How can we have a meaningful debate about racism? We surveyed 20,000 people and here’s what we found | Nina Kelly

TThe national debate over racism seems to be stuck in an endless loop. We all know the routine: a public debate is triggered by a report highlighting a case of alleged sectarianism. It could be that an Asian cricketer was nicknamed “Bomber”; or that a member of the royal family would have questioned the color of a baby’s skin. Regardless, the inciting incident then sets the parameters for the entire discussion to follow. An array of loud, angry voices appear during media debates or radio call-ins, suggesting what might or might not have happened (no one knows for sure) and whether or not it’s all racist (everyone is certain whether this is the case or it is not the case).

And so, instead of understanding the nuances of racial inequality, the problem is portrayed as simply a matter of people saying or doing bad things to each other, and we are treated to a tedious back and forth between those who “play the race card” and the others. “in denial”. Many of us lose interest, while the overall issue of racism in society – a real problem in need of an urgent solution – remains unanswered.

This is why, six years ago, the Reframing the race initiative was put in place. This is an attempt to repair this broken debate. We spoke to 20,000 people in England and Scotland, testing more than a dozen ways to talk about racism. With our unprecedented database, we now dare to answer the question: what really works to change the discourse?

We discovered – clearly – that words make a difference. New ways of talking about racism lead to new ways of listening.

The first problem we discovered is that people disagree about what basic facts mean. For example, “black people are stopped and searched seven times more often than white people”: some will think this indicates racist bias in policing; others will simply say that it is a sign of criminality among the black population. So it’s important to tell the whole story that the overrepresentation of Black people in the criminal justice system not imply that they are more likely to commit crimes. Instead, the data reveals a complex social structure – involving bias in the justice system, poverty, educational exclusion and poor housing – that stacks the odds against black people.

“We found that people disagree on what the basic facts mean. For example, “Black people are stopped and searched seven times more often than white people.” Photograph: John Stillwell/PA

This explanation isn’t as striking as the statistics in the title, but we found a particularly effective way to communicate the problem of racism: namely, a resume survey that showed recruiters were biased in favor of candidates whites. By telling the full story of this study, we were able to rule out any explanation other than racial discrimination. Choosing to represent structural racism in this way allows the general public to see it for themselves and shifts the discussion away from the question “Is it racist?” ping pong game.

And where facts don’t work, metaphors sometimes do. We found that using the image of a birdcage to represent a racist system that traps some people inside was powerful. Everyone can understand how each rung of a cage combines to deny freedom and opportunity. The birdcage metaphor also appeals to people’s values ​​rather than their logic. Unlike stop and search statistics, the concept of freedom is universally understood and accepted.

Another thing we’ve found is that showing some intention behind structural racism — or even naming a “perpetrator,” such as a department — leads to a more fluid discussion about how to address it. This approach is also more likely to inspire hope that things can change; if something was designed in a way that disadvantaged certain racial groups, it’s reasonable to assume we might rethink it.

Surprisingly, our research also tells us that it is possible to be bold – even radical – in the fight against racism, provided your ideas are explained well enough. For example, we found that most people agreed with the idea of ​​investing in mental health services so that the police do not have to do the work of mental health professionals and to teach school children from all backgrounds about their shared history. I doubt the phrases “defund the police” or “decolonize the curriculum” would have generated the same support.

Overall, we found that it is not easy for people to feel confident in tackling racism when its smallest details are constantly controversial. But we know that we all have the potential to bring about positive change. So if you find yourself stuck in an argument about what is or isn’t racist, think about how you could change that conversation. What could you say differently? None of us has the perfect answer, but we can all choose to not be part of the problem.

  • Nina Kelly is director of content and communications at Reframing Race, a nonprofit research initiative

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

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