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Map of the Week: Racism and tension

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Mark Easton | 08:40 UK time, Tuesday, 25 November 2008

In an office in Whitehall, a team of government officials is charged with keeping tabs on racial tension across England.

The monitors at the Department for Communities and Local Government were assembled amid ministerial fears that the pain of the economic downturn might translate into social strains and potential violence.

An academic study to be published by the University of Manchester next month (and which will appear here) finds that racial prejudice has been "declining sharply in Britain since the 1980s thanks to the greater tolerance of younger generations".

This week's Map of the Week tries to understand what is happening on the ground. The BBC has taken the leaked details of BNP members and applied them to a map of the UK.

BNP membership

The first thing to say is that BNP membership is very low but there are some areas where the party is more active. My interpretation of the map is that there is a spine of BNP support running down the Pennines from the former Northern English mill towns of Blackburn, Burnley and Bradford to Derby, Nottingham and Leicester in the East Midlands.

For data protection reasons, I am not posting the local detail, but it turns out that the place with the greatest concentration of BNP support is Morley, near Leeds.

There are also parts of East London and Essex with high numbers of BNP members but it is noticeable that the capital generally is not a breeding ground for far-right support, despite the highest levels of racial and ethnic diversity.

I wanted to know whether BNP membership was a proxy for poor race relations and so I have obtained some data from the DCLG tension monitoring team and applied them to a map of England.

The measure of social tension is based upon a huge survey in which residents are asked whether "people from different backgrounds get on well together" in the local area.

casa map of social cohesion

The map colours range between bright green (where 100% of the population think that "people from different backgrounds get on well") to bright red (where 40% or fewer believe the same). Broadly, green means good race relations while brown/red suggests tension.

I am indebted to the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) at University College London for turning the numbers into a map. You can dive down into the data by accessing it on their MapTube website.

Now, there are clearly some similarities between BNP membership and areas which suffer low scores on the cohesion measure. Once again, the Lancashire towns of Blackburn, Burnley, Nelson and Colne are highlighted. There are also poor scores in parts of East Anglia and in some neighbourhoods to the east of London.

But what is interesting to me is the apparent lack of social tension in the Midlands, despite high levels of diversity and BNP activity.

I suspect that membership of far-right groups is as much a factor of local organisation and targeting as it is of racial tensions.

In any event, the paper from the University of Manchester that I mentioned suggests that any gains the BNP might make in the short term will be ruled out by a much broader and long-term trend.

The study, due to be published in next month's British Journal of Sociology, uses indicators of racial prejudice from the British Social Attitudes surveys to examine prejudice against black and Asian Britons.

This graph paints a clear picture, I think, of the direction of travel, although it would be more helpful to have more recent numbers...

Figure I: Period trends in social distance
(a) Attitudes to an ethnic minority boss


Asked about their attitudes to having a boss who was Asian or black, the proportion of respondents who said they would "mind" fell from roughly 20% to less than 15% between 1983 and 1996. Among those who would "mind a lot", the fall is less dramatic; nonetheless, it is welcome.

Dr Rob Ford, who headed the research team, says that social contact with black or Asian Britons is becoming increasingly unremarkable to white people in their 20s and 30s.

Racial attitudes in Britain, he concludes, are structured by generation, with a large decline in expressions of prejudice among those in the cohorts which have grown up since immigration began. "Consequently, levels of racial prejudice are falling and are likely to fall further."

Nevertheless, the team of DCLG monitors is keeping close tabs on a situation that may become increasingly volatile as unemployment levels rise in areas of significant immigration.

Update [Nov 25th, 1430]: Further evidence of the decline in racist attitudes among younger people may perhaps be found in figures released today on racist chanting at football matches. There were just 23 arrests during the whole of the 2007/08 season. That's the lowest ever recorded level - down 70% in five years. This is possibly a consequence of changing attitudes rather than simply of changing policing priorities. What is your experience?


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