Britain’s interminable struggle with racism
The British royal family soap opera helps keep the brand alive and fuels public interest. The latest saga that has necessitated a minor forest of newsprint was for the purposes of what some colloquially describe as “Megxit,” the decision of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to step down as leading royals and spend more time in North America.
Fear not. This columnist is not about to participate in such spectator sport and tittle-tattle about the private lives of royals. Yet one serious question lurks behind the story that does require examination. Does Britain have an issue with racism?
Was Markle, who is from a mixed-race background, a victim of racism? Unquestionably, even perhaps from within the royal family itself — at a lunch also attended by Markle, Princess Michael of Kent opted for a brooch with highly racist connotations. Just as likely is that the royal couple could not tolerate the highly intrusive, almost 24/7, attention from the media and the way the aggressive British press corps hypes every sign of friction among the Windsors.
Those who argue that Markle is being hounded out due to racism have to contend with one major factor: She retains massive popularity, is photographed everywhere and has proved to be an extraordinarily effective ambassador for the royal family. This might explain, in part, why the royals are anxious not to lose the couple from the front line. This does not tally with the image of widespread racist hatred.
Is Britain getting more racist or is it just a case of more people being content to openly display their bigoted views rather than keep schtum? Is there simply more reporting on the issue, exposing what lurks in the dark corners of the nation? Or is this part of a broader trend in Europe and elsewhere that Britain is just caught up in?
The year 2018 witnessed an 11 percent rise in attacks in Britain deemed to have a racist motivation, up to 78,991 in all, out of 103,379 hate crimes recorded. Half of religious hate crimes were against Muslims, while the number of hate crimes against Jews doubled. This is hardly a multiracial country completely at ease.
Many cite the election of Boris Johnson as prime minister last December as another troubling sign. Despite a record of racist comments over the years — including references to “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and also Islamophobic comments — Johnson won a historic victory for the Tory party. These comments did not seem to deter voters. Then again, the accusations of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party did appear to damage its standing with the electorate.
Anti-immigration positions defined the 2016 referendum on EU membership. It was often not just dog-whistling, but loudspeaker racism. Yet one must take care: While certainly many on the far right hate immigration because of a racist disposition, anti-immigration sentiment is far from always being rooted in racism.
What is clear is that no European country, including Britain, is embarking on some post-racial, color-blind future
Surveys also suggest that British attitudes on race and also religious groups are largely similar to other EU countries of a similar level of economic development. It is hard to imagine that a poll in Britain would replicate the one last year in Italy that showed 45 percent of Italians polled thought racist acts could be justified and 10 percent considered that they were always justified. Poorer countries in the EU, such as Bulgaria and Latvia, exhibit much higher levels. This should not be grounds for self-congratulation, merely that the challenge is as large in the UK as elsewhere.
The far right in Britain has also not enjoyed the success that similar groups have in much of the EU. The Brexit Party, which is not as odious as, say, Alternative for Germany, which won 94 seats in the Bundestag in the 2017 election, did not gain one MP in December’s vote. On the other hand, the far-right Marine Le Pen made the final two in the French presidential election in 2017 and, in Austria, the Freedom Party made it into coalition government. Neo-Nazi parties have even prospered in countries like Sweden. One has to wonder, which of the major EU countries is ready to elect a non-white or even a Muslim leader?
Similar challenges to Britain’s exist across Europe. Ethnic minority groups are under-represented politically in nearly every government and parliament. Typically, they find it harder to get top jobs and access to housing. Racism is all too commonly found on the football terraces, where the loutishness of the far right is so visible, with notorious monkey chants polluting football grounds across the continent. Armed forces also tend to be an arena where racist incidents are on the rise.
Perhaps the real question is whether enough is being done to stop this, or even whether racism has at times been instrumentalized for political gain? It is not uncommon to find racism being downplayed or just jeered at for being political correctness gone wrong. Too many institutions have failed to address these issues and seem incapable of figuring out how to meet the challenge.
What is clear is that no European country, including Britain, is embarking on some post-racial, color-blind future. It is an interminable struggle but, gradually over time, one hopes it is winnable. Racism does rear its foul head too often, but perhaps is now slammed more vigorously than it was 30 years ago.
If Markle is running away from the royal family to spend more time in North America because of racism, it is disturbing. If true, the most serious regret is that she did not stay to combat this racism and bigotry alongside Prince Harry, using their undoubted star status to quash the nonsense that afflicted them.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech