Is Britain Becoming More Racist?
Stormzy has caused a storm in a recent interview where when asked if Britian was becoming more racist he replied “definitely 100%”. A lot of people on social media reacted to this by claiming that Stormzy was claiming that Britain was 100% racist, partially because some media outlets like ITV News misreported Stromzy’s comments in this way. If one actually reads the transcript of Stormzy’s interview with Italian journalist Antonello Guerra then you will quickly realise that this was not what he said. All he actually said was that it was definitely the case that racism exists in Britain and is on the rise (though one can of course debate to what extent this is the case):
Antonello Guerra: So you think Britain is still racist?
Stormzy: Definetly 100%
Antonello Guerra: On which aspects?
Stormzy: The funny thing in Britain is that racism in Britain…people are really unaware of it,…like being called racists. It is like “Wow, I’m not racist!”. But its like people are more scared of being branded a racist than actually tackle whatever racism they do. […] The difficult thing with the UK is for example, as you said, in Italy it’s a clear problem, whereas with Britain trying to explain that to that kind of normal Brit, that Britain is a racist country, is the most difficult thing ever. Because they think “No it’s not. Stormzy you’re successful. Look at London, there’s loads of black people…” It’s a more difficult case to fight. We gotta explain “this is racist, that is racist, the way this is set up is racist” because people just pay a blind eye: “Naah, naah, It’s not, everything’s so good, London’s so good, we let you lads come over.”
These are in my mind rather uncontroversial comments. One can of course disagree and dispute his claims, but this is very different to how certain media outlets like ITV have misreported his comments in the headlines, implying that Stormzy said ‘Britain is 100% racist’ or ‘100% of Britain is racist’, all for the purpose of sensationalism, generating controversy and inciting fury. Because a good culture war controversy, particularly surrounding race, generates more clicks, views, hashtags, retweets and so on.
Some of the criticism Stormzy has recieved has been of the standard ‘be grateful boy!” variety that second and third generation immigrants receive if they give any critique of racism in Britain. As if their Britishness is so second rate that they can’t give an honest comment on the state of their own country without a good session of boot licking first. Other have called him a hypocrite because of his support for Jeremy Corbyn in the general election who has been marred in various scandals surrounding anti-Semitism ever since he became Labour party leader.
It’s ironic that right wingers whose reputation rests on mocking ‘snowflakes’ and wokeness and say we don’t have a right not to be offended and so one get triggered by Stormzy’s misreported comments on racism. What was also ironic was that the night after Stormzy made his comments and the ensuing backlash, Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger experienced monkey chants against him from Tottenham fans in the Tottenham vs Chelsea game, which seemingly vindicated Stormzy’s point about how “unaware” people are about racism in Britain.
Ever since the Brexit referendum of 2016, there has been a lot of debate in the media and among the commeteriat as to whether racism in Britain is on the rise and is becoming more acceptable. Some will point to statistics that show a rise in hate crimes and other forms of racial abuse in the aftermath of the Brexit result, certain statements made by politicians, the soap opera surrounding Meghan Markle ever since she married into the royal family and the recent instances of footballers being on the end of racial abuse whether from the terraces or from online trolls as endemic of the increasing outward acceptability of racism in Britain.
Others would reject this characterisation and view it as an act of “defamation against the British people” as Douglas Murray has put it, and as a way for metropolitan liberals to virtue signal their moral superiority against the working class who they see as backward, reactionary, culturally insular pie and gravy nationalists who haven’t fallen in line with the multicultural consensus. Brendan O’Neill said that Stormzy’s comments prove that he is a paid up member of the “cultural elite” who holds “snobby” beliefs about “the rest of us.” They’ll often point to surveys that suggest that Britain is the least racist society in Europe or how the British Parliament is the most diverse it has been in its history.
One thing is certain, the perception that Britain has become more racist is certainly on the rise and is held by a significant portion of ethnic minorities (or ‘people of colour’ if you prefer). I know people personally who think that and feel that the Brexit moment is in danger of reversing what progress has been made in modern muliticultural Britain or its simply removed the superficial gloss that made racism in Britain more subtle, not any less pervasive. This perception can’t be dismissed or mocked, it’s very real to many to the point that it feels almost visceral. It has to be engaged with seriously.
