The myth of black britain

There are few things I find more annoying (and intellectually lazy) than the homogenising of groups on the grounds of a “shared” ethno-racial identity. Yet, it is commonplace in the UK, where phrases such as “Black Britons” and the “South Asian community” are used all too often in public discourse. Having been raised in the multi-ethnic, religiously-diverse town of Luton, it irks me how these terms are frequently used by politicians, public service officials, and (even more embarrassingly), academics and researchers.

This nonsense is also pervasive in the US, with the label “Hispanic” being the most egregious example. Prior to the 2016 US Presidential Election, it was almost an enduring refrain among commentators that “pan-Latino solidarity” meant a homogenous Hispanic bloc would reject Donald Trump and, in doing so, prevent him from being elected president. This proved to be complete nonsense, visible in the fact that the majority of Cuban-Americans in the swing state of Florida voted for him. Lumping this established bloc of voters together with Puerto Ricans, many of whom are far more recent migrants to Florida (not least because of the island’s debt crisis), is beyond laughable.

During my PhD, what became increasingly clear to me is how utterly redundant the super-ordinate “black” racial category is in the British context. We have been told about the feelings of “Black Britain” – a fictitious construct which is utterly empty from a social science perspective. The reality of the matter is that “Black Britain” is a myth. And there are two important points of research which demonstrate this – reported experiences of discrimination and satisfaction with how democracy works in the UK.

Racial and Religious Discrimination

My doctoral thesis relied on the 2010 Ethnic Minority British Election Study survey, focusing on five non-white ethnic minority groupings: Black Caribbean, Black African, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi. Survey respondents were asked whether they had experienced discrimination on racial or ethnic grounds over the last 5 years.

Figure 1 shows the results of a model predicting for reported racial discrimination. Examining the findings for ethnicity, the model controls for gender, age, place of birth, education level, occupational class, main language spoken at home, level of social integration, and neighbourhood deprivation. It shows that British Black Caribbeans are the most likely to report racial discrimination – and more likely to do so than their co-racial counterparts of Black African origin. This difference is statistically significant at the 1% confidence level.

Fig. 1

*BC (Black Caribbean), BA (Black African), IND (Indian), PAK (Pakistani), BANG (Bangladeshi)

Figure 2 below shows the results for a model which includes the same independent variables, but inspects ethnic-group differences in reporting religious discrimination. A very different pattern emerges from Fig. 1. People of Black African origin are more likely to report religious discrimination than their co-racial counterparts of Black Caribbean origin. This is likely for a number of reasons. British Black Caribbeans are far less likely to report a religious affiliation, so are unlikely to report discrimination on the grounds of religion. In addition to this, a noteworthy proportion of people of Black African origin living in the UK are adherents of Islam, with an overwhelming majority of cases of religious discrimination among ethnic minority people being reported by Muslims. Indeed, this is demonstrated by the relatively high predicted probabilities for reporting religious discrimination among British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis – the UK’s two largest Muslim-majority ethnic minority groups.

Fig. 2

Satisfaction with British Democracy

Much of my research focuses on satisfaction with the democratic system of governance. In recent times, there has been much talk of “Black Disaffection” in the UK – disillusionment over racially-motivated behaviour and attitudes in the wider economy, perceived racial biases exhibited by institutions such as the police and the courts, and an overwhelming frustration over the perceived inaction of the democratically-elected political classes on such matters of salience. But are levels of dissatisfaction with the democratic system of governance similar for the UK’s Black Caribbean and Black African co-racial groups?

Figure 3 presents from an ordinal logistic regression model predicting for democratic satisfaction. Inspecting ethnic-group differences, the model controls for party identification, gender, age, birthplace, education, occupational class, main language spoken at home, level of social integration, reported discrimination (ethnic, racial and religious grounds), and neighbourhood deprivation.

The analysis shows that people of Black Caribbean origin are the least likely to report satisfaction with the British democratic system, while people of Black African origin are more likely to report democratic satisfaction than their co-racial counterparts. Indeed, inspecting the ethnic-group differences for the separate responses, people of Black African origin nestle in more with those who belong to the three South Asian ethnic groups, as opposed to their co-racial counterparts of Black Caribbean origin.

Analysis suggests that differences in likelihood of reporting democratic satisfaction between the two co-racial black groups is partly down to people of Black African origin being more likely to be born outside of the UK in relatively autocratic and unstable countries, and being less likely to report discrimination in general. However, it is important to note that even with the range of control variables, the difference between the two groups is statistically significant at the 1% confidence level.

Fig. 3

Concluding Thoughts

This analysis presents very clear differences within “Black Britain” between Britain’s Black Caribbean and Black African groups. When it comes to the “framing” of perceived discriminatory experiences, there are significant differences of note. People of Black Caribbean origin are more likely to report racial discrimination than their co-racial counterparts of Black African origin, with the latter more likely to report discrimination on the grounds of religion. This reflects a broader picture where there are fundamental differences over religious devotion and affiliation, with religion tending to play more of a dominant role in the identity-framing and everyday life practices of Britain’s Black Africans, who are both far more likely to be born outside of the UK and be followers of Islam.

The findings for satisfaction with British democracy call into question the idea of there being a “Black Britain”. In the UK, it is not so much a case of “Black Disaffection”, but rather “Black Caribbean Disaffection”. Out of the five ethnic minority groups subject to analysis, people of Black Caribbean origin are an outlier in regards to their dissatisfaction over the way democracy works in the UK. Meanwhile, their co-racial counterparts of Black African origin nestle in more with Britain’s three main subcontinental ethnic groups – Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis – when it comes to reporting satisfaction with the British democratic system.

These findings provide much food for thought. From one perspective, the relatively high levels of dissatisfaction with British democracy among Black Caribbeans can be viewed as a “positive” – an indication of being successfully incorporated into the politically distrustful and critical social mainstream. However, if such disaffection is driven by unmet expectations of British democracy on salient issues such as racial fairness and equality of opportunity, then debates must be had on the purpose of democratic governance and the challenges of “managing diversity” in multi-ethnic societies.

 

Dr Rakib Ehsan is a Research Fellow at Henry Jackson Society’s Centre on Social and Political Risk. His PhD, “Discrimination, Social Relations and Trust: Civic Inclusion of British Ethnic Minorities”, was completed at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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