Extensive report on British and American racial attitudes shows two countries in close alignment
The most extensive comparison of British and American racial attitudes over the last 50 years has found a softening of prejudice, creating the conditions necessary for a black prime minister to emerge in the UK.
A joint study conducted by Harvard and Manchester universities has found a "deepening tide of tolerance" in the attitudes of both Americans and Britons.
Ed Fieldhouse, the study's co-author and executive director of Manchester's Institute for Social Change, said: "The good news is that in terms of the underlying attitudes of the majority, Britain is in the same place as the United States. Whether it is willingness to work for a black boss or to welcome a non-white person into the family, majority British opinion – just like majority American opinion – is gradually getting more tolerant."
The project's team includes the Guardian's Tom Clark and the American academic Robert Putnam, whose book Bowling Alone catalogued the decrease in American civic engagement and the benefits of "social capital" or social networks to both individuals and communities.
The authors have analysed all available polling from the two countries, including 50-year Gallup series and the poll series British Social Attitudes. They have been able to show that since the 1980s the proportion of whites who admit to discomfort at the idea of a black person marrying into the family has been falling in both nations by around two percentage points each year. In the UK, since the 80s, the percentage of people who object to a black boss has fallen by half from 20% to 10% – a similar decrease to that in America. Last week, Tidjane Thiam was appointed the first black chief executive of the Prudential financial service company.
Though there is little polling on attitudes to black politicians available in the UK, researchers point to an increase in the number of Americans saying they are willing to vote for a black candidate – from 53% in 1967 to 94% today. Given the pattern of change is similar in the UK and US on other variables, the reports' authors argue that the UK may now be ready for a black prime minister.
But the study also bears out the fears of senior British figures including Trevor Phillips, the chair of the equalities and human rights commission, that the lack of routes into politics for black British candidates still means the UK lags behind America in the number of black and ethnic-minority politicians.
Putnam said that the UK had not yet gone through either of the two steps Barack Obama referred to as the Moses and Joshua generation, the Moses generation being black politicians representing black areas, and the Joshua generation being black politicians serving non-black areas.
Putnam said: "Change is taking a similar form on both sides of the Atlantic: exactly as in the US, the generation of Britons uncomfortable with non-whites in positions of power or intimacy is gradually dying off, and being replaced by its more tolerant offspring.
"It is fair to add, however, that the smaller minority population in the UK, as well as the much shallower pool of black politicians and the more centralised political recruitment paths, still tends to work against black representation in Britain."
Obama was elected in the wake of a sustained rise in the number of black elected officials in the US that can be traced back over several decades.
Though the report shows some improvement in minority participation in local politics in the UK, with the total number roughly doubling since the "very low level of the 80s", the authors show this to have stagnated recently.
They conclude: "Its recent failure to grow has less to do with racial prejudice than the fading fortunes of Labour. Non-whites are six times better represented among that party's councillors than among than the Conservatives, and the pattern in all recent local elections has been for Labour to lose seats."