Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.
What do we talk about when we talk about race? Policing and crime. Coronavirus and health. Education and Jobs. Discrimination and racism. Immigration and Integration. National identity. History – and statues.
Statues, mostly, is where the wheel of fortune has landed for now. So I fully support both Boris Johnson and David Lammy in wanting to keep Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square. The sole difficulty has been tracking down anybody to argue that against. My own anecdotal twitter experiment, canvassing non-white views specifically, got two tweets in favour of removing it among about a hundred against. As the Prime Minister said, announcing his new Commission on inequalities, it is time to move from symbols to substance.
The story of race in Britain can be very subjective. Eight million of us have different experiences of being not white in Britain. Half of us were born here, the children or now grandchildren of those who came as migrants, with markedly different experiences – by generation and gender, by geography, social class and ethnic group.
We are each shaped by our own lives. My parents came here from India and Ireland. Growing up Irish Catholic, with an Indian name, in 1980s Merseyside, I was quite likely to take some interest in history, and to follow football as well as cricket, but to be sceptical of a “community of communities” multiculturalism which hoped to slot us all into neat and tidy federated boxes.
So my lived experience is mostly of the retreat of racism and how opportunities opened up. My 14-year-old self, an Everton season ticket holder introduced to anti-racist causes by monkey chants in the stadium, would be glad to hear that racist incidents at big matches today are rare enough to merit shocked analysis on Match of the Day. When I left university, there were very few black or Asian faces in public life, outside sport and a few popular newsreaders. I cast my first vote, in 1992, for a parliament with six ethnic minority MPs out of 650 – so the shift from one in 100 non-white MPs to one in 10 seems a big deal to me.
There had never been an ethnic minority Cabinet minister in Britain before this century began. How surprising it now seems that there had not yet been a single Asian woman in the Commons, nor any Asian Cabinet minister, until 2010 now that British Asian Chancellors and Home Secretaries seem as frequent as London buses.
Yet I also experience direct racist abuse more often now – on social media – as the Internet takes the effort out of being a racist troll.
Experiences vary, however. If I felt less defined by my surname at work in this century than in the school playground in the last, British Muslim friends often felt the opposite: that 9/11 or 7/7 saw them viewed predominantly through the lens of their faith. The Black Lives Matter protests put the specific black British experience under the spotlight, reflecting distinct patterns of opportunity and disadvantage across different minority groups.
A striking generational paradox emerges in British Future’s research, talking to people about race. Young adults, aged 18-24, undoubtedly hold the strongest norms against prejudice or discrimination that this country has ever seen. Yet younger black and Asian participants, and their white peers too, were much less likely than older generations to think that any progress was being made.
That there has been progress over time, and that Britain has a comparatively good record on race, are the mainstream right’s two favourite arguments about race. Those are broadly accurate arguments. The blind spot can be in understanding when they may not seem relevant.
Britain certainly has the strongest framework on race policy in western Europe. Yet it would be hard to set a lower bar. The overwhelmingly white EU institutions seem allergic to discussing race. Britain and Ireland are unusual in western Europe in even collecting ethnicity data. Emmanuel Macron has pledged to act on racial inequality – but would need to change the law to investigate it properly. Britain’s race disparity audit would be illegal in France.
But these comparative arguments can be especially tone deaf if used to contest lived experience. If I am a young graduate in Manchester, wondering if I will get a similar number of job interviews as my classmates, despite my ethnic surname or headscarf, the hypothesis that I might face more discrimination in Marseilles or Budapest would seem especially irrelevant.
Twenty-somethings have little interest in history lessons about the “bad old days” before they were even born. Who would expect the Stormzy generation to express gratitude at being less likely to get beaten up by NF thugs? Their birthright expectation is that the equal opportunities of which every Prime Minister speaks should have become a reality by now.
Evidence should matter in policy-making – but politics is always about identity and emotions too. David Goodhart sets out how there has been significant, though incomplete, progress for a growing black middle-class. But the framing of “facts versus feelings” won’t work for the liberal right on race any better than it has for the liberal-left on immigration.
It is because race is about feelings and facts that our public conversation about race often struggles to bridge the divide between those – particularly older, white Britons – for whom the pace of rising diversity has felt pretty fast, and the young black perspective that our journey to equal opportunities remains frustratingly slow.
Even the labels we use to talk about race shift across generations too. I never called myself black. I might have done, if I had gone to university in the 1970s rather than the 1990s. Black voices of an earlier generation would sometimes still tell me that I should. “Mixed race, mixed race, what’s all this mixed race nonsense, boy? If you’re not white, you’re black”, the late Darcus Howe told me in 2012, as we prepared to talk about some race Twitterstorm on Newsnight. Had I belatedly taken his advice then, I might be asked to drop that label now.
“We assure you that all organisers of BLM UK are Black (not politically black)”, says a statement of the Black Lives Matter (UK) organisers. So the new Black movement politics also brings an era of the old black politics to a close. Yet those who have turned up to Black Lives Matter events in both the US and the UK capture that these are also distinctively more cross-racial protests.
They come from a generation impatient if the story of incremental progress does not focus mostly on what still needs to change. Rishi Sunak’s response, making the case for patient gradualism, exemplifies the challenges of navigating that.
This moment is undoubtedly a challenge to the significant racial disparities that remain in our society. It is a product, too, of ethnic minorities having more presence, more voice and potentially more power in British society than ever before. Things did change for the better on race in Britain. The next challenge is that expectations rose faster still.