Does the Attitude Survey Show the Real Level of Racism in the UK?

30/05/2014 12:29 BST | Updated 29/07/2014 10:59 BST

Racism blights a society and creates unfairness and injustice - it impedes some people from enjoying the advantages society has to offer and prevents them making a full contribution that would otherwise benefit us all. The degree of its effect should surely be a measure of how civilised a society is and it is perverse that all this can be caused simply by someone looking different from us.

Understandably the findings of a recent Attitude Survey - that people in the UK are reporting that they have more racist attitudes in 2013 than before - has been the subject of comment and debate. But how useful is this information?

The usual working definitions of racism seem to suggest that it is a conscious thing - that it is a process of knowingly and deliberately treating someone else less well because of their ethnicity. We wait until we hear an obviously racist statement before declaring it so. But is this overt racism the thing that does the real damage? Obviously conscious and deliberate racism does do harm but, in some ways, it is easier to address - you can do something about it because you can recognise it.

The 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey revealed that almost a third of people in Britain admitted to some level of racism. It indicates an increase from the 2001 figure of 25 percent but a decrease from a high of 36 percent of the 1980s.

There are some variations in apparent levels of racism between different areas of the Country and between different groups - those who are older and with fewer qualifications reporting higher levels.

The shadow justice minister, Sadiq Khan, said the findings should come as a wake-up call. "This is clear evidence that we cannot be complacent about racial prejudice. Where it manifests itself, it blights our society. Those in positions of authority must take their responsibilities seriously. It also falls to us to address the underlying causes."

Much has been made of this apparent increase in racism - as if it is a precise reflection of actual levels of racism - up a bit: which is bad, but not as bad as it has been.

But what is it that is being measured here - did all respondents share the same definition of racism - could it be the case that some people were simply more honest about their feelings than others? Could it be that some people would not actually recognise racist attitudes in themselves?

It is possible that at least some of these respondents would try to counter these feelings of prejudice - they are honest enough with themselves about having these feelings after all. Are they pleased or proud of these feelings or does it take the form of a guilty admission?

There is already plenty of evidence of discrimination throughout our society (and surely in all societies). There is evidence that non-white defendants are more likely to receive prison sentences when appearing in court. Ethnic minority women face discrimination when seeking employment - finding that when they changed their names to more typically white names they were more successful in getting responses to job applications. Black and other minority ethnic pupils are four times more likely to be excluded from school. It is well known that the police are far more likely to stop and search non-white people. So it appears that a lot of racism goes on - surely it is more widespread than the Attitudes Survey suggests and it may well not be recognised by those who carry it out.

There is a pattern of people from minority ethnic groups facing prejudice throughout their lives from education to employment and particularly so if they enter the criminal justice system - which may be made more likely given the barriers put up in getting an education and a job. Is all this really all coming from just a third of the population?

The model of measuring racist attitudes by relying on admissions in survey seems to be at odds with the reality of what happens in wider society. Discrimination - or racism - seems to be more fixed and constant in its more silent form.

It is entirely possible that there is an unconscious process involved - that people are not aware that they are discriminating against other people - more like 'institutional racism'. This is not meant to be an excuse for this prejudice but given its impact on the lives of so many isn't it worth debating its nature a little bit more thoroughly? If the next Attitude Survey shows a decline in racism - do we assume all is well?

Personally I think the UK is a tolerant Country when compared to many others - the openly racist groups have tended not to thrive but still social injustice goes on and groups of people are being disadvantaged for no other reason than their colour or ethnicity. Most people in this Country would agree that it is not fair.