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Is racial prejudice on the rise?

Posted on 29 May 2014 .
Tags: British Social Attitudes

Yesterday our British Social Attitudes survey caused a huge amount of comment with the finding that in 2013, three in ten Brits admit to some level of racial prejudice. As well as comments about sample size, method, and validity of the question - anticipated by my colleague Alison Park - many questioned our reading of the trend. The Guardian’s headline (‘Rising tide of race prejudice across Britain’) also came in for some stick – but in our view, that’s an editorial judgement for the Guardian.  So here’s a more detailed explanation of  our conclusions, based on interpreting observed volatility in the data.

First,  we’ll look at it at the data up to 2001, including a four year rolling trend line:


Levels of self-reported racial prejudice in this graph are essentially declining from the early 1990s until the end of the decade. In fact, the authors of our 2002 report noted a “gradual long-term decline” up to 2001, followed by “marked rise in 2002”.  So let’s look at what happened over the course of the first decade of  this century, again with a four year rolling trend:


There are two points to make here. The first is that in eight of the ten years following 2001, levels were at 30% or higher, compared with the low point of 25% in 2000-2001.  The second is that the rolling average moves from 28% to 34%.  So in our view, so far it is a reasonable interpretation that the trend was falling during the 1990s, and ticked up in the first decade of this century.

Then we come to the challenge of noting the potential impact of one-off events, versus the long term trend.  And in particular, what I called the Olympic ‘blip’ in 2012, where the reading fell from 37% in 2011 to 26% in 2012.   Our interviewers were working during the Olympic fever in June and July 2012, and that’s our hypothesis as to why levels fell. But even here, the dip downwards is only a return to the levels at the turn of the century. And they ticked back up to 30% in 2013 – a statistically significant rise. 


So in conclusion, today, levels of self-reported prejudice are still five percentage points above the all-time low.  It’s always difficult to interpret where a trend is going right now – and with the 2014 World Cup imminent, the data we collect later this year will be particularly interesting.

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