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Living in the UK

Discrimination and Racism in the UK

Even though the UK is, generally speaking, home to a peaceful, diverse and enlightened society, there are some worrisome and serious divides. Read on for an overview on racism in the UK, as well as other forms of discrimination, such as homophobia and sexism.

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At a glance:

  • Religious discrimination, particularly Islamophobia, is once again on the rise in the UK — many people say this is due to its growing presence in political discourse.
  • Following the Brexit referendum, the UK saw a sharp increase in the number of xenophobic attacks carried out.
  • Same-sex marriage is now legal in England, Scotland and Wales, but not in Northern Ireland and, while LGBT discrimination crimes are fairly rare, they are not unheard of.

Discrimination: A Historical Perspective

The problem of racism in the UK is one that remains worrisome. The UK has had its share of racial upheaval in the form of riots that took place throughout the 20th century, most notably perhaps in the 1980s. As a mechanism, racism in the UK does not differ from that in other countries, with the same fears and “bogeymen” causing negative attitudes, resentment, and violence.

To detach racism in the UK from the colonial past of the Empire is, of course, impossible for obvious reasons. To go into full detail on this matter is beyond the scope of this article, though.

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A Growing Sense of Islamophobia?

The most tangible divide in the UK today might not be the one along racial and ethnic lines, but rather along religious and cultural ones. Right-wing populists have long adopted the tactic of not explicitly targeting minorities because of their ethnicity (or at least aim towards shedding that image in the public eye). They are rather vocal in their rejection and criticism of Islam and its values.

Of course, Islamophobia is not a new phenomenon, but it has indeed reached new heights in popularity in the UK within the last decade. The more obvious reasons for this are quickly found: continued, at times violent, tensions between what the so-called Western hemisphere and Islamic countries, a perceived incompatibility between different cultures, fears among parts of the population of losing their jobs to migrant workers, and plain fear of the unknown.

Islamic fundamentalists tainting the public image of Muslims in the UK add their part to a generally rather tense situation. Terror strikes carried out by adherents of radical Islam on UK and mainland European soil have made international headlines and escalated the issue.

The campaigns for a referendum held in June 2016 during which the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union did nothing to help this growing sense of fear. According to an annual survey carried out by an anti-Muslim hate monitoring organization reported a 326% increase in racially motivated incidents compared to 2015.

Anti-Semitism: A New Phenomenon

On the one hand, racism in the UK did not take the form of virulent anti-Semitism in the 19th century or during the first half of the 20th century, the timespan in which anti-Jewish resentment gained mainstream acceptance not only throughout the European mainland but much of the Western world and culminated in the unspeakable events of the Holocaust. However, there has been a notable rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the past years.

As with other forms of racism in the UK, these incidents can range from verbal abuse to anti-Semitic graffiti and violent assault. At the beginning of 2016, incidents of anti-Semitism rose by over 10% compared to the previous year. This development has reached an extent that warranted closer cooperation between the Metropolitan Police (which provides law enforcement in Greater London) and the Community Security Trust, which represents the Jewish community in questions of security.

Xenophobic Crime: A Rise Fuelled by a Referendum?

Today, parts of what used to be the core messages of the far right, such as tough stances on issues of immigration and asylum and the denouncement of multiculturalism, have been incorporated in the agendas of the political mainstream, further creating and reinforcing negative attitudes towards religious and ethnic minorities. Often, the victims are those who are furthest marginalized as it is.

In June 2016, the number of reported crimes aggravated by religious hatred or racism in the UK increased by almost 60% within just three weeks — a rise that many people blame on the ‘Brexit’ vote. One should keep in mind, however, that this number represents all (reported) incidents of racism in the UK, including persistent name-calling, damage to property, harassment, and violence, and does not reflect the circumstances in which hateful incidents occur.

What the above should not convey, however, is that expatriates (particularly those deemed “Black or Minority Ethnic”) are not safe in the UK. Being alert and aware of your surroundings is still recommended, but there is no need for paranoia.

Updated on: December 11, 2019
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