When Racism Became Taboo: Intolerance, Anonymity and the Public Sphere in England, 1960-1990

Lead Research Organisation: University of East Anglia
Department Name: History

Abstract

One of the most iconic images of multiculturalism in modern British history is a photograph of an Afro-Caribbean man in a suit striding in front of a graffitied wall in the late 1960s. The graffiti reads 'Powell for PM'. The photograph is striking in that it captures the act of living with intolerance, its pervasive presence inscribed on the very architecture of metropolitan life. Unsurprisingly, the words are anonymous and the striding man has no name. This contributes perhaps to the image's recurring currency. Yet, while oral history projects have done important work since the 1990s to capture Black British experiences of intolerance - approaching a collective memory of migration and settlement which may begin to approximate the perspective of the man in the photograph - it has been near impossible to capture the other side of the story. Few historical works have come close to unpacking everyday intolerant beliefs in England, 1960-1990. Instead, historians tend to analyse English racism through its most violent and extreme political forms, as a history reducible to the National Front or its equivalents. Ordinary acts of discrimination and expressions of intolerance between 1960 and 1990 - among the middle classes, in housing, in employment and across English vernacular cultures - remain largely hidden from view. Critically, it is precisely because racism was in transition at this time - increasingly a taboo and out of step with a growing anti-racist consensus in this period - that it has been so well hidden from historical memory. This historical transition deserves renewed scholarly attention.

In 1965 and 1968, two Race Relations Acts made racial and ethnic discrimination a civil offence in English social and economic life and introduced anti-hate speech law. The birth of this equality legislation had profound, and as yet uncharted, consequences at the popular level in England. Alongside anti-racist activism, this legislation challenged and to an extent transformed the accepted locations of racism in England. By 1976, these statutory efforts to control discrimination had developed into a large bureaucratic machinery that has left behind an incredible paper trail. Remarkably, no historian has before now approached these vast archives as a window into everyday experiences and expressions of intolerance. This project is concerned with uncovering - through a bottom-up approach to these and other institutional archives and qualitative social surveys - a historical map of intolerance, moving beyond a history of its most extreme forms. The Fellow and RA will work closely with the first person accounts in these archives to unpack and deconstruct the shifting place of racism in hundreds of individuals' personal narratives.

Critically, this project approaches the social history of racism and its control in light of contemporary debates about hate speech and abuse in online media. It will provide rich empirical material and analysis for those seeking to understand the relationship between expressions of hate, social taboos and anonymity. It will bring new historical perspective to contemporary debates about how best to control hate in the public sphere. It will be informed by the concerns of practitioners and activists working to defend anti-racism, political dissent and privacy. And, finally, it will challenge public audiences to move beyond a historical caricature of 'the racist', to recognise the pervasive presence of ordinary acts of discrimination in the past and present. 'When Racism Became Taboo' is on the one hand a large research project that is long overdue. On the other, it is a collaborative programme of academic and public events that will develop new ways of seeing both historical and contemporary efforts to live in a world free from surveillance and free from hate.

Planned Impact

The Fellowship is specifically intended to have an impact upon three groups of beneficiaries outside the academic community: (1) professionals in the global media who are concerned with the rise of racism and harassment within online media and comments below-the-line, (2) national policy-makers and civil liberty and anti-hate speech campaigners who are currently debating how best to censor bullying and expressions of racism in social media and (3) the public at large and in Norwich in particular.

The first group of beneficiaries will be professionals working in the field of the global news media:
Multiple commentators have drawn a clear line connecting the anonymous online 4chan 'troll' network to the rise of Breitbart and, even, to the electoral successes of Donald Trump. As Time put in August 2016, 'we're losing the internet to the culture of hate.' Due to the seemingly unprecedented nature of online political culture and anonymity, global debates about the relationship between anonymity and expressions of hate in online media remain remarkably ahistorical and lacking in empirically grounded, offline data. Via unprecedented qualitative research, this Fellowship will disseminate new understanding of the politics and practice of anonymity and the extent to which anonymity delimited the emotional tone and content of expressions of intolerance and hate in England, 1960-1990. This will directly inform online news and media analysts' perspectives on identification and anonymity in below-the-line comments.

The second group of beneficiaries will be those concerned with the possibility of new laws and policies to control hate speech and bullying within social media:
This Fellowship will disseminate new understanding of the initial challenges and social tensions surrounding the introduction of anti-discrimination and anti-hate speech legislation. As various governments and supranational bodies begin to discuss fining the social media giants for their failure to control hate speech on their social networks, there is clear value in looking to the legislative efforts of the recent past. By offering new historical understanding of the shifting locations and character of racism and charting the social impact of the first race relations laws in England, this research will directly benefit policy-makers and international campaigners currently working to understand, counteract and even legislate against online hate speech and bullying.

