Following the BLM demos and counter-protests, polling commissioned by HOPE not hate Charitable Trust reveals complex attitudes to race and protest among the British public.

Taken from issue 42 of HOPE not hate magazine

The brutal murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer sparked a global response. It galvanised long-brewing resentment and anger at deep-rooted and systemic racism, as well as 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 former slaver Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, to less reported protests in Cleethorpes, Frome and Tunbridge Wells, Black Lives Matter (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 has supported the protests. Moreover, our research suggests that the British public is ready for a more progressive debate on racism in the UK. But our polling also suggests that 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. Clearly, who controls the narrative and counter-narrative of the protests, rather than the protests themselves, will determine the impact they have.

Overall, around half of the British public (48%) support the cause of anti-racist campaigners marching in response to the death of George Floyd in the USA, with a minority in opposition (26%).

There are significant age gaps between those who support or oppose the anti-racist protests. Seventy percent (70%) of 18-24 year olds support them, but only 37% of over-65s felt the same. People still in full time education were most likely to support the protests (76%) as were graduates (59%).

While BAME respondents were more likely to support them, it is clear that BLM 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 10 (8%) opposed them.

During the protests, which were largely peaceful and socially distanced, several monuments were graffitied, including a statue of Winston Churchill (which scrawled with the words “was a racist”, while “BLM” had been written on the Cenotaph). This sparked a public response, which was quickly 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, which resulted in 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 slightly less – 34% – did not. Older people and non-graduates were more likely to voice such support, while 18-24s, students and graduates were most likely to oppose them. 

While some coverage of the protests have put them in supposed direct opposition to anti-racists, our data suggests that this is not about to spark the ‘culture war’ some claim. Our polling finds that many who supported the cause of one protest supported the cause of both. For example, 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. Rather than ideologically-driven responses, for many this reflects their position on protesting more generally.

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 pull down statues. Looking to the public’s understandings of the issues more closely offers an insight as to why, and how, it might be possible to reclaim the debate.

The public view

Public understandings of racism are complex. There are huge divides, by age, gender, ethnicity, class, and education, 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 rejects racism and very few deny its existence in the everyday lives of Black and Asian people in Britain today. Nearly two-thirds of us – 64% – believe that Black and Asian people face discrimination in their everyday lives; only a minority (14%) disagree. This is an understanding that cuts across age groups, social grades, and education levels, so that 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. About half – 49% – of 18-24s and 58% of students agree, while 32% of over-65s and 30% of secondary school leavers think the same. Sixty-one percent (61%) of BAME respondents agree, compared to 32% of non-BAME respondents.

It may well be that the majority of the public does not fully understand the concept of institutional racism.

In Focus groups, we asked participants to explain where they thought the boundaries of racism lay, with most saying that it was the moment racist language was used, or when people made racial stereotypes. People rarely, if ever, spoke about systemic racism or discrimination in social and political institutions.

Public understandings of racism continue to centre on a racism of 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

For people who understand racism as something that only occurs when there is direct intent, 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 two-thirds (67%) agreed that attacks on statues and war memorials was 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.

A majority (65%) agreed that the debate around tearing down historical monuments – because the figures depicted were 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 supposedly 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.

Nonetheless, the British public are ready for a more progressive debate on racism in the UK. 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. Meanwhile, 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 protection of statues and monuments, not only is the debate watered down, but also sidetracks momentum for change. 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, find it even easier to tune out from the debate.

Focaldata interviewed 2,104 people between 17-18 June. The fieldwork was conducted online and is weighted to be nationally representative.

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