How Can We Deal with Racism?

In Britain today racist sentiments are widespread among the population. Opinion poll surveys show that around one third of the population in Britain today admit to holding racist attitudes. Animosity towards immigrants was a major factor in influencing people to vote to leave the European Union. More widely there are growing racist and nationalist sentiments in all the European countries. Clearly, people of progressive and revolutionary outlooks need to find effective ways to push back this rising tide of reaction.


There is a certain amount of confusion over the terms and concepts used in discussion and analysis of this issue. Xenophobia, nationalism and racism are not used very precisely so some clarification is necessary.

Xenophobia is the dislike and prejudice against people of other ethnic and national groups. For example, in Britain today Polish migrants are subject to a certain amount of xenophobia.

Nationalism is the belief that people of a particular ethnic character should share a common territory under a state representing the interests of those people. In Britain the Scottish National Party aims to establish Scotland as a state fully independent of the British state.

Marxists distinguish between the nationalism of the oppressed and the nationalism of the oppressors. In their struggles against imperialist oppression and exploitation the peoples living within the colonial territories of the empires of the European states such as Britain, France and Spain developed nationalist ideologies which proclaimed the right of those peoples to self-determination and independence from their colonial masters. Some people claim that Scottish Nationalism is of this kind.

In the imperialist countries nationalist ideologies developed which proclaimed the unique characters of their respective peoples and, to a greater or lesser degree, their superiority to some other peoples. This type of nationalism of the oppressors was used to justify the conquest and domination of people in other countries. Within living memory the British Empire consisted of a quarter of the territory in the world and contained a quarter of its people. It is hardly surprising that nationalist sentiments remain strong among many people living in Britain.

Britain’s membership of the European Union was resented by many who saw it as this country being subordinated to other European countries. “Getting back control of our own affairs” was the most frequently mentioned motivation for people voting to leave the EU. Here we have an interesting case of people under the sway of a nationalism of the oppressors seeing themselves as motivated by a nationalism of the oppressed! But perhaps this is not so strange. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the peoples in the rival European imperialist countries saw each other as illegitimately annexing lands which rightfully should belong to their own countries, e.g. the carve-up of Africa.

Racism is the belief of a people that their own group is superior to others and that they have the right to discriminate against these other people. Most typically in Britain this takes the form of “white” people seeing “black” and “brown” people as inferior and being hostile towards them. Racism can occur between groups who have little, if any, differences in physical appearance as in the case of anti-semitism. Following the EU Referendum there was a wave of incidents in Britain motivated by anti-Polish racism.

While xenophobia, nationalism and racism can be conceptually distinguished, in social reality they tend to be found together to a greater or lesser extent. It is possible to be a nationalist without being a racist, as in the case of the nationalist movements within the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the nineteenth century. Even so, it is usually the case that these different belief systems combine together to some or another degree. Within the imperialist countries such as Britain it can plausibly be claimed that all of these three ideologies essentially serve the interests of the ruling class and not those of the great majority of the people.


Various surveys and studies reveal some broad patterns of the incidence of racist sentiments among the population of Britain:

Less Racist                                More Racist

Women                                        Men

Young people                              Old people

Middle strata                               Working class

More educated                            Less educated

Economically prosperous areas  Economically depressed areas

High proportion of ethnic             Low proportion of ethnic

minorities in locality                     minorities in locality minorities in locality

These are only tendencies. There are plenty of well-educated, young middle strata women in London who have a racist outlook. Even so, less educated, old working class men in the North East are significantly more likely to be racist. It is interesting to notice that these social differences correspond with voting preferences in the EU Referendum. Some comfort can be taken from these tendencies in so far as older, less educated people are dying out and thus one might expect the level of racism to decline in the long-run. But we should not be complacent because historical experience suggests that certain economic and political developments could disrupt this pattern bringing about a resurgence of racism.


Anti-racist campaigning in Britain has a long history going back to the period following World War Two. Various campaigns have come and gone during this period. One of the recent ones is Stand Up to Racism which is the latest anti-racist front set up by the Socialist Workers Party. Most of these campaign organisations operate in similar ways.

Typically a national committee is formed often consisting of representatives from various organisations and local groups. A national conference is held to discuss and determine the campaign’s policy. Then anti-racist meetings and public demonstrations are held in various localities but particularly in London. When racist and fascist organisations, e.g. the English Defence League, hold public events such as marching through areas with a high proportion of ethnic minority people or standing in elections the campaign mobilises people to try to oppose and stop such actions. This is important and as a result of such activity racists and fascists have been unable to establish a regular public presence in Britain in the way that various left-wing organisations and progressive campaigns have done. In addition these campaigns do a certain amount of agitational and propaganda work but usually on a sporadic basis. The social composition of the activists in such campaigns is largely white, middle strata people with few persons from ethnic minorities, especially working class ones, involved.

Of course, it should not be forgotten that “black” and “brown” people in Britain have vigorously responded to racist attacks upon them. Perhaps most notably back in the early nineteen eighties there were fierce and violent responses to police racism, particularly in Liverpool and Birmingham. People of Afro-Caribbean and Indian sub-continent origin are firmly established within British society. Already they have shown that they will not take racist attacks on them lying down. Unlike the Jews in Germany, if ever a government came into power which tried to turn them into second class citizens they would fight back. But the significance of xenophobia, nationalism and racism is wider than their impact on ethnic minorities. These reactionary ideologies are a barrier to the people being open to and embracing a more radical and revolutionary outlook which could lead on to fundamental change in British society.

What has to be recognised is that far right organisations do not actually create racist sentiments among the people but are simply working on beliefs and attitudes already widely shared among large sections of the population, ones which have been generated and regenerated throughout the course of the development of capitalism and imperialism in British society. Organisations such as the British National Party bring to the surface and strengthen racist sentiments already deeply embedded among the people of Britain. It is this significant feature of the culture of British society which previous and existing ant-racist campaigns in Britain have not addressed seriously enough.

Most notably in recent years it is the United Kingdom Independence Party which has seized on the issue of growing immigration in order to mobilise people holding racist sentiments to oppose British membership of the European Union. The members and supporters of UKIP usually claim not to be racist and say that they are simply concerned about the economic and social problems created, in their view, by mass immigration to Britain. The sort of crude, open expression of racist sentiments which was common in Britain fifty years ago is no longer generally publicly acceptable. This is because of legislation making the stirring up of racial hatred a criminal offence and because of a shift in an anti-racist direction by influential opinion formers especially in the mass media. Nonetheless, one does not have to talk to a UKIP supporter for long before the latent racism starts to come to the surface … “I’m not a racist but …”.


Traditional approaches to anti-racist campaigning in Britain have been reactive rather than proactive. Anti-racists have responded to open manifestations of racism rather than consistently working to undermine its prevalence among the population. While the actions of racists and their organisations should always be opposed it is necessary to try to cut away the ideological ground beneath them.

All too often, the areas where manifestations of racism occur are not those in which most anti-racist activists live. Thus when we respond to some racist incident we are often seen as outsiders intruding into the affairs of a local community, people who go away just as suddenly as they appeared, people who don’t have any real concern for the locals and their problems. A more subtle approach is needed.

We need to go to the people and engage with them about the problems and concerns they have which provide openings for the racist agitators. It is no good simply going out and telling people influenced by racist ideas that they are wrong. Most of them will simply not listen to such an approach. What we need to do is to put into practice the mass line.

The mass line holds that the starting point of any political campaign is to go to the people, get to know them well, learn about the problems they face and how they see them. Whenever possible recent immigrants and members of ethnic minorities should participate in this reaching out. Only then, after having immersed ourselves in the lives and consciousness of the people should we begin to formulate policies which if implemented can serve the interests of the people. Having reached this stage we should then return to the people and struggle with them to adopt these policies. In the course of doing so the policies being put forward are likely to further develop and change. It is a dialectical process which, if correctly handled, can result in both the political consciousness of the campaigners and their target audience rising to a higher level. From the people, to the people.

The first thing we need to do is to listen to people influenced by racist ideas and not simply try to tell them what to think. This can be done by going to localities where we have reason to believe that racism is fairly widespread and setting up street stalls in busy public spaces. A stall could be run under say the slogan “Worried about immigration. Let’s talk.” or “Immigration. Tell us what you think?” or something similar. The immediate objective is to listen to what people have to say, to generate a dialogue and not simply reject those whose outlook is different from our own. We should aim to get to know the racists well. Yes, if we can, go to the pub and have a drink and chat with them.

We should remember that there are contradictory elements in the consciousness of all of us. People who to a lesser or greater extent embrace racist ideas don’t usually consistently think and act in racist ways. Often on the basis of their own experiences of people in work and the community they often make exceptions, e. g. “He’s a good neighbour even though he’s a Muslim.” It is notable that in areas where white British people encounter a lot of people from ethnic minorities there is less racial prejudice than in areas where there are few such people. We should focus on and encourage the positive side of people’s social and political outlook and not just focus on the negative side.

Already, we have some ideas about the problems people face which can fit into a racist narrative – insecure work with low wages, housing shortages, inadequate health and social services, not enough school places, etc. Fact sheets on these topics can be produced and given to people who raise concerns about these matters. People should be asked for their responses to such information. If possible people who work in areas of public concern such as the NHS should be involved so as to talk about their first hand experiences of trying to cope with these problems, especially ones brought about by the shortcomings of state policies.

Given how deeply embedded racism is in British society, only protracted campaigning can even begin to make a dent in it. It is no good just carrying out occasional one off actions. This a long-term project.

A major problem we face is the lack of widely held oppositional ideologies to racism and nationalism. Adherence to progressive, left-wing political doctrines has considerably diminished in Britain during recent decades. People need not just to oppose negative things but be encouraged to aim to achieve positive objectives in society. Anti-racist campaigns cannot really do this. Only explicitly radical and revolutionary organisations can generate, through processes of popular struggle, widely-held socialist and communist beliefs. There is a dialectic here. Reactionary political ideas can ultimately be weakened and pushed back only if progressive doctrines take their place.

March 2017