Social Integration and Heightened Reporting of Discrimination

Discrimination remains a hotly-debated issue in multi-ethnic, religiously diverse democracies such as the UK.

The UK labour market continues to be marked by ethnic – and religious – penalties. This has been demonstrated by a wide array of CV field experiments, including the recent report by the Centre for Social Investigation at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. In higher education, studies have found that BAME students are less likely to be admitted by Russell Group institutions – even after controlling for A-level grades. Field experiments have also found ethnic penalties when it comes to access to housing – particularly in the private rental sector. British police forces – particularly the London Metropolitan Police – remain subject to accusations of racism over the supposed abuse of practices such as stop-and-search.

My analysis in my PhD thesis chapter on discrimination took into account the following statistical variables: ethnicity, gender, age, birthplace, education level, social class, main language at home, co-ethnicity of workplace, co-ethnicity of friendship group, neighbourhood non-white density, and neighbourhood deprivation. I was looking to see how these related to the likelihood of reporting discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnicity or religious background. Analysis was based on the Ethnic Minority British Elections Study (EMBES) which is a detailed survey of British ethnic minority people.

There were a number of interesting findings, but four in particular stood out.

Co-Ethnicity of Workplace

With much of the existing research on ethnic minority discrimination focusing on the labour market, an important point of research was examining the relationship between social integration through work, and reported discrimination.

Workplace integration was classified into three main categories: “ethnically-mixed”, “bonding” and “unemployed/not in work”. Ethnic minority people who had no or only a few work colleagues who belonged to their own ethnic group fell into the “ethnically-mixed” category, while those who were employed in a place of work where about half or more co-workers shared the same ethnic background, were included in the “bonding” category.

The main model found that BME people who are socially integrated through work are more likely to report discrimination than those who are “occupationally segregated” and employed in predominantly co-ethnic “bonding” places of work. BME people who are unemployed/not in work (NIW) – in other words economically inactive – are the least likely to report discrimination in the analysis. This suggests that the workplace is a critically important “domain” when examining the relationship between social integration and reported discrimination among British ethnic minority people.

Fig. 1


In my thesis, I was particularly interested in exploring “linguistic effects” when examining reported discrimination in the British ethnic minority context. While there was a survey item which asked the respondent to evaluate their own fluency in the English language, this variable unfortunately suffered from a high number of missing cases.

Therefore, the survey item on whether or not one had English as their primary language spoken in the household was used as a proxy for command of the English language (this variable was split on a simple Yes/No basis). Controlling for a range of socio-demographic and social integration variables, ethnic minority people who have English as their primary household language were more likely to report discrimination than those who did not have English as their main language spoken at home. One plausible explanation for this finding is that a more nuanced understanding of the English language enables BME people to better detect subtler forms of discriminatory behaviours and attitudes in British society.

Fig. 2

Place of Birth (Socialisation Effects)

One of the stronger predictors of reporting racial discrimination among British ethnic minority people, is whether or not someone was born in the United Kingdom. This was also the case for being socially trusting and reporting satisfaction with the British democratic system (which will be discussed in more depth in Parts 2 and 3 of this blog series). It is important to recognise that a considerable proportion of Britain’s first-generation ethnic minority people migrated to the UK to flee state discrimination in other parts of the world. This includes the Ugandan Asians who were persecuted and expelled by dictator Idi Amin under the aggressive processes of “Africanisation”. This persecution involved the state confiscation of businesses and subsequent transfer of resources from people of South Asian heritage to members of the indigenous black African population. It should also be noted that in more recent times, the UK has received refugees fleeing civil unrest in African countries such as Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola.

Fig. 3

Figure 3 shows that after controlling for ethnicity, gender, age, education, social class, main language at home, co-ethnicity of friendship network, co-ethnicity of workplace, neighbourhood non-white density and neighbourhood deprivation, ethnic minority people born in the UK are more likely to report racial discrimination than BME people born outside of the UK. This finding clearly shows that social integration – higher levels of social mixing outside of one’s own ethnic group and potentially being more exposed to negative inter-group contact – cannot fully account for inter-generational differences in reported racial discrimination among the UK’s BME people.

Broader Discussion of Results

Interestingly, my PhD thesis found that traits which are traditionally associated with ethnic minority social mobility – being born in the host country, socially integrated, well-educated, proficient in the host language – all appear to be linked with heightened reporting of discrimination. Alternatively, characteristics which are usually thought to be associated with discrimination and feelings of relative deprivation among ethnic minorities – being foreign-born, “separated” from the social mainstream, poorly-educated and economically inactive – are all associated with a lower likelihood of reporting discrimination.

It is entirely plausible that increased levels of inter-group contact will inevitably bring a certain degree of conflict. While social integration for Britain’s ethnic minorities can create opportunities for positive inter-ethnic contact, it can also heighten exposure to and awareness of discriminatory behaviours and attitudes. It is important to acknowledge that white British people are not necessarily always the identified source of such reported discrimination. Indeed, a number of Luton-based ethnic minority interviewees who participated in the complementary semi-structured interviews for my PhD, reported discriminatory interactions which were “BME-on-BME” – societal tensions between non-white groups. This in itself further highlights the social cohesion challenges we face in ethnically diverse places such as my hometown of Luton.

The quantitative analysis found a statistically significant positive relationship between educational attainment and reporting discrimination. This is all the more interesting when one considers that existing research tends to discuss of the liberal, tolerant attitudes which tend to characterise the higher-educated sections of the white-majority ethnic group in Western societies. This finding will naturally stimulate debate in both academic and policy circles. Does this provide evidence of a prevailing “top-down” discrimination produced by the prejudicial behaviours and attitudes of the higher-status white British managerial and professional classes? Or is more a reflection of higher-educated ethnic minority people being more inclined to perceiving negative labour market experiences – not being invited to interview, missing out on a role or promotion – on the grounds of their race and ethnicity, as they view themselves to be well-qualified? These are admittedly sensitive but important questions to raise in light of this finding.

In addition to this, UK-born BAME people are more likely to report racial discrimination than those who were born outside of Britain – again, after controlling for socio-structural variables such as education level and various “domains” of social integration. This suggests that prior experiences of identity-based persecution and victimisation in other countries – including the expulsion of South Asians from Uganda – can potentially “frame” how discrimination is viewed and defined in the British context. While acknowledging the existence of racial penalties in the labour market, a male octogenarian of Gujarati descent who fled Kenya for the UK also provided this interesting perspective:

“In Kenya after independence, Asians were victimised no end. Discriminated against by the state, our own businesses we built from scratch being confiscated, faced with police intimidation. That is real discrimination.”

While racial and religious penalties in British markets exist, perhaps for UK-born ethnic minority people, being socialised under the white British mainstream’s liberal-egalitarian norms inculcates a worldview which re-frames more experiences as discrimination. These points raised further open up the debate on the differences between “actual” and “perceived” discrimination, the impact of social experiences in the country of origin on self-reported measures of discrimination in the “host country”, and what discrimination itself actually constitutes.


Dr Rakib Ehsan is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. His PhD, titled Discrimination, Social Relations and Trust: Civic Inclusion of British Ethnic Minorities, was completed at Royal Holloway, University of London.






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