To better understand the public response to recent BLM protests in response to the murder of George Floyd in the U.S. and to the violent protests by football hooligans in “defence” of statues and monuments, the HOPE not hate Charitable Trust commissioned a nationally representative poll of 2,104 people by Panel Base between June 17th to 18th. The fieldwork was conducted online and is weighted to be nationally representative.
The British public are ready for a more progressive debate on racism in the UK, but the ability to make lasting change across society will depend on who controls the narrative, and the counter-narrative.
While younger generations have a more in-depth understanding of how historical racism bears on systemic discrimination today, older people are more likely to focus in on debates around statues as ‘political correctness gone mad’.
That does not mean, however, that people deny there is a problem with racism in the UK, and most people are concerned about discrimination faced by Black and Asian people in their everyday lives. It is more indicative of weak public understandings around institutional racism.
Public views on the recent protests show that this is unlikely to be a ‘culture war’ moment. People’s understandings of the protests, and the state of racism in the UK overall, are more nuanced than seeing the statue defenders and BLM in opposition.
Many who voice concern about racism don’t see their views align with those of protesters, but they are also open to rethinking the debate on racism in the UK. A majority, including 39% of those who supported the protection of monuments of historic figures against anti-racist campaigners, agree that statues of slave traders should be removed from public squares and put in museums.
Moreover, there is no consensus among those who experience racism; 68% of BAME respondents supported the BLM protests, but around a quarter did not oppose or support them, while almost one in ten (8%) opposed them.
The BLM movement has had a significant impact in finally bringing these conversations to the forefront of public consciousness. But maintaining the momentum for change that reaches across large sections of the British public will require careful framing.
Public understandings of racism continue to centre on racism in intent, a binary of ‘racist’ and ‘not racist’. There is a gap in understanding where people are confronted with racism but don’t see intent, which can trigger defensive instincts and a simplification of the debate, derailed into one about the presence of statues or the way in which protests are carried out.
Black Lives Matter: How the British public has reacted
The brutal murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer sparked a global response, one that galvanised long-brewing resentment and anger at deep-rooted and systemic racism, anti-Blackness and white supremacy. In the UK, thousands joined protests, not just in London and the major cities, but in smaller cities, towns and even villages. From huge gatherings in London and the toppling of the Colston statue in Bristol to less reported protests in Cleethorpes, Frome and Tunbridge Wells, BLM has opened up critical, and for some uncomfortable, conversations on racism in Britain today.
Our polling finds that for the most part, the British public have supported the protests. But also show how the movement could be limited by a framing of the discussion around the act of the protests themselves, centred on the removal of memorials and statues depicting racist historical figures. Who controls the narrative and the counter-narrative of the protests, rather than the protests themselves, will determine the impact they have.
Overall, 48% of people say that they support the cause of anti-racist campaigners marching in response to the death of George Floyd in the US, 26% oppose them, while a quarter (25%) don’t feel strongly either way.
There are significant age gaps between those who support or opposed the anti-racist protests. 70% of 18-24 year olds supported them, but only 37% of those over 65 felt the same. People still in full-time education were most likely to support the protests (76%) as were graduates (59%). And while BAME respondents were more likely to support them, it is clear that the Black Lives Movement does not present a singular voice for people who have experienced racism; 68% of BAME respondents supported the BLM protests, but around a quarter did not oppose or support them, while almost one in ten (8%) opposed them.
During the protests, which were largely peaceful and socially distanced, several monuments were graffitied, including a statue of Winston Churchill, under which ‘was a racist’ was scrawled and ‘BLM’ had been written on the Cenotaph memorial. This sparked a public response, which was exploited by the far right. The Democratic Football Lads Alliance (a collection of football hooligans) called a protest, ostensibly in defence of the monuments in London, resulting in the violent clashes with police seen in widely circulated videos.
When asked about these protests, 37% of people said they supported the cause behind Football fans protecting monuments of historic figures against anti-racist campaigners, while 34% opposed them. Due to polling regulations to avoid bias, these are referred to as ‘football fans’ rather than ‘football hooligans’ in our question. Older people and non graduates were more likely to voice support, while 18-24s, students and graduates were most likely to oppose this.
But while some coverage of the protest have put these in direct opposition, our data suggests that this is not about to spark the ‘culture war’ some have anticipated. Our polling finds that, in fact many who supported the cause of one protest supported the cause of both. 39% of those who supported the “statue defenders” also supported the anti-racist protestors, while 30% of those who supported the anti-racist protestors also supported the “statue defenders”.
Likewise, of the 26% who opposed the anti-racist protests, 22% also opposed the ‘statue defenders’, and of the 34% who opposed the ‘statue defenders’, 29% also opposed the anti-racist protestors. It would seem that rather than ideologically driven responses, public support for the protests mostly reflects their views on protesting more generally. It suggests people’s position on free speech, rather than the issues being discussed.
