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United Kingdom Racial Formations

United Kingdom Racial Formations









The United Kingdom comprises the historic kingdoms of England and Scotland, the principality of Wales, and the province of Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom is also known as Great Britain, or simply as Britain. In 2006, for the first time in British history, the total population of the United Kingdom surpassed 60 million. In terms of contemporary ethnic affiliation, according to the National Statistics Office, Table 1 indicates the various nomenclatures that served to categorize the British population for the 2001 Census. The table shows that

Table 1.
Population of the United Kingdom: By Ethnic Group, April 2001
United KingdomTotal population 
 (Numbers)(Percentages)Non-White population (Percentages)
SOURCE: National Statistics website: Crown copyright material is reproduced with permission of the Controller of HMSO.
White 54,153,898 92.1
Mixed 677,117 1.2 14.6
Other Asian247,6640.45.3
All Asian or Asian British 2,331,423 4.0 50.3
Black Caribbean565,8761.012.2
Black African485,2770.810.5
Black Other97,5850.22.1
All Black or Black British 1,148,738 2.0 24.8
Chinese 247,403 0.4 5.3
Other ethnic groups 230,615 0.4 5.0
All minority ethnic 4,635,296 7.9 100.0
All population 58,789,194 100

people of color made up 7.9 percent of the population at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The story of “ethnic diversity” in the United Kingdom is not completely told by census figures, however, as they give a rather static or homogenous view of white ethnicity. Since the earliest times, many peoples with varied histories, beliefs, languages, and cultures have settled in Britain, from the Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Ages (5000 BC–100 BC), to the Roman Britain era (55 BC–410 AD). In short, Picts, Celts, Romans, Saxons, Angles, Danes, Jutes, Vikings, and Normans are key historical cultural groups that led to the “normative” white ethnic categories now known as the English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish. Thus, the ethnic heritage of the United Kingdom is one of deep-rooted cultural mixture. In modern times, contemporary white British ethnicities have continued to blend with the arrival of eastern European migrants after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Crucially, from a white ethnic historical perspective alone, racial formation in the United Kingdom is complex, fluid, and deeply mongrelized.


The British Empire, in both its colonial and postcolonial histories, has arguably the most responsibility for the majority of settlement by people of African heritage in Britain. After all, it was this colonial presence that pushed millions of Africans into what is now referred to as the African Diaspora.

However, there is evidence of an African presence in Britain during the Roman era. Noted British historians, such as James Walvin, have found archeological evidence for a legion of African soldiers. These were not enslaved individuals, and some were high-ranking officers within the Roman army. Coming up the centuries, we find that in 1596 Queen Elizabeth I was “discontented” with there being “too many negars and blackamoores in the realm” (Bygott 1992, p. 18).

Therefore, African descent has longevity on mainland Britain, yet it can be deemed a contentious presence in the minds of certain social forces in the power structure from the sixteenth century onward. But it is in the era of Empire, enslavement, and colonialism that people of African descent arrived from the North American continent after the American War of Independence. These were the African Americans that fought with the British and then emigrated to England and its Caribbean colonies.

Cities like Bristol, Cardiff, and Liverpool were built mostly with the profits of the transatlantic slave trade. Slavery in the British colonies was formally abolished in 1833, but the sea routes of the “Black Atlantic” continued to bring peoples of African heritage to the mother country. The numbers were not large, but there is evidence of black communities in London, Bristol, and Liverpool from the mid-1800s onward. These communities developed in a time of overt racism, for the proliferation of a popular culture that celebrated the British Empire also deemed subjected peoples to be inferior. This is the backdrop to black presence in Britain in the twentieth century.


The United Kingdom looked to its colonies for funding, munitions workers, and soldiers during both world wars. West African, African Caribbean, and Indian volunteers worked for the British war effort in various capacities. India alone had almost four million individuals enrolled in all services. During World War II, two and a half million Indians, the largest volunteer army in history, put their lives at risk for the British Empire.

