The curious thing about progress is even as history and the march of time bring about changes, we never notice it as we remain locked in the same feuds of before. The conditions change, but the premise of the argument always remains.
This was embodied by the exchange recently on Question Time where a white man insisted that Britain was one of the least racist countries in Europe, before being shot down by two people from minority backgrounds. The argument of Britain being racism has endured for decades but what we argue on now is different. And that is because of the undeniable progress we have made, for all that this remains an issue uncomfortably grappled.
As the years have rolled on, Britain has seen increasing social advances for its ethnic minority demographics. There was a time when the far-right took to the streets like a prowling swarm always intimidating and assaulting people of colour. From Brixton to Brick Lane to Liverpool and Birmingham, this country has seen those who overtly espouse white nationalist politics firmly pushed back. For a country that glorified racism in its imperialist adventures across the world, Britain has come far. The conditions in which the early migrants toiled in largely do not exist. Racism, however much the right hate this, is politically and socially incorrect. There is a conscious effort across large parts of society to not just eradicate racism but promote diversity within workplaces. Quotas and schemes specially designed for minorities are not uncommon. This would have been unthinkable just a decade or two ago.
And the man in Question Time who said Britain was the least racist country offered a statement largely backed by evidence. Consider how Britain treats its minorities and then compare with France where under the melting pot where cultural extinguishment is essentially demanded and racism airbrushed under the guise of everyone being French. Compare with Italy, Hungary and Germany, all of whom have recently pushed stringent anti-migrant policies. Britain remains light years ahead of much of Europe. And if you go across the Atlantic to where migrant children are being locked up in cages, black people remain brutal victims of a historically racist legal system, then you can’t be too dismissive about Britain if you compare with the Americans either.
As progressives we always look to improve the worst aspects of our society but that also requires us to occasionally pause and reflect on the progress, rather than continuously dismiss it as meagre crumbs of strides. Change is only worthwhile if you savour the differences you have already made. Britain has a long way to go but it has also come a long way from where it once was, and that shouldn’t be ignored at all.
Likewise, at the same time arguing that Britain is one of the least racist countries in Europe should not act as some sort of insulation from criticism. Institutional racism exists, in workplaces and sectors, in housing and prisons, disproportionately dividing BAME people and white people often where we should be knitted together as Britons. Explaining this has often been an arduous process, not made easier by people throwing the term “white privilege” at anyone who doesn’t understand why they benefit from not being racially profiled by the police or likelier to get a job response. It underlines the need to shift from toxic identity politics and genuinely unifying intersectional liberation ideas that bring people together. But it does not mean that there is not a stark difference in how sometimes minorities are treated compared to those who are seen as native English.
Meanwhile Islamophobia has run rampant in the media ever since 9/11 with little signs of abating. An ‘Other’, that need for an enemy to whom a nation projects all its deficiencies and fears, will always exist. Brexit fractured a lot of the social fabrics and exposed the undercurrents of racism still swirling beneath the surface, bubbling violently in rising hate crime. To say Britain has come far is not to say Britain still does not have far to go. To say we are the least racist country in Europe is setting a low bar when you consider the far-right authoritarian governments currently in power.
We should be proud of our country, our home, and its defiant pushback against the far-right inspired by the bravery of ethnic minorities. But we should also be mindful of how incomplete a struggle this still remains.