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

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


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.


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