The third group is the public at large and local communities in Norwich in particular:
This Fellowship will offer the public a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the history of racial discrimination and the social impact of various efforts to control discrimination in England in the recent past. In July 2016, in the aftermath of the vote to leave Europe, an Eastern European food store in Norwich was set alight, in what was immediately recognised as a xenophobic attack. This received widespread local condemnation. More recently, there's a been a rise in reports of verbal racist abuse against black and minority ethnic people in Norwich. The PI is particularly keen for her research to generate public discussion in Norwich and beyond, by challenging popular understandings of the contemporary history of racism. This project's impact objective will support public recognition of indirect and subtle forms of discrimination against members of marginalised groups, by moving beyond a history of England 1960-1990 that remembers racism only in its most politicised, overt, or fascist forms. This historical caricature of racism distances intolerant beliefs and discriminatory acts from their mundane contexts. By emphasising the normal-ness of racial discrimination in English life between 1960 and 1990, this Fellowship will challenge this comfortable distance.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Title The Dream 
Description S.P.I.D. Theatre Company is based on a North London housing estate and works with local young people to develop new theatre based on local histories. As an outcome of my year-long collaboration with S.P.I.D. and the Decolonising the Archive group, 16 young people from the Kensal Rise housing estate and local area produced a radio play entitled The Dream. The play was written by Nnenna Samson Abosi and based on my research into the history of racism in 1970s Britain. This play was produced in the context of the global outcry after the murder of George Floyd and focused on community responses to police brutality and the legal fight for justice in Britain. Because of Covid-19, the production and performance of this play were online. The radio play was released as an online zoom event, and played as a matinee and evening performance - over 70 people were in attendance for the evening performance. 
Type Of Art Performance (Music, Dance, Drama, etc) 
Year Produced 2021 
Impact A number of the participants noted how important it was to learn about the history of black British people which they didn't learn in school. One participant described it as 'life changing.' Another noted: "it taught me so much and this was so important to me as it taught me way more about my history. Also, it never just focused on the negative aspects of black history but also the positive aspects as well." S.P.I.D. also trained these young people in a range of skills, including theatre performance but also sound design, oral history techniques and production. Since the play, three of the participants have continued to work in collaboration with a black-led national history organisation, Decolonising the Archive. After the play's release, I participated in a public-facing round table discussion with others involved in the making of the radio play as well as the education director at the Black Cultural Archives (BCA). The panel was geared towards parents and teachers interested in offering more diverse histories in school. We received very positive feedback on this panel discussion and, from that discussion, The panel was geared towards parents and teachers interested in offering more diverse histories in school. We received very positive feedback on this panel discussion and, from that discussion, I have been in conversation about developing more public-facing teaching materials on black British history for the BCA. 
URL https://soundcloud.com/spid-theatre-company/sets/the-dream-by-nnenna-samson-abosi
 
Description National Archives educational resource on the history of legal equality and racism in Britain 
Organisation The National Archives
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution I produced a full lesson (K3-K5) based on my research into the race relations acts, anti-racist activism and the legal history of equal rights in Britain.
Collaborator Contribution Guidance on the structure of the lesson and use of archival materials held at the National Archives made publicly available.
Impact History lessons mapped to the national curriculum (K3-K5) on racism in Britain in the 1970s, Black Power activism and protest.
Start Year 2020
 
Description Radio4 Britain's Fascist Thread 
Organisation British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution I co-authored and presented a 3-part Radio4 series on the history of British fascism in the 20th century. Some of my AHRC research into opposition to equality legislation and particularly my efforts to historicise the contested uses of free speech in opposing civil rights for minorities as well as the state control of hate speech in the public sphere 1960-1990 were presented in this series. The final episode in the series looked particularly to hate speech in online media, which again was informed by my research and efforts to provide historical understanding and depth to current debates around online hate.
Collaborator Contribution BBC produced and co-authored the 3 part Radio4 programme.
Impact Three part series on the history of British fascism in the 20th century, informed by my AHRC research into the contested politics of hate speech and its control in Britain, 1960-1990.
Start Year 2020
 
