“Reacting to Black Lives Matter: The discursive construction of racism in UK newspapers”

Racism is a term that is used a lot of different ways by a lot of different people. It is often seen as an aberration, something on the fringes, characterised by the irrational prejudices and racist attitudes of a minority. However, racism is about social hierarchy and a social system in which expressions of prejudice by individuals are symptoms of larger power structures. It is important to note that the way that racism is defined is not neutral. If it tends to be seen as a systemic problem, solutions will be centred around a fundamental restructuring of social institutions, but if it tends to be individualised, solutions will be focused on changing the attitudes of prejudiced people, which, while not a bad thing, will not change the system, which will keep reproducing itself. My recent article in Politics analyses how four UK newspapers (the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and the Mirror) discuss racism before and after the uprisings which took place in 2020 in response to the police killing of George Floyd. The main takeaway from the newspaper articles I collected before the protests began is that journalists tended to create a ‘good’ in-group which includes themselves, the sources they cite, and the reader. This in group is not only not-racist, but stands against racism and racist people, who are placed in the corresponding ‘bad’ out-group. The ‘good’ people in the in-group were those identified as being in the reasonable ‘mainstream’, and racism was characterised as a disease or poison infiltrating this mainstream. But this ‘disease’ metaphor misses that racism is built into our society and is not an outside agent. The types of racism that were written about the most were overtly racist language or racist violence, with little mention of systemic forms of racism. Racism was stripped of a structural analysis and seen as mostly about the individual behaviour of outsiders. By defining the in-group through disassociation with an out- group which exists on the margins, this leads to the assumption that the mainstream in-group, being ‘good’ and innocent, don’t require scrutiny, since they condemn racism and make an effort to distance themselves from racists. After the protests began, systemic racism began to be written about more frequently. The phrase ‘systemic racism’ appeared about 80 times in the five months between January and May 2020, compared to about 800 times in June 2020 alone. The in-group/out-group dynamics remained alongside discussions of systemic racism, which came to be represented as a ‘bad’ abstract entity which becomes easy to disidentify from because it is so abstracted. This allowed right-leaning newspapers in particular to acknowledge and oppose systemic racism while also negatively portraying protesters as ‘anarchists and vandals’. Across all the newspapers, the proposed solutions to racism rarely advocated for systemic changes and instead appealed to the values of peace and acceptance. Rather than denying and debating systemic racism, as they did before, journalists openly discussed the problem of racism but only recommend sanitized forms of anti-racism. This, alongside journalists’ continued use of positive self presentation strategies, allowed them to continue to place themselves in opposition to racism in the abstract while not actually supporting structural change.

Flo Bremner

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