Is Britain becoming more racist?
The question has arisen again on the back of a widely reported, racially inspired incident involving Chelsea football fans in Paris.
A group of fans prevented a black man from boarding a Metro train, chanting: ‘We’re racist and that’s the way we like it.’
Chelsea football club has denounced this behaviour, as has the Chelsea Supporters Trust, which added that most of the club’s 2000 fans at the game were well behaved.
Racist behaviour in football at home and abroad is, of course, nothing new. In recent years, some of the game’s biggest clubs and national authorities, as well as campaign groups like Kick it Out, have arguably made significant steps toward stamping it out.
So, should we be shocked or surprised by stories like this one?
For me, there is no shock, but there is always an element of surprise.
I’m surprised by events like this because I think that, on the whole, British society is a fairly tolerant one. The vast majority of people within this island nation treat each other with some level of courtesy, if not respect.
We have 64 million people living, mostly peaceably, on a relatively small land mass, so there’s clearly a degree of give-and-take at work in our society.
On the other hand, I’m never exactly shocked by these stories. Within even the most tolerant societies there’s a minority of people who behave in racially motivated ways.
Sadly, that minority often seems to be the most vocal section of the community.
It often seems its members become more vocal when they find themselves in highly-charged environments, of the kind you find at international sporting events.
In these surroundings, group-think can take precedence over independent – and perhaps more reasonable – thought.
People whose views and everyday behaviour might be constrained by cultural norms within the wider society can, when surrounded only by a tight-knit, supportive group of friends, let down their guard, revealing their true mindset.
Travelling abroad can exacerbate this effect. A foreign environment makes it easier for some people to feel liberated from the normal behavioural parameters imposed by culture and the law.
Should we simply ignore these small-scale actions of a few fevered football fans?
There is definitely a case to be made for not over-reacting.
In an age where there are cameras on almost every building and in almost every hand, it is possible to get caught up in the minutia of such stories and lose sight of the bigger picture.
We must keep a sense of perspective and not allow reasoned discussion to give way to hyperbole and hysteria – or party political arguments that focus on fear at the expense of reason.
That said, failing to challenge racially-inspired incidents can seem to suggest, to those already so inclined, that we condone them.
Last summer, the Community Security Trust (CST), a charity set up to protect Britain's Jewish community, recorded its highest-ever monthly total of anti-Semitic incidents.
The CST said it was aware of 302 such events in July 2014, compared to 59 in July 2013. A third of the incidents reportedly related to imagery and language relating to the Holocaust.
Reports are also emerging that other ethnic minorities are suffering abuse. Today I learned that some Chinese groups in the north of England are noting rising levels of abuse.
On their own, some of these racial events might seem insignificant to anyone who is not directly involved. They are not meaningless to the people who endure the abuse.
If we ignore such events, however apparently small, we miss the opportunity to uncover patterns.
We don’t need hysteria, but we do need an athletic determination to stamp our racism, as much as it is in our power to do so.
Incidents like the one on the Metro station may seem to suggest that racism will always be with us. They may seem to show that racism is linked to something fundamental within human nature.
Fatalism is not the answer, however, and being realistic about the insidious nature of the problem does not necessarily preclude the pursuit of an ideal.
This is powerfully demonstrated in the movie Selma, based on the life and work of Martin Luther King and his fellow civil rights activists.
They went into each new campaign with their eyes wide open – to the dangers they faced and to the possibility that their overall strategy may come to nothing.
Yet they stubbornly refused to lose their overriding hope, based in a belief that people of all races essentially want to live in peace.
They took the high road wherever they could, holding out a hand of friendship and calling forth the best in their fellow citizens, whatever their skin tone.
Addressing racism begins with an understanding of the factors that foster it, though these are often many and varied.
Sometimes racist mindsets carry a generational aspect. Negative attitudes are sometimes passed on from parents to children.
These attitudes can then become part of the core identity of a new generation, so thatbeing racist can be seen as a badge of belonging.
The same can be true within clubs and associations, from which some young adults derive a core part of their identity.
In the smartphone, app-driven age, digital identity is supplanting family identity for some isolated young people. Negative stereotypes can spread quickly, being reinforced virally across vast networks.
Racism is also born of fear, especially the fear that one’s own culture may be supplanted by another.
That fear can be especially real where other social factors are already undermining wealth and wellbeing – factors such as unemployment, poor standards of health, low quality housing and high mortality rates.
In those settings, other races sometimes become scapegoats as people look for both an explanation for their problems and an outlet for their angst.
Racism may partly result from human nature’s capacity to fear what it does not understand. It may also be down to complex socio-cultural and economic factors.
We will not always agree on its causes, or the remedies for it. We should agree, however, that it should never be swept under the proverbial carpet.
Hear Mal Fletcher's BBC Radio interview on this subject: click here.