of those at the top of the socio-economic system that we inhabit. It must be actively challenged.

So what next?

I repeat the question again. Slavery, apartheid and colonialism have all been consigned to the past, so why does racial discrimination and hatred still exist in society?

A lot of our attitudes are shaped when we’re young. If our family members or friends express racist opinions, it’s common that we will adopt the same views. The problem is that, unless we do something about it, they can stay with us for a lifetime. We often put labels on people without even trying to get to know or understand a person and their individual circumstances.

“If we do not speak up now against the filthy and obscene racialist propaganda … the forces of hatred will mark up their first success and mobilise their first offensive.” – Tony Benn

Mainstream sources — schools, textbooks, media — don’t provide us with the multiple perspectives we need. And institutional racism has become so embedded within the capitalist system that it mostly goes unchallenged. Racism began with capitalism, and likely won’t disappear completely until capitalism collapses.

Racial conditioning also plays its part, as it was designed to do. Whites are taught to see themselves as individuals, rather than as part of a racial group. Individualism enables us to deny that racism is embedded into the fabric of our society. It allows us to distance ourselves from history and hides the way in which wealth has accumulated over generations to the benefit of one race and at the expense of others.

The concept of racism continues to re-invent itself, as it serves the ruling elite. Racism acts as a breeding ground for social and economic inequalities which are designed to pit groups of people against each other, allowing our rulers to remain parasitic on our labour and suffering without revolt. As inequality grows, the need for more aggressive racism to be pumped into society increases to hide the real cause of increased poverty and declining living standards.

One thing is for certain, remaining silent will give xenophobes an implicit mandate to continue with abuse. The roots of racism run deep. We must unite and put an end to hate and intolerance.


  1. It is not a racial thing, but disabled people in this country are being attacked as well. This is due to government propoganda and the media. How many times have the daily fail and other papers run stories saying a proportion of people on disability benefits are taking it.

    Disability hate crime rose 40% in just one year (2015-16). I know from other disabled people on social media that they have been shouted at, spat at and even pushed by people they have never met before. And this was going on even before brexit!

    There have been surveys which show people think disability benefit fraud is around 25%. The actual figure is 0.7%!

    • This is true, divide and rule tactics don’t apply just to race – they target the most vulnerable.

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