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26 February 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 3:45pm

John Barnes is right: unconscious racism is important. But institutional racism is worse

There is substantial evidence to show that racial inequalities in society are more than just the sum of individual unconscious biases; they are also the result of structural and institutional inequalities. 

By Zubaida Haque

On last Thursday’s BBC Question Time, the former England football player John Barnes was asked by an audience member whether he stood by his earlier comments, that Liam Neeson deserved a medal for confessing that he had once fantasised about killing a random black man in revenge for his friend’s rape. Barnes gave a careful response, arguing that, “This is the influence that society has on us, and we can’t help the way we’ve been brought up… It’s important to have the conversation, rather than as soon as we mention anything say ‘you’re racist, you discriminate’”.

His answer immediately provoked controversy. It’s not that Barnes was wholly wrong: after all, rigorous research has long shown that racist attitudes are not just an issue for those who admit to them, but also for the many others who are utterly unaware of it. But Barnes’s answer was inadequate partly because unconscious racism is only part of the explanation for why and how racial discrimination and inequality is perpetuated in society.

The notion that that there is not a “safe space” for sharing one’s thoughts about black and ethnic minority communities for fear of being labelled “a racist” is also somewhat misleading. High-profile events can still be advertised with the title “Is rising ethnic diversity a threat to the West?” Commentators in mainstream newspapers are allowed to say with little consequence “Anjem Choudary should blow himself up in Tower Hamlets where the rest of us don’t live” or “Shamima Begum may have been born here but she was never British”. If anyone is justified in “being afraid” of any harm coming to them, it should be ethnic minorities.

More importantly, there is substantial evidence to show that racial inequalities in society are more than just the sum of individual unconscious biases; they are also the result of structural and institutional inequalities. Academic, third sector and government research (including from the Race Disparity Unit) has consistently shown that ethnic minority groups fare badly in comparison to their white peers even when they have the same qualifications, come from the same regions and have the same degrees. And stop and search figures, hate crime statistics and reports of racist bullying in schools starkly illustrate that BME and minority faith groups are not only treated unfairly in comparison to their white counterparts: they are also treated more violently.

Last Sunday was the 20th anniversary of the Macpherson Report, an inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence, who died in an unprovoked racist attack in 1993. Many people, including Stephen Lawrence’s mother Doreen, thought the Macpherson Inquiry was ground breaking, and “a watershed in attitudes towards racism”. But 26 years after Stephen Lawrence’s death, it’s more difficult to argue that we have seen the “deep-seated cultural change towards race” that key figures, including the home secretary who commissioned the Macpherson inquiry, hoped it would trigger. Arguably, not only has the pace and political momentum for race equality slowed down, it’s actually gone backwards.

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The Conservative government’s response to the Windrush scandal highlighted perfectly how it had not only failed to adhere to existing race relations legislation, but also showed a complete lack of understanding about “indirect discrimination”, an experience which was accepted as far back as the 1976 Race Relations Act. When black and ethnic minority communities in 2019 are more worried about their citizenship rights and security than “unconscious racial biases”, one has to wonder to what extent “institutional racism” has really been addressed, let alone acknowledged.

John Barnes’s focus on “unconscious racial bias” is an important part of tackling racial discrimination, but it’s naïve to think that it will address deep-seated systemic racism. The Shamima Begum case, while complicated by accusations of terrorism, illustrates clearly that children of immigrants and BME people in this country are not only treated as second class citizens, but also as people who have conditional rights – visible in terms of policing and security, but invisible in terms of protection and equality.

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Dr Zubaida Haque is deputy director of the Runnymede Trust. She tweets at @zubhaque,