Race Relations

A series of recent surveys by MORI and other agencies have thrown considerable light on the current state of race relations in Britain and the hopes and fears of the minority ethnic communities.

A series of recent surveys by MORI and other agencies have thrown considerable light on the current state of race relations in Britain and the hopes and fears of the minority ethnic communities.

The polls are timely, as the issue has been one of increasing concern to the public. In last month's MORI Political Monitor survey, with interviews on 23-28 May, race relations and immigration leapt into second place in the list of most frequently mentioned important issues facing the country. Almost two in five of the public, 39%, named it as an important issue, considerably more than had ever done so before and three times the number who named it in April.

Yet despite this apparent concern, there are signs that in general the state of race relations in Britain is a healthy one: the majority of all races are comfortable with a multi-racial and multi-cultural British society, and most whites are happy to accept non-whites as equally "British". A MORI survey for the Commission for Racial Equality in April [Race Is No Barrier To 'Being British'] found 59% of the public feel that Britain is a place that has good race relations between different types of people such as those from different ethnic minorities " and, perhaps more reassuringly still, the figure is higher among the ethnic minority respondents themselves, 67%. Three-quarters of all races, 78%, believe it is right to respect the rights of minorities, and 57% think British people should do more to learn about other cultures in this country. And integration is taking place in practice as well as in theory: an ICM poll last month for BBC News Online found that that just over half the public (53%) said their immediate circle of friends included people from a different ethnic background.

Yet there is little doubt that racism remains widespread in Britain, and although it seems to be decreasing this is happening only slowly. In the 2000 British Social Attitudes survey (conducted by NCSR), a quarter of the public said they would describe themselves as "very prejudiced against people of other races" (2%) or "a little prejudiced" (23%). While this is fewer than the 34% who said the same (5% "very", 29% "a little") in the 1985 British Social Attitudes survey, it seems slow progress - especially as some of the change surely reflects a clearer social climate of intolerance towards racism, causing increasing reluctance to admit prejudice while not necessarily diminishing the prejudice itself.

As might be expected, prejudice is more concentrated in certain groups and communities, and is perhaps suppressed or unexpressed by those whose friends and relatives would disapprove of it. While a quarter of the public admit (in the BSA survey) to being prejudiced themselves, a MORI survey for Stonewall last year [Poll Shows Prejudice Rife As Stonewall Launches New Project To Combat Discrimination] found that half the public (52%) deny even personally knowing anybody who is prejudiced against people from a different ethnic group.

Opposition to immigration and hostility to asylum seekers are both more widespread than openly admitted racial prejudice. Two-thirds of the public think that there are too many immigrants in Britain, and only a quarter of the public say - in a MORI poll published this week for Refugee Week [Attitudes towards Asylum Seekers for 'Refugee Week'] - that they would be welcoming to asylum seekers or refugees in their community, though fewer admit that they would be openly hostile. The recent government proposal to establish detention centres for asylum seekers in rural areas is not popular: MORI research for the T&G [63 per cent say asylum-seeking children should have access to local schools] found 54% of the public think housing asylum seekers in separate accommodation centres away from major centres of population will damage race relations in this country, while only 8% think it will bring about an improvement. On the other hand almost two-thirds of the public feel children seeking asylum in Britain should have the same access to schools as British children.

It is worth considering the role of the media in forming or stimulating attitudes to racial issues. The "important issues" poll is perhaps best viewed as a measure of media impact. It records unprompted answers - we don't show respondents a list of possible answers for instance - and it tends to get at top-of-the-mind issues and to be very responsive to media coverage and the news agenda. The table shows how concern about defence and foreign affairs shot up after the September 11 attacks, gradually fading as other concerns re-asserted themselves, and how the NHS has remained a constant concern of much of the public even in the face of other distractions.

Q What would you say is the most important issue facing Britain today?
Q What do you see as other important issues facing Britain today?

  Aug 2001 Sep Oct Nov Jan 2002 Feb Mar Apr May
  % % % % % % % % %
National Health Service/Hospitals 54 43 49 49 66 72 58 66 50
Race relations/immigration /immigrants 23 27 17 12 16 18 15 13 39
Crime/law & order/violence/vandalism 22 15 14 19 23 28 37 29 34
Education/schools 35 30 31 29 32 28 30 28 32
Transport/public transport 9 5 8 10 22 18 14 12 16
Common Market/EU/Europe/Single European Currency 22 9 7 19 13 13 11 10 14
Drug abuse 4 4 3 4 5 5 7 6 13
Defence/foreign affairs/international terrorism 2 60 57 40 13 11 18 19 13
Pensions/social security 8 7 7 8 6 10 10 9 9
Economy/economic situation 13 15 12 15 12 7 8 9 8
Housing 6 4 4 5 3 4 4 5 7
Unemployment/factory closure/lack of industry 13 11 12 14 9 10 8 8 6
Morality/individual behaviour 4 2 4 3 4 4 4 6 5
Poverty/inequality 5 4 5 4 6 5 7 6 4
Taxation 5 3 2 2 3 6 2 5 3

Source: MORI Political Monitor - Important Issues over the last 12 months & Long Term Trends

In recent weeks there has been considerable media coverage of controversy over asylum seekers, as well as arguments over the future of the French asylum centre at Sangatte, and electoral success for far-right political parties (not only the BNP in England but also events in France and Holland). The numbers naming race relations or immigration as an issue of concern has risen accordingly.

