Magazine excerpt: Racism, old and new

Professor Binna Kandola explores racism today and finds it is still thriving in organisation and ourselves.

Just over 50 years ago, Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech took place. Powell’s speech expressed his concerns about immigration from Commonwealth countries, most notably the Caribbean and Indian subcontinents. He argued it would lead to violence and destruction – hence the “rivers of blood”.

While he was dismissed from the shadow cabinet for his inflammatory invective, he nevertheless enjoyed widespread public support. It is hard to imagine he would receive that sort of acclaim today. Only one person present at the meeting raised any objections or protested at what Powell had to say.

The next day, a Sunday, on leaving church, a local worker congratulated Powell saying, “Well done sir, it needed to be said.”

The speech, which would have gained attention at any time, was charged with greater urgency because, three days later on 23 April, came the second reading of the Race Relations Bill. It was due to take place in parliament. London Dockers marched in protest at Powell’s sacking.

Racism has, like a virus, mutated: it is still present but in much more subtle ways than in the past. 

A few years later, Eric Clapton made the first of his public pronouncements on race, when he said at a concert in Birmingham “keep Britain white” and expressed his support for Powell’s views. Powell called for voluntary repatriation of people from the Commonwealth. At the time, minorities of all ages would have been told, at some point, to “go back to your own country”. 

We shouldn’t forget, however, that despite the majority of people backing Powell’s views, there was significant resistance. There were anti-Powell marches and his opinions were denounced by MPs in all parties and by the press. The Times described the speech as “evil”.

We look back at such events and such times and feel grateful that Britain has become more liberal, open and tolerant. We can feel comforted that these types of behaviours are far less likely to occur, and there is a lot of truth in that belief.

Whenever we have a discussion about race, there are a number of points that need to be clarified from the outset.

First, that there has been a remarkable transformation in our attitudes in a relatively short period. Over the course of the last 50 years, in the UK, we have become far more accepting of minorities who are colleagues, neighbours and partners. In addition, we are far less tolerant and accepting of overtly racist behaviour.

Some commentators have concluded that this significant change in attitudes signifies that racism is on its way to being eradicated. Unfortunately, this is not the case, which leads to the second point, that we should not be too complacent or too comfortable. Racism has, like a virus, mutated: it is still present but in much more subtle ways than in the past. 

There are a number of ways this can and does occur. First, there is a suppression of overtly racist attitudes. Second, while people may not endorse stereotypes associated with minorities, they nevertheless make decisions which are influenced by them. Third, they avoid contact with minorities, so that they do not have to deal with their own racist feelings and thoughts. 

Suppression of racist attitudes

Whenever studies are conducted on attitudes towards different racial groups, it is difficult to glean people’s true feelings. Researchers have long recognised that participants are well aware that racist views are unacceptable and so refrain from expressing them, even on a questionnaire.

Psychologists have had to adapt their methods in order to research people’s attitudes better. In one study, for example, participants were given a questionnaire to complete about their attitudes towards minorities. One group was merely asked to complete the survey. The test group, however, had wires  stuck on them, which were attached to a machine. They were told that this machine could tell whether they were completing the questionnaire truthfully [1].  

The control group had no racist attitudes and did not view minorities stereotypically, and if anything they had positive views about black people. The participants hooked up to the ‘truth-o-meter’ however had very stereotypical views about black people. (Incidentally, the box the wires went into was fake and would not tell people’s attitudes at all.) 

This study demonstrated that because some views are less accepted in society, they are suppressed.


[1] Sigall, H and Page, R, ‘Current Stereotypes: A Little Fading, a Little Faking’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

This is an abridged version of a feature from May’s TJ magazine. To get the full insight, subscribe here.


About the author

Professor Binna Kandola OBE is co-founder and director of Pearn Kandola. Find out more at


Learn More →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *