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HOW BLM CHANGED CONVERSATIONS ON RACE

The BLM movement brought longstanding questions of race relations and racism in British society to the fore.

Last summer, in the midst of a pandemic that was disproportionately impacting black and ethnic minority Britons and as the country was gripped by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, HOPE not hate commissioned a poll of Britons from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, weighted by ethnic background and region to be nationally representative of the UK’s BAME population.

We wanted to better understand the mood of BAME Britons, often poorly represented by small sample sizes in national polls, and to pick apart differences in opinion between ethnicities, heritage backgrounds and religion, but also between generations, those born abroad and the UK born. 

“The issues of systemic racism or discrimination in social and political institutions raised by the BLM movement risk being overlooked.”

Our research reflected how the shared experiences of being a minority fostered a mutual empathy and solidarity, with the differences between ethnicities and generations reflected in how people understood and expressed common experiences of discrimination and racism. We saw support for the BLM movement across ethnicities and age groups, with widespread optimism and expectations for change that the protests would lead to lasting improvements for ethnic minorities in Britain, particularly among younger BAME Britons. 

Nine months on, we decided to revisit the questions we asked in the summer, commissioning Focaldata to carry out an online poll of a representative sample of 1,014 BAME respondents between 10 and 14 January 2021, weighted to be representative of the UK’s BAME population, to better understand how BAME expectations from the BLM movement have been realised. 

THE STATE OF RACISM IN 2020

A woman is wearing a mask, staring directly into the camera. She is holding a placard.
People from different culture and races protest on the street for equal rights – Demonstrators wearing face masks during black lives matter fight campaign – Main focus on mask

Racism is an everyday reality for those from minority and ethnic communities living in modern Britain. Our poll finds that around 40% of BAME Britons have experienced or witnessed racial abuse, racist violence or racism at work in the last 12 months. 

More than one in 10 BAME Britons say that they have personally experienced racist violence in the last 12 months (11%), whiled fewer than half of all BAME Britons can say that they have not witnessed or experienced racist abuse (46%) or racism at work (48%) in their day-to-day lives over the last year. 

Black respondents were more likely to report experiencing or witnessing racist abuse, violence or racism at work than those from other BAME groups. Almost one in five (17%) black respondents reported personal experiences of racial abuse and racism at work over the last year, while 13% had both experienced and witnessed racial abuse and 11% had witnessed and experienced racism at work. 

Young people are the most likely to see violence driven by racism. Fewer than a third of 18-24 year olds (32%) could say that they had not experienced or witnessed racist violence in the last year. 

It is unsurprising, then, that a majority of BAME Britons agree that black and Asian people in the UK face discrimination in their everyday lives (64%), with only 16% disagreeing and little difference between age groups. Black Britons were most likely to agree (67% overall agreed), compared to 62% of Asian respondents. BAME women were slightly more likely than BAME men to say that black and Asian people in the UK face discrimination in their everyday lives (f:67%, m:61%) suggesting the gendered nature of experiences of racism. 

A smaller majority also agree that Britain is institutionally racist (54%); just 12% disagree. Black respondents were most likely to agree that Britain is institutionally racist (60%), with a third (31%) strongly agreeing, compared with 15% of Asian respondents, 21% of those from mixed backgrounds and 26% of those from other ethnic groups who strongly agreed. While older respondents were more likely to say that they did not think Britain was institutionally racist, they were also more likely than younger age groups to agree with the statement. 

At the same time, 45% of respondents agree that Britain is one of the least racist countries in Europe (24% disagreed). Older respondents were more likely to agree (63% of over-65s vs. 38% of 18-24s) and Leave voters were also more likely to believe that Britain is a less racist place than other European countries (54%) than Remain voters (38%), suggesting that for some Euroscepticism ties to a perception of worse race relations in mainland Europe than in Britain. 