Description The Privatisation of the Struggle: Anti-Racism in the Age of Enterprise 
Organisation University College London
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Research and co-authorship of an open access chapter on the history of anti-racism from 1970-2000.
Collaborator Contribution Research and co-authorship of an open access chapter on the history of anti-racism from 1970-2000.
Impact Forthcoming chapter entitled 'The Privatisation of the Struggle: Anti-Racism in the Age of Enterprise' in UCL open access book The Neoliberal Age? Politics, Economy, Society and Culture in Britain Since c. 1970 (UCL, 2021). This chapter is a collaboration co-authored with historians Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite and Rob Waters.
Start Year 2019
 
Description Unsettling Race in Modern Britain - international network 
Organisation Queen Mary University of London
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I have worked to bring together an international network of historians working on the history of 'race' and racism in modern - entitled Unsettling Race in Modern Britain, 1960-1990. This includes scholars from UC Santa Barbara, Reed College, QMUL and the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre at De Montfort University. Since 2020, we have met about every two months to discuss our research, workshop a drafted paper and develop a joint statement on the future history of 'race' in our field. My contribution to this collaboration will be the co-authoring of that joint statement but also a published research paper on my AHRC research into opposition to equal rights legislation and the uses of a liberal arguments to oppose civil rights in Britain, 1960-1990. This paper is drafted and titled, 'British Equality Law and the Defense of White Freedom, 1965-1976.' This collaboration will result in a special issue in a peer reviewed journal.
Collaborator Contribution Engagement in regular workshops, co-authoring introduction and individual research papers.
Impact Peer reviewed article - 'British Equality Law and the Defense of White Freedom, 1965-1976.' Special issue - Unsettling Race in Modern Britain
Start Year 2020
 
Description National Archives educational resource 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact I produced a full online lesson (K3-K5) based on my research into the race relations acts, anti-racist activism and the legal history of equal rights in Britain.
This forms part of a concerted effort within the National Archives education team to decolonise their presentation of British history and present a rich variety of history lessons on Black Britain. The education team director indicated interest in working with me again. As the lesson is not yet live, we can not track the impact of the actual resource.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020,2021
URL https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/sessions-and-resources/?resource-type=lesson
 
Description Radio4 Britain's Fascist Thread 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I co-authored and presented a 3-part Radio4 series on the history of British fascism in the 20th century.
Some of my AHRC research into opposition to equality legislation and particularly my efforts to historicise the contested uses of free speech in opposing civil rights for minorities as well as the state control of hate speech in the public sphere 1960-1990 were presented in this series. The final episode in the series looked particularly to hate speech in online media, which again was informed by my research and efforts to provide historical understanding and depth to current debates around online hate.
For the series, we interviewed experts in the history of fascism in Britain, but also representatives of third sector groups - Hope not Hate, Tell Mama, and Community Security Trust - who all work in different ways to protect minority communities in Britain from racism and track the relationship between online hate and violence.
This Radio4 programme was featured on their Feedback programme. It has received highly positive coverage, despite covering controversial themes such as immigration and the free speech debate.
Overall, it has contributed to public understanding of hate speech, extremism and what is at stake in the current pending Online Harms Bill.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020,2021
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000sbdx
 
Description The Dream radio play 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact S.P.I.D. Theatre Company is based on a North London housing estate and works with local young people to develop new theatre based on local histories. As an outcome of my year-long collaboration with S.P.I.D. and the Decolonising the Archive group, 16 young people from the Kensal Rise housing estate and local area produced a radio play entitled The Dream. The play was written by Nnenna Samson Abosi and based on my research into the history of racism in 1970s Britain.
This play was produced in the context of the global outcry after the murder of George Floyd and focused on community responses to police brutality and the legal fight for justice in Britain.
A number of the young (15-20 years) participants noted how important it was to learn about the history of black British people which they didn't learn in school. One participant described it as 'life changing.' Another noted: "it taught me so much and this was so important to me as it taught me way more about my history. Also, it never just focused on the negative aspects of black history but also the positive aspects as well." S.P.I.D. also trained these young people in a range of skills, including acting but also sound design, oral history techniques, and production. Since the play, three of the participants have continued to work in collaboration with a black-led national history organisation, Decolonising the Archive.
Because of Covid-19, the production and performance of this play were online. The radio play was released as an online zoom event, and played as a matinee and evening performance - over 70 people were in attendance for the evening performance.
After the play's release, I participated in a public-facing round table discussion with others involved in the making of the radio play as well as the education director at the Black Cultural Archives (BCA). The panel was geared towards parents and teachers interested in offering more diverse histories in school. We received very positive feedback on this panel discussion and, from that discussion, I have been in conversation about developing more public-facing teaching materials on black British history for the BCA.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020,2021
URL https://soundcloud.com/spid-theatre-company/sets/the-dream-by-nnenna-samson-abosi