It is certainly true, for example, that some of the commentary surrounding Meghan Markle is racially suggestive to put it lightly, such as the the run of the mill social media trolls to the Daily Mail’s ‘Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton‘ story to Rachel Johnson’s description of the duchess’s ‘exotic DNA’. However, while some of the scrutiny has been racist, it would be easy to overstate the extent of it and its broader meaning. According to one study, most of the abuse on Twitter has been driven by just 20 accounts. The question is is this taking place against a background of a Britain that is becoming more racist?
British society has changed in many ways in regards to race. The colour bars have been abolished, the aggressive in your face ‘paki bashing’ and ‘there ain’t no black in the union jack’ racism that characterised the 70s and 80s is thankfully very rare. The far right is not as powerful as it once was, despite the rabble rousing of certain figures like Tommy Robinson. Ethnic minorities are far more integrated into British sports, politics, media and popular culture than ever before.
The broad liberalisation of British society has also meant that interracial relationships are far more accepted than they were in the past. According to the 2011 census, 2.3 million Britons, including a million white people, are either married to, or living with, someone of a different ethnicity. Which certainly puts a dent in the claim that ‘England hates Prince Harry for marrying a black woman’. Another study published by British Future claims that just over 10% of people believe that ethnicity is an important determining factor in being English, compared to 20% from 2012. Meaning that around 90% of English people believe that being ‘English’ is not about colour. On the level of attitudes progress has certainly been made.
However, despite this progress, it obviously doesn’t mean there isn’t any racism in Britain. The Windrush scandal demonstrates aptly just how institutionally racist the British immigration system still is. Discrimination, abuse and hate crime still occur. There is still too much idealisation of the British empire. Some of the rhetoric from right wing of Brexit certainly has a nationalist flavour to it and who would want to erect ‘fortress Britain’ which most certainly mean more repression against migrants. Moreover, the main objects of racism have changed and is no longer exclusively focused on skin colour but on culture and religion, or what A.Sivanandan called “Xeno-racism”, as the bigotry faced by Muslims, Gypsies and migrants demonstrates. So yes, in a narrow sense, Stormzy is right, or at least not wrong.
The problem with the ‘racism debate’ in Britain is that it is confused and utterly superficial. For the most part, racism is not seen as a socio-political question. In fact, racism has been been evacuated of its political content. It has now increasingly come to be seen as a character trait, of good and evil, divorced from political and social institutions. So racism gets turned into an omnipresent state of being that continuously traumatises people of colour, who are presented as vulnerable victims, and thus can’t be located and rooted out because it it both everywhere and nowhere.
So a lot of energy is dedicated to trying to ‘cancel’ Camilla Cabello because she used the word ‘nigger’ on tumblr post over 7 years ago when she was 15 years old, yet the daily detention, abuse and deportation of migrants by the British state gets simply ignored.
However, this debate has also revealed much about the state of anti-racism. On this, the circus around the Duchess of Sussex is instructive. Its funny how the liberal defenders of Meghan Markle see themselves as ‘woke’ to white privilege, yet are very asleep to the relic of feudalism that is monarchical privilege. Ever since Harry and Meghan married, there has been a stream of claims that a black royal will transform race relations in Britain and that the couple’s paternalistic social liberalism will turn the royals into ‘potential allies’ in progressive struggles against racism. This also demonstrates how anti-racism has been evacuated of its political meaning, captured by officialdom and liberal manegerialism, divorced from the emancipatory radicalism and the ideal of social transformation that gave it meaning in the 70s and 80s. So long as this is the case we won’t be able to locate the concrete institutional racism that can be challenged and create a vision of a more freer, humanist society than the one we already have.
So is Britain becoming more racist? The answer is in many ways its gotten better, in some ways its stayed the same and in some ways its gotten worse. However, what we must do is to reinvigorate out understanding of racism as something that we can locate, understand and eventually be able to root out. We must understand racism as a socio-political question related to social, political and economic structures, not as an eternal state of being. And we must rediscover anti-racism’s political content and vision that to truly root out racism means a project of social transformation. Otherwise, we are in danger of naturalising race, understanding it as an ahistorical quasi Darwinian ‘biological fact’ that at best we can only control and tame, but something we can never overcome.