British public believe racism is caused by ‘personal prejudice’ not ‘systemic’ problems

The study has found that people believe minority communities need to ‘do more to assimilate’ (Picture: Getty)

A new study looking into how the public understand racism has revealed most people believe racism is caused by ‘personal prejudice’, and because minority groups need ‘to do more to assimilate’.

The research, led by the Runnymede Trust and Voice4Change England, shows that campaigners and the public agree that racism matters, that it is learned, and that institutions play an important part in ‘delivering’ racism. There is also a common understanding that racism is a present-day issue and part of British history.

Campaigners and the public agree that education is critical to solving racism; and that individuals, institutions and the state all have a responsibility to act.

But there are important disagreements in ways that campaigners and the public think about racism.

Campaigners see racism as a system – a web of laws, institutions, customs and ideas; whereas the weight of public thinking is that racism is mostly about personal prejudice and personal responsibility, e.g. the need for racially minoritised people to do more to assimilate.

The Reframing Race programme is an initiative that works with campaigners to build public support for meaningful action on racism using new and powerful ways of talking about the issues. Until now, campaigners have had few clues about what the public really feel about the question of ‘race’.

The new research was carried out by ICM in July and August 2020 for Reframing Race based on long-form, semi-structured discussions with members of the public around England.

The 60 interviews – conducted among a ‘balanced’ sample of the general population in England, ensuring a spread of factors including geography, gender and ethnicity – provided insights into what the public thinks about race and also why they think as they do.

Researchers say these results are deeper and more ‘lifelike’ than traditional forms of public opinion polling. They add that the research also allows people to have a more honest debate about public appetite and ambivalence to change.

‘Armed with new knowledge about public thinking, the next phase of Reframing Race will work with campaigners to develop more effective stories, metaphors and language that can move the public and decision-makers towards real commitment to the cause of racial justice,’ says Dr Sanjiv Lingayah founder and programme lead of Reframing Race.

‘While campaigners and public thinking differs on racism and its causes and cures, there is common ground. With the tumultuous events in 2020, we now have a basis to permanently and productively change the conversation on ‘race’ in this country.’

Dr Halima Begum, director of the Runnymede trust, adds: ‘The evidence reflects growing public interest and concern about racism and race equality. It also shows the work still to be done and how racism can feel a distant issue for some people who are unimpeded by it.

‘Understanding the nuance of public thinking on “race” and racism is critical to ensuring that campaigners, researchers, organisers and activists can do our work more powerfully and effectively to rally public support for race equality.’

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