In the tense aftermath of the Brexit vote, it's the job of all public bodies to take on hate crime and prejudice

Prejudice and discrimination can rise at a time of heightened insecurity, says Dr Marc Verlot of the Equality and Human Rights Commission – and it's not just the job of the police to tackle it

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has called on the UK government to review its hate crime strategy and has urged businesses to stand up against racism after a spike in reports of race hate incidents since the EU referendum. In a major report to the United Nations on racial discrimination, we make a series of recommendations to the UK government to tackle hate crime and lead a national effort to defeat those who are trying to use the Brexit vote to legitimise and spread hate. 

Since then, the UK government has published its plan for tackling hate crime, called Action Against Hate. Today the Commission has published two research reports, one on hate crime and another on prejudice and unlawful behaviour. There reports bring together the latest evidence and insight on hate crime, hate speech – and how prejudice is related to discrimination and unlawful behaviour.

Our report on the causes and motivations of hate crime, led by Mark Walters and Rupert Brown at the University of Sussex, explains how hate crime is triggered by a combination of perceived threat and opportunity. When people feel insecure or under threat, longstanding and previously hidden prejudices can be stirred or new ones created. 

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Although the vast majority of people in Britain value equality and openness, in times of heightened insecurity and uncertainty some people justify prejudice or discrimination by arguing that particular "outgroups" pose a threat to their own (sometimes dominant or majority) "ingroup" in society. This perceived threat can be realistic (the dominant group feels their safety and/or health is threatened), symbolic (values or way of life are threatened) or economic (jobs or property are threatened).

Media and public discourse around the EU referendum has provided the opportunity for feelings of threat and prejudice to surface. Some public discourse had an implicit, or at times even overt, xenophobic tone, depicting immigrants in an exaggerated negative light and with disregard for basic truths and facts. This has created a climate where prejudice has become more prominent and expressed.

"Media and public discourse around the EU referendum has provided the opportunity for feelings of threat and prejudice to surface"

The second report, on prejudice and unlawful behaviour, and led by Dominic Abrams, Hannah Swift and Lynsey Mahmood at the University of Kent, looks at how prejudice develops and what are the key influencing factors. The report is packed with the latest insights on how prejudice can lead to discrimination, identity-based harassment and violence. It examines how prejudice affects different parts of the population in different ways. 

Some of the evidence reviewed, for example, shows that people with mental health conditions experienced more negative attitudes than other disabled people. On the whole, disability discrimination is seen to be driven more by structural barriers, over-simplistic categorisation and patronising stereotypes. On the other hand, attitudes towards women may appear to be positive but may mask more benevolent or patronising forms of prejudice. These at-first-sight positive attitudes also need to be considered alongside high levels of violence against women and girls.

The report explains that parts of Britain can be characterised as being in a state of "rivalrous cohesion" – meaning that there is a high level of prejudice between groups and, at the same time, also a high level of social cohesion within those groups. 

Rivalrous cohesion is particularly likely to occur when times are hard and when people’s sense of control, status and identity are felt to be under threat. It often leads to more rivalry between groups in society, increased tensions, mistrust and expressions of hatred.

Tackling rivalrous cohesion requires proactive and strong public leadership. Too often, addressing the consequences of prejudice and hate crime is left to the police. To shift the negative dynamics, concerted action is needed from different parts of the public sector, including local government, health and social care providers, employers, transport providers and schools. 

Public bodies and their leaders can make a real and tangible difference in tackling hate crime and prejudice. And that is exactly what the duty to promote good relations under the Public Sector Equality Duty in the Equality Act 2010 requires. At this time of increased tension, all public servants should be actively considering how their role can contribute to improving relations between different groups in our society.

Through this research we have identified a number of promising interventions, including on how to tackle bullying in schools, address stigma around mental health, and encourage contact between different groups in society. Although these initiatives often address a particular problem or target a particular group, they can be applied and shared across a variety of settings and with a variety of groups. For example, what works in schools can be tested out in the workplace, or can be used to change the culture within particular professional groups, such as the fire service.

In the coming months, the Commission will be presenting the findings from the research through a number of roundtables and will explore how we can put into practice what we have learned. We are looking for organisations across Britain that are interested in trying out some of the effective interventions and evaluating these robustly so that they can be used more generally. If you want to find out more, please get in touch.

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