Racism in Britain


The study of race and racism offers a rich area for sociological research. Although there may be apparent ‘visual’ differences between so-called racial groups, such as in skin colour, there is a significant consensus that ‘race’ is not biological, but is a social construction. In other words, it is something created by ‘social’ processes, rather than biological ones. If race is a social construction then sociology and social-sciences, more generally, are the best placed disciplines to study this subject matter.

Why have a 'sociology' of race and racism?

The crux of the matter is that race, although it has no scientific ‘objective’ existence, has remained a central way we understand the world since its introduction into our vocabularies. Why, therefore, has race remained so powerful as a way of interpreting the world? Why does race continue to have such a strong impact upon the way one lives one’s life? Why does race continue to so strongly affect one’s life chances in the labour market, education system, and access to cultural resources? This module seeks to shed some more light on these questions, answering that an analysis of racism is necessary to understand the lingering, immutable effects of race.

In particular, this module focuses on the development of racism in the United Kingdom, and how various sociologists have understood this development. We start with the rise of colonialism and British Empire and how the very concept of ‘race’ was constructed and used as a means for excluding particular people. We then move into a discussion of how this exclusion continued into the 20th century through the practices of overt exclusion and violent acts of racism. This also invites us to consider how racism often overlaps with xenophobic sentiments – in other words, hostility towards immigrants. We then move into what many consider the ‘post-racial’ era, where state policies seem to provide equal access to all, and racism is seen to no longer be a problem. A sociological analysis of this period shows how racism continued, but just in more covert ways. We then finish with a contemporary case study – an instance of the ‘applied sociology’ of race and racism – particularly looking at the 2016 EU referendum vote for Brexit. Taking the claims that Britain became more racist after the referendum result, this activity argues instead that Brexit was the outcome of racist structures in Britain that had been around for a very long time.

The principle aim of this module is to encourage critical thought around the concepts of race and racism. We encounter some seminal authors from Du Bois, through to Robert Miles, Pierre Bourdieu, and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. Through discussion of the development of racism, it is intended that the value of sociology in this area is displayed. Sociology, rather than politics, psychology, history, and economics, can allow us to see how the concepts of ‘race’ and ‘racism’ are central to social life and social processes, even when they aren’t explicitly mentioned. Sociology also shows, as this module explores, how race and racism have been so durable because – at the end of the day – they serve particular social functions and interests, and society could not do without them.

Video Resource

Resource activities

Racialisation and Racism Pre 20th Century

This activity analyses British colonialism and Empire in order to understand racial attitudes and racism in 20th century Britain.  


Moving into the 20th Century and Post-War UK

This activity looks at how race and racism, in the aftermath of the Second World War, intersected with the anti-immigrant sentiments of the native British population. 


Racism in a 'Colour-blind' era

From the 1960s, we start to see a move towards two characteristics of racism: post-racialism and cultural difference. Explore what these mean in this activity.


Brexit - The EU Referendum and Racism

Since the referendum result for Britain to leave the EU, there has been a considerable spike in hate crimes. Is this as a result of Brexit, or something more historic? Discuss these issues in this activity.


Reflective questions

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Task 1

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Task 2

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Task 3

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Further reading

  • Race Disparity Audit

    Published by the government on 10th October 2017, this report offers insight into how people from different backgrounds face various outcomes based on where they live and who they are.

  • Forty Years of Struggle

    A report from the Human City Institute about the ethnic struggle in the UK in regards to the housing crisis in recent decades.