While there is no single ‘BAME’ experience and different ethnic groups and generations have had very different experiences, our polling makes it clear that racism continues to shape the experiences of Black and minority ethnic people in Britain. 

A SUMMER OF PROTEST

A woman has her fist held up while protesting at the BLM march, London 2020.
Protests have been held in London during the summer, but only early ones made headlines. © Getty Images

It is now almost a year since the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, while being arrested for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. The killing sparked protests that spread across the world, a response 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, to assert that Black Lives Matter. 

Alongside calls for an end to police brutality and racism in the criminal justice system, an end to racial health disparities that have become so clear during the pandemic, and reforming the education system to deliver Black history, protesters chanted the names of those who had died at the hands of British police, but also those who had been failed by the Windrush scandal, who had lost their lives to coronavirus, and who were victims of the Grenfell fire. The movement also drew attention to Britain’s colonial past and wealth that was built on the foundations of slavery. 

“The role of the BLM movement in changing the conversation on race and racism in Britain, in particular in raising consciousness of anti-blackness”

The visual symbolism of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston’s statue plunged into the river Avon and graffiti on a statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square quickly became a focal point for media discussion and public response. While many of these conversations were not new, these discussions distilled the calls of BLM into a more simplistic conversation around the protection of statues and monuments. 

This 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. And it was not just the far right attempting to derail the conversation. The statues narrative fed into a broader attempt to spark a ‘culture war’ on the political right, posing progressive values, or ‘wokeness’, as a cult: an epidemic, anti-western, totalitarian and even “cultural Marxist” (a far-right antisemitic conspiracy theory). Most recently, the Home Secretary took this line on the protests which she condemned as “dreadful” and accused protesters of attempting to “rewrite history”. 

Nonetheless, polling carried out over the summer by HOPE not hate found that the British public was ready for a more progressive debate on racism in the UK. 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. We found that public understandings of structural racism were weak, and continue to centre on a racism of “intent”: a binary of “racist” or “not racist”, with far less awareness of systemic racism or discrimination in social and political institutions. 

Numerous of people taking part in last year's Black Lives Matter protest outside Trafalgar Square, London. A man is holding a sign that says "Justice for George Floyd"
Photo Credit: Steve-Eason

Yet our latest polling shows how nine months on, BLM has changed the conversation on racism in Britain. While many are unenthusiastic about the impact of the protests meeting expectations for change, and there is little faith in the Government’s response, BAME Britons – especially younger groups – have seen the messages of BLM taken on board, especially among white friends and colleagues. 

HOW BLM CHANGED THE CONVERSATION

Thousands of people gather in Hyde Park to protest against the abuse of the rights of Black people across the world and to call for an end to systemic racism and police brutality on 03 June, 2020 in London, England. The current wave of protests follows the murder of George Floyd by police officers in the US and a drop of police investigation in the case of British transport worker Belly Mujinga, who died from Covid-19 days after being spat at in her workplace by a person infected with the virus.
Thousands of people gather in Hyde Park to protest against the abuse of the rights of Black people across the world and to call for an end to systemic racism and police brutality on 03 June, 2020 in London, England. The current wave of protests follows the murder of George Floyd by police officers in the US and a drop of police investigation in the case of British transport worker Belly Mujinga, who died from Covid-19 days after being spat at in her workplace by a person infected with the virus. (Photo by WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The Black Lives Matter movement has loudly and clearly brought long overdue conversations to the forefront of public consciousness, and our polling over the summer found that it had brought hope for change to many, as a majority (57%) of BAME Britons said they expected the protests to lead to real change. 

In our January poll of BAME Britons, we found that support for the BLM movement has remained strong since the summer, as 61% – including 71% of black respondents and 56% of Asian respondents – said that they supported the protests. This support has fallen slightly since the summer, when 73% said they supported the protests. While BLM does not present a singular voice for people who have experienced racism, we found consensus in support across ethnic minorities, and overall opposition remains low (11% overall). 