Once World War II ended, there was a need for labor in the United Kingdom to help rebuild the economy. It was mostly African Caribbean workers that were recruited to fill the jobs that most whites would not do. After World War II came the “laissez-faire” era of migration to Britain. Due to the need for labor, racism was not as prevalent in the late 1940s and early 1950s. A booming economy also made it a less discriminatory environment for black workers. However, this was not to last. By the late 1950s, political forces were to emerge to curtail the African Caribbean and Asian migration to Britain. African Caribbeans were often deemed the “reserve army of labor,” and they were thought to be only a transient, not a permanent, working group. However, many thousands of African Caribbean migrants decided to stay and raise families in Britain. By the end of the 1950s, the black presence in Britain was largely defined as a social problem, though the issue of white racism was rarely raised in mainstream circles.

In terms of the contemporary generation of peoples of African descent in the United Kingdom, the majority of social indicators point to there being major disparities between them and their white counterparts in terms of education and employment opportunities. Whites are twice as likely to gain employment, and young black men are more likely to be excluded from schools. Moreover, Home Office figures for 2003 reveal, in terms of the criminal justice system, that young black men in England and Wales represented about 12 percent of the total prison population, while black women represented a staggering 19 percent of the total prison population. Given the fact that peoples of African descent are only 2 percent of the overall British population, there is some way to go to achieve racial equity in prison confinement.


The label “Asian,” in relation to the United Kingdom context, most often refers to migrants and their children from the South Asian countries of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. However, the term also includes those peoples of Asian descent who previously resided in the African nations of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Asians came to the United Kingdom mainly in two periods: During the 1950s they came from their original homelands, and in the 1970s they came as refugees from these African nations. Finally, there are approximately 250,000 Chinese in the United Kingdom, though they are not usually considered in the same cultural reference as South Asians.


By 1960, with the threat of immigration legislation becoming more severe—in the form of laws that prevented black migrants from entering Britain—migration from the Caribbean, Pakistan, and India rose sharply. This ushered in the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act. Basically, this immigration legislation meant that British colonial subjects were no longer “free” to enter Britain, that there was now no automatic right of entry. A system of employment

vouchers was introduced, whereby migrants were “ranked” by skill and usefulness to the nation. Further immigration legislation in 1965, 1968, 1971, and 1981 effectively determined entry and the right to stay in Britain on racial grounds. Immigration policy was basically “color-coded,” and only migrants from former colonial territories such as Australia, New Zealand, or Gibraltar—or those colonies that happened to be mainly white in ethnic terms—were secure in their rights to entry and stay in Britain. Throughout the 1980s, immigration legislation became more stringent for people of color, but evermore lax for white migrants.


During this period, antiracist and antidiscrimination laws focusing on “race” also emerged to offset prejudice and racism toward people of color in the United Kingdom. Arguably, the most pertinent of these laws are the 1976 Race Relations Act and the 2000 Race Relations Amendment Act. Basically, under the Race Relations Act, it is unlawful to discriminate against a person on the grounds of “race, colour, nationality (including citizenship), or ethnic or national origin” (Commission for Racial Equality). The key areas in which the legislation applies are the fields of employment, housing, health, education, and other public authorities associated with social welfare provision. Public authorities now have a statutory obligation to eradicate unlawful discriminatory practices. It is difficult to gauge the effectiveness of such laws in British society, and most social indicators in the mid-2000s show a rise, not a decline, in prejudice and racism, according to the Commission for Racial Equality. Moreover, commentators have long argued that these antiracist laws are generally “toothless” in terms of bringing to justice the perpetuators of racialized discriminatory practices. Finally, for the United Kingdom to have the Race Relations Act, which deems racial discrimination illegal, at the same time that there are overtly racist British immigration and

asylum policies is somewhat contradictory. At the very least, it sends conflicting messages to the British public.


