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Introduction

Solomos and Back (1996) have argued that racism takes different forms in differing social relations and at different points in history. Racism should not therefore, be regarded as an unchanging phenomenon. Racism is understood differently by different commentators, for example Goldberg (1993) is of the opinion that there needs to be a distinction between racial discrimination and racism. He contends that racism is often expressed for its own sake and those who are guilty of racism may not see it as such, it may just be something they have heard while growing up and taken on board without really understanding what it means. Racial discrimination on the other hand generally refers to specific acts. However, Solomos and Back (1996) maintain that there may be no clear dividing line between these two things and that the nature of the relationship between racism and discrimination may be far more complex than is first thought. The experience of those racialised minorities who settle in Britain has to be located in debates about colonialism, post-war migration, changing labour markets and the different traditions and histories of various ethnic groups (Bilton et al, 1996). This assignment will outline the issues that have resulted in patterns of discrimination that have emerged in Britain. It will then proceed to ask the question whether it might be said that Britain is a racist society. Race and ethnicity is a huge subject area and because of word constraints this paper will concentrate on the existence of institutional racism. Institutional racism refers to ethnically based patterns of discrimination that have become embedded into existing social structures and institutions (Giddens, 2001).

The European expansionism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries inevitably led them into contact with the racialised other, what Hall (1992) has termed ‘the west and the rest.’ Beliefs about the capacities of different people gave colonisers some sort of justification for the inequalities that existed in colonial societies. Western science was a key player in defining the concept of race, and how some races were inherently inferior to others. This parallels the justification of science that gender and class inequalities were rooted in biological differences (Gould, 1984). This colonial definition still has ramifications in that life chances and inequalities of wealth and status are still connected with race. At the same time race remains a basis of identity and of defining difference and sameness (Bilton et al, 1996).

Patterns of Immigration

The many different ethnic groups in Britain and other industrialised countries are the result of immigration. While there have been members of other races in Britain for hundreds of years, the twentieth century has seen a significant increase in the numbers of people from ethnic minorities who enter Britain. Britain is more than ever before assuming the mantle of a multi-racial, multi-cultural society. The present situation dates back to the end of the Second World War when there was a labour shortage in Britain. The response of the Government of the time was to encourage migration from members of Commonwealth countries.

The 1948 British Nationality Act granted favorable immigration rights to Citizens of Commonwealth countries (Giddens, 4th ed. 2001:264). The labour shortage that existed after the Second World War meant that there were job opportunities for those people who decided to come to Britain and during the 1950s and 1960s Britain experienced a wave of immigration on an unprecedented scale.

Cashmore (1989) has noted that differences between black and white erupted into the racial violence that took place in London’s Notting Hill in 1958. There was no legislation on race discrimination and so it was not uncommon to find landlords advertising their property and ending with the words no coloureds need apply. These issues highlighte