Our findings suggest that there has been a small increase in ambivalence among some who feel disillusioned with the movement, which has perhaps not triggered the societal changes they’d hoped for. While 39%, including 38% of black respondents, said that the movement had led to real change, many were pessimistic about the impact BLM has had on race relations in the UK. A majority across all ethnic groups felt that the BLM movement last year has not led to real change in Britain (61%). 

This doubt is clear when asked if people feel the Government has taken racism more seriously as a result of the protests. A minority (27%) felt that it was taking racism more seriously, though most felt that it had made no difference (43%) and 19% felt the Government was in fact taking racism less seriously after the protests. And most (63%) do not expect Boris Johnson to deliver on his promise to tackle racism and inequality. 

While most BAME Britons have seen little change in the lived realities of racism, and have little faith in the Government to act on the demands of BLM, it is clear that the protests have had an impact in shaping the conversation on race and racism in Britain today. 

In the summer poll, just half of BAME Britons thought that the protests would make white people take racism more seriously (50%). While our latest poll shows that many are also doubtful about the response to BLM from media and white friends and colleagues, around a third said that white colleagues had taken racism more seriously (32%), while 38% felt the media was taking racism more seriously. 

The role of the BLM movement in changing the conversation on race and racism in Britain, in particular in raising consciousness of anti-blackness, is reflected in our polling. Black respondents were more likely to have seen white friends and colleagues take racism more seriously (38%) than Asian respondents (30%). At the same time, black respondents were less likely to have seen the Government address the issue seriously (23% of black respondents; 30% Asian respondents). 

And disappointment around the Government’s response to BLM is not just proxy for political loyalties. Conservative voters were also sceptical about the Government’s efforts; of those who voted Conservative in 2019, 38% said they felt the Government was taking racism more seriously, but 38% felt there had been no difference and 12% said they were taking racism less seriously. 

A perceived lack of response from key actors shows when respondents are asked about how, if at all, racism has changed in Britain over the last year. The majority of BAME Britons felt that racism has in fact increased (26%) or stayed the same (42%) in Britain over the last 12 months. Just 16% said they felt it had decreased. Around a third of black respondents felt racism had increased (30%) while a quarter of Asian respondents (25%) said the same. 

Our polling shows a mixed picture nine months on from the BLM protests. While support for the movement remains high among BAME Britons, hopeful expectations from the summer have not been met in reality, and there is little faith that the Government will take any meaningful action to address racial disparities. Nonetheless, particularly among younger BAME Britons, there is a sense that BLM has had an impact in changing the conversation on racism in the UK, with many seeing a shift in how seriously racism is taken by white friends and colleagues as well as in the media. 

A YOUTH SHIFT

Young people protesting in the Black Lives Matter march in London. 3 of them are holding placards
© Getty Images

At the heart of the protests this summer were a new generation of activists, as young black Britons led BLM protests in towns and cities across the UK. Having grown up online, young Britons are engaging with activism in new ways, using social media to organise and amplify their voices. The ‘Fridays for Future’ school strikes around the world, led by young activists, had empowered many, offering a political awakening to shape a society for their futures, with racial justice at the core of calls for climate justice.

Large youth turnouts at the protests also reflected a difference in generational attitudes. Overall, younger people tend to be more socially liberal, and have a more open view on issues such as multiculturalism and immigration, as well as more fluid understandings of gender and sexuality. Younger people also have a more complex understanding of how historical racism bears on systemic discrimination today than older people, who are more likely to focus on debates around statues as ‘political correctness gone mad’. 

In a nationally representative poll of 2,104 people for HOPE not hate Charitable Trust by Panel Base between 17-18 June 2020, we found that 70% of 18-24 year olds supported the anti-racist BLM protests in response to the murder of George Floyd, but only 37% of those over-65 felt the same. Younger people were as likely as older age groups to agree that black and Asian people face everyday discrimination, but were far more likely to see racism as a structural issue than older cohorts.