The murder of Stephen Lawrence in April 1993 is seen as a watershed in dealing with the problem of race in Britain. Stephen Lawrence was an 18-year-old middleclass black man when he was killed by five white racist youths. He was stabbed to death at a London bus stop, and it was later found that the police failed to adequately deal with the murder scene in a professional manner. For instance, they let Lawrence die in a pool of blood without giving him immediate medical assistance, and they also let vital clues about the identity of his killers slip by. Stephen’s parents, Doreen and Neville Lawrence, campaigned vigorously for social justice, and in 1997 there was a public inquiry that led to the Macpherson Report, released in 1999. In the report, Sir William Macpherson acknowledged that there was “institutionalized racism” throughout the British police force and in other public institutions. His recommendations for the prevention of racism led to a call for greater multicultural education. This would include the following: a value for cultural diversity would be put into the National Curriculum; Local Educational Authorities (LEAs) would need to promote antiracist strategies; LEAs would be inspected and monitored to see how antiracist policy was being implemented; both the police and local governments would promote cultural diversity initiatives. These recommendations had widespread publicity, and numerous “targets” for improving cultural diversity were established in these institutions. Only time will tell, however, if significant improvement occurs.


By the 1990s, immigration policy was turned more toward the asylum seeker, particularly those associated with the wars in Somalia and Sierra Leone and the break-up up of the old Yugoslavia. Increasingly, the British public was bombarded by the right-wing press with the idea of “asylum seeking spongers” who were out to exploit the welfare state. This created a “moral panic” against asylum seekers not seen since the days of the anti-immigrationist Enoch Powell in the late 1960s. The era of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1979–1990) and her successor John Major (1990–1997) created what could be deemed a “xenophobic Britain,” particularly by the 1990s. The 1993 Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act established the right of asylum seekers to appeal a denial of asylum, but it also gave the Home Office stronger powers to deport those seeking asylum. Many thousands have not been allowed into Britain under this law. Under Prime Minister Tony Blair’s tenure (1997–2007), a continued regression regarding asylum seekers occurred. The Home Office revealed in 2003 that the majority of applications for asylum come from Somalia, Iraq, Zimbabwe, Iran, and Afghanistan. In 2005, the Commission for Racial Equality in the United Kingdom stated that applications had reached a thirteen-year low, indicating the increasing difficulty such individuals have in entering Britain. Finally, Home Office figures reveal that around 375,000 people from eastern Europe came to work in the United Kingdom between 2004 and 2007, and the number of foreign workers in the United Kingdom stood at 1.5 million in 2007, or one in every twenty-five workers. This represents the largest group of migrants to the United Kingdom since the 1950s and 1960s.

Overall, in the context of black and Asian minorities in Britain, there is a definite difference in the experiences of these groups in British society. For example, Indians tend to be more affluent than Bangladeshi and Pakistani settlers. Asians also fair better in British schools compared to African Caribbean pupils and, in some instances, white ethnic groups. With these racial nuances becoming more and more clear in social analysis, racial formation in the United Kingdom will continue to offer both complexity and enduring racialized inequalities. Crucially, although people of color represent about 8 percent of the British population, their collective impact has had a tremendous impact on how the United Kingdom, in keeping with its past, continues to develop via both migrant and indigenous peoples. British racism is part of the experience that people of color have contended with and continue to contend with.

SEE ALSO Africa: British Colonies; Colonialism, Internal; Racial Demographics in the Western Hemisphere; Racial Formations; Social Welfare States; White Racial Identity


British Government Home Office.

Bygott, David. 1992. Black and British. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Christian, Mark. 2005. “The Politics of Black Presence in Britain and Black Male Exclusion in the British Education System.” Journal of Black Studies 35 (3): 327–346.

Commission for Racial Equality (UK).

Fryer, Peter. 1984. Staying Power: The History of Black Peoples in Britain. London: Pluto Press.

Modood, Tariq, et al. 1997. Ethnic Minorities in Britain: Diversity and Disadvantage—Fourth National Survey of Ethnic Minorities. London: Policy Studies Institute.

National Office for Statistics (UK).

Mark Christian

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