When I was posted to The Hindu London bureau back in 2000 my biggest worry was whether I would be able to find a house in an area of my choice. I had heard horror stories about racial discrimination in housing: how white homeowners often hung up the phone just on hearing a foreign accent.
In my case, it was a double-whammy. I was not only the “wrong colour” but a Muslim to boot in an age of Islamophobia.
In the event, I had a surprisingly smooth sailing — smoother than my experience of house-hunting in Delhi as a Muslim.
When I moved house a second time, it was at the height of anti-Muslim prejudice sparked by 9/11 attacks and I was genuinely nervous. Yet, to my surprise, nobody was interested in my religion or ethnicity. Of course, it was not always like this. And those horror stories I had heard about racist landlords hanging up on foreign accents were true. But they belonged to another era — an era when xenophobia was so deep-seated that the native white Britons actually fled areas where immigrants settled in large numbers.
The country has moved on since then. No doubt, covert racial discrimination lingers on. Academic and peer Lord Bhikhu Parekh cites a 2010 Runnymede Trust survey which found that financial institutions were reluctant to give mortgage to Muslims and blacks.
The positive change in British attitudes towards non-white tenants and property buyers is down, essentially, to strong and strictly enforced anti-discrimination laws. Britain’s first Race Relations Act was enacted in 1965, but its remit was restricted to outlawing racial discrimination in public places on “the grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origin.” It did not apply to discrimination in jobs and housing.
The Act was amended in 1968 following a spirited public campaign by Asian and Afro-Caribbean immigrants. The new Race Relations Act made it illegal to refuse housing, employment or public services to people because of their ethnic background. It also created a Community Relations Commission to promote “harmonious community relations” and a Race Relations Board to address complaints of racial prejudice. More changes were made in 1976 to plug the shortcomings of previous legislation. The Race Relations Board was replaced by a Commission for Racial Equality.
A remarkable feature of the British state, irrespective of the ruling party of the day, has been its consistent engagement with race relations through periodic amendments to existing legislation. The most recent amendment was made in 2010 when a new omnibus Equality Act was brought in to provide “a single legal framework with a clear, streamlined law to more effectively tackle disadvantage and discrimination.” Besides incorporating the provisions of the previous Act, the new Act bars homeowners from disposing of their property in a manner that could constitute discrimination on grounds of ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.
Strong laws apart, what has made Britain’s anti-discrimination regime effective is that it allows ordinary citizens to seek quick redress without having to resort to expensive litigation.