This also highlights the importance of how the debate around BLM is framed. At present, coverage of the protests has shrunk the debate away from questions of racial justice, to whether it is right to graffiti national monuments or to smash up statues. Looking to the public’s understandings of the issues at hand more closely offers an insight as to why, and how it might be possible to reclaim the debate.
How the public see the issues at hand
Public understandings of racism are complex. In many ways, they have more nuance than one might expect, but in the next breath can appear simplistic. There are huge divides, by age, gender, ethnicity, class, educational attainment, and are ultimately built on people’s own individual experiences that shape the information they consume and their interpretation of the world.
The vast majority of the British public reject racism and very few deny its existence in the everyday lives of Black and Asian people in Britain today. 64% of people believe that Black and Asian people face discrimination in their everyday lives, while a minority (14%) disagree with this. This is an understanding that cuts across age groups, social grades, and education levels. 88% of people who supported the BLM protests agreed, as did more than half (52%) of those who supported the ‘statue defenders’.
But when asked if they think Britain is institutionally racist, just 39% of people agree, with huge divides between socioeconomic and demographic groups. 49% of 18-24s and 58% of students agree, while 32% of over 65s and 30% of secondary school leavers think the same. 61% of BAME respondents agree compared to 32% of non-BAME respondents.
While some dismiss that Britain is institutionally racist, the gap between seeing racism as an everyday issue for Black and Asian people in Britain suggests that much of the public do not fully understand the concept of institutional racism. In Focus groups conducted by HOPE not hate, we ask participants to explain where they think the boundaries of racism lie, with most saying that it is the moment racist language is used, or people make crude stereotypes that attribute certain negative behaviours to ethnic groups. People rarely, if ever, speak about systemic racism or discrimination in social and political institutions.
Public understandings of racism continue to centre on racism in intent, a binary of ‘racist’ or ‘not racist’. There is a gap in understanding where people are confronted with racism but don’t see intent.
White defensiveness and a distillation of the debate
Where people fail to understand racisms pervasiveness into every aspect of life, they are more likely to reject deeper discussion about these issues. Our poll finds that 60% of people agree that white people are unfairly made to feel guilty over historical racism. Just 20% disagree with this. Older people (73% of over 65s), those with no formal education (76%) and white people (63%) are far more likely to agree with this.
For people who understand racism as something that only occurs when there is direct intent means that they are more likely to personalise the issue and get defensive. Where there is cognitive dissonance on people’s understanding of historical racism’s bearing on systemic discrimination today, it is also easier for people to distance themselves from the problems at hand.
This process means that public debate loses sight of the bigger issues, and for many, becomes side-tracked. Our poll found that 67% of people agreed that attacks on statues and war memorials is ‘political correctness gone mad’, including more than half (51%) of those who supported the causes of the BLM protests. Older people, non-graduates and white people were more likely to agree.
Our polling found that the majority (65%) agreed that the debate around tearing down historical monuments because the figures depicted are seen as racist has distracted from important discussions on racism in Britain. Just 12% disagreed. Moreover, this included 74% of those who supported the causes of football fans protecting monuments of historic figures against anti-racist campaigners and 66% of those who opposed them. It also contained equal proportions of people who supported and opposed anti-racist protests.
Yet a view that this debate distracts from important discussions on racism also indicates a reactionary sentiment. For some, an argument about side-tracking of the debate is an entirely conscious attempt to delegitimise the movement. Those who have never experienced racism should not be given the space to dictate how the debate takes place. The Government’s response to the BLM protests, with Boris Johnson claiming that the protests were ‘hijacked by extremists intent on violence’ and focusing in on the removal of statues, emboldens those who hold this view.
What a debate that centres itself on statues, memorials and graffiti fails to capture is that a large share of the British public are ready for a more progressive debate on racism in the UK, despite evidence that many are not willing or able to engage with existing platforms for this discussion. More than half of the British public agree that statues of slave traders should be removed from public squares and put in museums, with around a quarter (23%) undecided and a minority (26%) opposed to this. 39% of those who said they supported the causes behind the ‘statue defenders’.
While discussions around BLM continue to place radical action on racist justice in direct opposition to the presence of Winston Churchill’s statue, those who generally agree with the aims of BLM but have limited understandings of structural racism or disagree with the way in which protests are carried out, tune out from the debate.
That is not to say that radical action for racial justice does not have impact, or that those seeking racial justice should pander to public misconceptions and misunderstandings. This work has a high emotional toll for those who experience racism. But there is still work to be done, especially for white allies, in reframing the debate away from statues and towards bridging the gap in understanding from direct to structural racism, to bring in those on the edge into the discussion and push the debate forward.
 The use of BAME is clearly contentious, but remains industry-standard in polling to group together people of all Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.