There is a new consensus, especially in the media, which says the problem of racism is far greater today than it was in the past. The idea that racism is on the march was routinely expressed following the surge in votes for Eurosceptic parties in the recent EU elections. The stock reaction to anyone who raises questions about immigration is to accuse them of being racist. Last week, the British Social Attitudes Survey seemed to strengthen the consensus view when it claimed that nearly a third of the people it polled described themselves as a ‘little’ or ‘very’ prejudiced against people of other races. The authors of the survey said the proportion of people describing themselves as prejudiced has increased since the beginning of the century and has returned to the levels of 30 years ago.
Whatever the British Social Attitudes Survey shows, or claims to show, it reveals very little about the power and influence of racism in Britain today. Prejudice is only indirectly related to racism. Prejudice is a preconceived opinion that is not based on direct experience or reason. Prejudice, or pre-judging, can lead to a dislike and rejection of people from different cultural, ethnic, religious and national backgrounds. However, such prejudice, despite its unpleasant and even inhuman elements, should not be equated with racism. Throughout history, human beings have been prejudiced towards people from different communities. In the Middle Ages, peasants in one community would often express suspicion of people who lived in a village just 10km down the road. Not liking or trusting or respecting other people might be a backward and irrational attitude, but it is not necessarily evidence of racism.
It is astounding just how thoroughly the ideology of racism has been crushed. We should recall that until the outbreak of the Second World War, racial thinking was rarely questioned in any part of the world. Even in academic circles, critics of racism were very much in a minority in the 1930s. Back then, the term ‘racist’ was used neutrally and sometimes even positively in Western societies. It was only in the 1930s that the word ‘racism’ started to acquire negative connotations. It was in that decade that the use of the word racism in a derogatory way was first recorded in the English language (1). But even then, the idea of racial equality had few defenders – including within the intellectual community.
Since the 1930s, racism, with its oppressive claim that some people are superior to other, ‘subhuman’ people, has been systematically discredited. The idealisation of the racial superiority of whites and the dehumanisation of people from Africa and Asia has been culturally marginalised. Even the most extreme xenophobic cults and parties now find it difficult explicitly to use the language of racial ideology. The notion of racial superiority is conspicuous by its absence in public discussion in the twenty-first century.
People may still have their prejudices, but very few individuals now define themselves as racist. Indeed, the term racist is looked upon negatively even by people who do feel some form of prejudice against a foreign ethnic or religious group. The fact that such people feel obliged to say ‘I’m not a racist, but…’ indicates that racism enjoys very little cultural validation in modern Western societies.