Those who shout loudest about race cannot be allowed to silence others

It was the perfect example of how not to have a public conversation about race. Piers Morgan stormed out of his breakfast TV studio because he was being criticised by a Good Morning Britain colleague, Alex Beresford. Morgan – having had his own say, very loudly – appeared unwilling to listen to criticism from another point of view.

It is time to stop shouting and start talking about race in Britain. The reaction to Oprah Winfrey’s interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex captured how debates about race are often binary. Is Britain in denial about being systematically racist, or by far the best country on earth for ethnic minorities? Is this a society that shies away from conversations about race, or one that now risks seeming to talk about nothing else?

The debate is not going to stop. Only a quarter of the population thinks we are talking “too much” about the subject in Britain, though that rises to a third of white people over 65. Most Black British respondents think we aren’t talking enough about race yet – and want to know how discussion will turn to action.

British Future has been talking it through with members of the public, in conversations around the country and in nationally representative research. The findings, to be published in full this month, have been submitted to the government’s race commission, whose own recommendations are in the prime minister’s in-tray. What our research uncovers is a much less binary debate. There is a broad consensus, across ethnic groups, that Britain isn’t America on race, but suspicion too that this is taken as meaning that race is an American problem that Britain has sorted out. Being less polarised than post-Trump America hardly sets a high bar. So we risk talking past each other rather than listening.

In data, policy and politics, Britain does pay more attention to race and discrimination than most European countries. We know how Covid-19 illuminated inequalities in health, work and housing. That discussion has barely begun in France – not because those disparities won’t exist, but because that data is not even collected. But the comparative lens is of little relevance to lived experience. If recent graduates in Birmingham worry that their ethnic-sounding surname means they might expect fewer job interviews than a white British peer with an identical CV, why should they feel lucky that the odds might be worse in Bologna or Budapest?

Differences in ethnic minority views are invisible in most opinion polls, though politicians pay an enormous amount of attention to them. Black Britons – 3% of the population – make up a minority among the minority groups, which means that the significantly higher level of Black British dissatisfaction is often masked even when minority views are consulted. That dissatisfaction is also an integration effect – because British-born minorities have different expectations to their migrant grandparents. The test is not whether prejudice has lessened since the Windrush docked; rather there’s an impatient and rightful expectation that the pledge of equal opportunities in Britain should now be redeemed in full.

There are wide gaps between generations too. This week, snap polls following the Harry and Meghan interview found a gulf in opinion between the under-24s and over-65s that was greater than their very different views on Brexit. This partly reflects how conversations about race now have different centres of gravity across generations. The anti-racism protests last summer felt shared by black and white alike to most young people. To some others, the protests were more contentious – ranging from racist responses online, to reasoned critiques and competing ideas of how to advance on race in ways that can be fair to everybody. Many people were on the fence.

Shifting views across generations could now speed up overdue changes in institutions. The Society of Editors suffered self-inflicted damage with a statement that seemed tone deaf, replaced by another saying it had forgotten to mention that everybody knew the media had a lot of work to do on diversity and inclusion. The challenge from within the media was much more vocal than it would have been a generation ago.

Instincts about how to talk about race differ across generations – but it is possible to command a broader consensus when the agenda for change becomes practical. The public has an appetite for stronger action on hate crime, including on social media. It also wants to tackle bias in recruitment for jobs, and expects to see Britain’s growing ethnic diversity at the top table of major institutions. How to move from talk to action, beyond the hashtag, will be an increasing challenge for many institutions, when ethnic minorities make up a quarter of new graduates, while there is still no ethnic diversity in a third of major boardrooms.

Whether race unites or divides will depend on how the public conversation is led. We will lose opportunities for progress if this is derailed by a polarised “culture war” between young and old, where our major parties each pick a side in the “woke” wars, and speak just to one social tribe rather than seeking the common ground.

Talking about race involves difficult conversations. Many people feel anxious – about the shifting terminology, the fear of saying the wrong thing by accident, or that their experiences will be dismissed or belittled rather than heard. The strength of anti-racist norms makes allegations of racism or discrimination a potent charge. Yet in an increasingly diverse society, every institution in Britain needs to become more confident in how to have this conversation in a way that leads to constructive change. That means a public conversation about race where we work harder to ensure that all voices can be heard. We should all get to have our say, but we might have to start listening more.

Sunder Katwala is the director of British Future

Comments are closed.