A quiet anniversary? Reviewing the Race Relations Act 1965

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer for Birkbeck, University of London

Race-Relations-Act-webIt has been 50 years since the initial Race Relations Act was introduced in the UK. But despite progress being made in the fight against race-related discrimination since the 1965 Act came into play, many argue there is still a long road ahead before true race equality is reached.

A fascinating evening of discussion and debate around the Race Relation Acts of 1965, ’68 and ’76 as well as more recent legislation in 2003 and 2010 was held at Birkbeck’s Malet Street Building on Tuesday, June 19 as part of Social Sciences Week.

Run by the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism in collaboration with JCORE, the event brought together top thinkers in the field of race relations to review the historical context of the Acts, to explore the current landscape, and to consider the implications for the future.

Following introductory speeches by Professor David Feldman and Dr Edie Friedman, presentations were led by Dr Camilla Schofield from University of East Anglia, Dr Anastasia Vakulenko from the University of Birmingham and Dr Omar Khan of the Runnymede Trust.

“A quiet anniversary”

Dr Camilla Schofield spoke about the history of race relations, and the Race Relations Act, focusing in particular on the initial 1965 and 1968 Acts.

The 1965 Act, she explained, represented in many ways a radical break from the passivity of the UK legal system, but she noted that many anti-racist groups and activists felt the Act was not strong enough to challenge racial discrimination in a meaningful way.

For instance, of the 327 complaints made to the Race Relations Board between 1966 and 1968, 238 cases were considered to be outside its jurisdiction. As such, the Act was considered by many as a process of pacification, rather than criminal sanction.

While the 1968 Act extended the law to recognise private discrimination in employment, housing, credit and insurance, still it – like its predecessor – was not considered powerful enough, and was certainly not heralded as a triumph of the Left. This in part, Schofield explained, is perhaps why the 50th is such “a quiet anniversary”.

However, she made a case for reinvigorating interest in the Acts, and highlighted the importance of not considering them as outright failures. There is room, she said, “to tell their history from the bottom up”, by focusing on the experiences of the volunteers and officials who have been involved in the enforcement of the Acts, such as members of local conciliation committees. This would not be “a radical history”, she said, “but one of everyday lives”.

Muslims and Jews: “A fragmented picture”

Looking further on than the ’65 and ’68 Acts, Dr Anastasia Vakulenko discussed the historical perspective of the Race Relations Act with regards to Muslim and Jewish communities.

While the third iteration – the 1976 Act – was superseded by the Equality Act of 2010, Dr Vakulenko explained that many Muslims and Jews still feel they could be protected better under the law.

In the beginning of this journey, five decades ago, these groups were not at the top of the agenda, she explained. Their complexities in terms of self-identification, which run across cultural and religious boundaries, meant in many cases it was not easy to bring any discrimination cases to tribunal.

Fitting themselves to discrimination law was very difficult. Until 2003 for example, Jews could only make a case for discrimination on grounds of race, not religion. However, Dr Vakulenko noted, they were at least able to benefit from the Race Relations Act at a time when religious discrimination wasn’t recognised in law. Muslims, on the other hand, could only benefit indirectly, when the act of discrimination impacted on the individual on grounds of race e.g. if he or she was Muslim and Asian.

Through the latter half of her presentation, Dr Vakulenko cited recent cases which highlight the ongoing complexities in UK race relations and the responses of the legal system, such as that of 15-year-old Shabina Begum’s unsuccessful High Court battle to wear an ankle-length jibab gown in school; and the 2009 Jewish Free School case in which the school was ruled as guilty of having discriminated against a pupil who was not considered by the orthodox religious authorities to be authentically Jewish.

Looking at the current landscape, Dr Vakulenko said she saw a fragmented picture, in which Jewish and Muslim communities often see themselves as the most aggrieved minorities: with Muslims having to challenge discriminatory perceptions of being “radical extremists”; while Jews are tackling the image that, en masse, they are supporters of an “apartheid state”.

The challenge, then, is for these two communities to avoid falling into partisan political traps so that they may find a common ground and a stronger allied voice against discrimination.

“Do we need more legislation?”

Bringing the presentations to a close, Dr Omar Khan discussed the state of play for racial equality in the 21st Century.

Speaking from his position within the UK’s leading independent race equality thinktank, he explained why he believes it is misguided to think that we live in a “post racial society”. Rather, he finds there are considerable challenges to surmount before race equality can be reached:

  • The challenge of analysis – a difficult task when we consider that the nature of ethnic equalities always vary
  • The challenge of mobilisation/activism – given the relatively small population of each ethnic community, there is still a major need to bring them together in a sustainable way
  • The challenge of policy – without robust data collection, we can’t know the effectiveness of government policies on race equality.

Offering a new way to frame this argument, Dr Khan asked the question: ‘Do we still need further legislation in Britain, or is it about finding better ways to enforce the legislation that is in place?’

“Racism has not gone away,” Dr Khan told the audience. “It’s time to come together on a common platform in Britain”.

Without better enforcement and a wider, more honest debate on race equality, he added, it could be 50 or even 100 years before we can come close to being a ‘post-race society’.

Off the agenda?

Following the presentations, the speakers gathered together to field questions from the audience. Topics arising included the emergence of UKIP; whether race has fallen off the political and activist agenda; and how the Race Relations and Equalities Acts impact upon schools.

Dr Friedman offered some closing comments, noting that it is important not to forget the Race Relations Acts. Instead, they should be considered important milestones that should be followed up, to make sure that we continue working towards creating a society what we all want to live in.

Agreeing with those thoughts, Professor Feldman added that “what is needed is more enforcement and more mobilisation, as well as more research”.

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