It is clear that attitudes to asylum seekers (as opposed to immigration) have undergone a sharp change over the last few years, and this seems to be related to a blurring of the distinction between the one and the other. Asked to give reasons why someone might leave their own country and seek asylum as a refugee elsewhere, only 11% of Britons suggested in 1997 that they might do so for economic reasons or to look for work; but this had risen to 31% in 1999 and 43% in the MORI/Refugee Week poll - as many now say that people seek asylum for economic reasons as say that they do so to escape persecution.

Of course, one event that took place in the intervening three years between these last two surveys was the 2001 general election, in the run-up to which there was much controversy about whether the Conservative Party was "playing the race card" by making a political issue of immigration. But there is other evidence that points more strongly to media coverage than to political rhetoric in causing this shift in perceptions. Another telling question in the MORI/Refugee Week survey found that 64% of the public think that "illegal immigrant" is one of three terms (from a list of 19) most used by the media to refer to asylum seekers and refugees. It is not, of course - asylum seekers and refugees are in this country legally, and the media usually manage to achieve accuracy at least in their terminology. But it might be fair to say that certain parts of the press would not object to allowing that confusion to continue, and whether the public are unaware of the distinction themselves, or simply fail to see it drawn in the media coverage, this is not a healthy sign.

There is plenty of other evidence of ignorance and misunderstanding which may fuel prejudice. For instance, the public grossly overestimates the number of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK; although this country hosts under 2% of the world's asylum seekers and refugees, the public estimates on average that Britain hosts nearly 23% of them. In the MORI/CRE survey, the average estimate for the proportion of the British population who are immigrants was 23%; the correct figure is around 4%. For that matter, few of the public have any real idea how big the ethnic minority community in Britain is: in a 2000 MORI poll for Reader's Digest [Britain Today - Are We An Intolerant Nation?] almost two in five (38%) estimated that 21% or more of the British population are non-white; the real figure is between 7% and 8%. Indeed, with 28% of the public not even attempting a guess, the average guess was that 26% of Britons are non-white; and lest that be put down to some form of racist exaggeration, the average guess of non-white respondents in the poll was 29%. Perhaps it just proves that as a nation, white and non-white, we are not very clever about percentages!

Of course, distinctions between different ethnic groups are cultural as well as racial, with hostility to Islam a significant factor. MORI's poll of British Asians for Eastern Eye last year [Eastern Eye Survey Confirms The Loyalty Of British Asians] found - as might, perhaps, be expected - sharp differences in attitudes to September 11 and the British response to it between Muslims on the one hand and Hindus and Sikhs on the other; but all agreed that race relations in Britain had deteriorated as a result, suggesting that not only Muslims were suffering as a result. In an ICM poll of British Muslims in the Guardian this week, one in three (35%) said they, or someone in their close family, had experienced some form of hostility because of their religion, while 61% believe relations between Muslims and non-Muslims have deteriorated since September 11.

There is a further complicating factor to the whole issue, however - on investigation it becomes clear that neither opposition to immigration nor demands for greater integration of the minority community into the cultural mainstream are simply a surrogate for racism. In 2000, the MORI poll for Reader's Digest included a boosted sample of ethnic-minority respondents to enable their views to be analysed separately. It found that 66% of the public agreed that "There are too many immigrants in Britain" - but so did 42% of the non-white respondents.

Similarly, in the MORI/CRE research this year ethnic minority respondents were supportive of integrationist policies, 51% agreeing that ethnic minorities need to demonstrate a real commitment before they can be considered British and 76% that "Immigrants to Britain who do not speak English should be made to learn English".

There is, it is clear, too much hostility between ethnic groups in Britain. But there is a great deal of confusion and misconception as well, and the bundling together of immigration, asylum and September 11, to say nothing of foreign issues that impact on British minorities (such as Kashmir and Palestine), is dangerous. In the MORI/Reader's Digest poll two years ago, those who thought racial prejudice in Britain would increase over the next five years outnumbered those who thought it would decrease, by 38% to 23%. So far, they may well have been right. Time for the media, and the politicians, to see if they can get some movement in the opposite direction.

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