Given their outlook, perhaps it is not surprising that young BAME Britons are most supportive of BLM. In our January poll, younger BAME respondents remain the strongest supporters of BLM (70% of 18-24s support compared to 50% of over-65s), though even among young BAME people this support has fallen since the summer, when support among 18-24s stood at 86%. A majority want more public discussion about racism: 55% felt that race and racism weren’t spoken about enough compared to just 27% of over-65s. 

Promisingly, younger people are more likely to have seen an impact of the protests than older age groups. In our BAME poll, just 3% of over-65s said that they thought racism had gone down in the last year, compared with a quarter of 18-24s (26%) and 25-34s (25%). This encouraging response from younger respondents may reflect that more of them said they had seen their white friends and colleagues and media take racism more seriously as a result of the protests, though it sits in contrast with the experiences of many others. 

Our polling also showed that fewer than a third of 18-24 year olds (32%) could say that they had not experienced or witnessed racist violence in the last year. 

Despite this reality, our poll shows how the conversation on race has clearly changed for young BAME Britons. Younger respondents were more likely to feel that white friends and colleagues (43% of 18- 24s) and the media (45% of 18-24s) had taken racism more seriously as a result of the protests. 

“The issues of systemic racism or discrimination in social and political institutions raised by the BLM movement risk being overlooked.”

Nonetheless, young BAME Britons were less likely to think that the Government had taken racism more seriously as a result, with 40% of 18-24s saying there had been no change in how the Government approached racism, and a quarter (25%) saying that they were in fact taking racism less seriously as a result of the protests. 

While much of this reflects young BAME Briton’s political views – less likely to be supportive of the Conservative government than older BAME groups – the Government’s discourse around BLM certainly sits at odds with young BAME Britons whose understandings of structural racism are not shared. The Prime Minister responded to the protests by stating that UK is not “a racist country”, using the word ‘thuggery’ to describe protesters, while Priti Patel most recently described the protests as “dreadful”, turning the conversation around BLM into one about the place of historical statues.

While these attempts to push for a ‘culture war’ style of politics are cynical, the clear shift among young people, in recognising change in the media they consume, and among their white friends and peers, should offer hope. Young people have not only demanded change, they are creating it. 

A MESSAGE TO THE COMMISSION ON RACIAM DISPARITIES

A picture of Munira Mirza
Munira Mirza once claimed “it seems that a lot of people in politics think it’s a good idea to exaggerate the problem of racism”. Photograph: Mary Turner/Getty Images

The BLM movement brought longstanding questions of race relations and racism in British society to the fore. But as the coronavirus continues to have a disproportionate and devastating impact on black and minority ethnic Britons, and the overwhelming economic impacts on BAME Britons becoming clear, the optimism for change that many felt in the summer could likely be replaced by greater anger and frustration, and the furthering of mistrust with the government and authorities. 

In June the Prime Minister announced a new cross- party Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, to look at “all aspects of inequality – in employment, in health outcomes, in academic and all other walks of life”. Yet this announcement immediately came under criticism. Former Tory party chair Lady Warsi said she feared the commission would will result in a “whitewash” that may simply search out “the answer that they want to hear: there’s no such thing as racism”. 

Indeed, the issues of systemic racism or discrimination in social and political institutions raised by the BLM movement risk being overlooked. Munira Mirza, who has previously criticised the concept of structural racism, was given the job of setting up the panel, while the commission chair Tony Sewell has also previously suggested that the notion of structural racism feeds a sense of “victimhood”. 

This is the first government attempt to address the deep ethnic disparities that plague our society, but they have, for many, many years, been laid bare in repeated reports, inquiries, investigations, and in the lived realities of black and ethnic minority Britons. 

The new commission must do more to listen, and respond to black and minority groups who have been clear about how about how racism shapes their everyday experiences, and our society as a whole. 

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