Hate crime experts to rule whether English countryside harbours ‘rural racism’

A number of walking groups have been set up to encourage a more ethnically-diverse appreciation of the English countryside
A number of walking groups have been set up to encourage a more ethnically-diverse appreciation of the English countryside

The English countryside will be studied by hate crime experts to establish whether it harbours "rural racism".

Academics specialising in British colonialism and hate studies have been commissioned to record the “lived realities” of ethnic minorities living, working, or hiking in the country.

The study will gather evidence of “rural racism" in villages in England and the great outdoors, establishing how minorities might be excluded and which policies could prevent this in future.

The project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust, a charity established by a plantation-owning soap magnate behind Unilever, which vowed following Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 to help “rid the world of the systemic injustices of racism”.

Racism 'routinely overlooked'

A statement on the new Rural Racism Project from the trust said it will “explore the lived realities of those encountering racism within the English countryside whose experiences are routinely overlooked, minimised and unchallenged”.

It added that this will "play a key role in uncovering the nature, extent and impacts of racism experienced in rural towns and villages across the country”.

It is understood the project will examine how ethnic minority hikers may face open hostility when out walking, and how other visitors and recreational groups might feel excluded from enjoying the countryside.

The study will also canvas ethnic minority residents to see how those living and working in rural England may be made to feel unwelcome, in what ways this “rural racism is expressed”, and how this might differ from place to place.

The project launching in October 2023 will be led by criminology expert Prof Neil Chakraborti, director of the University of Leicester's Centre for Hate Studies, along with fellow hate crime specialist Dr Amy Clarke, and colonialism expert Prof Corinne Fowler.

Prof Fowler's recent work has included contributions to the National Trust’s survey of stately homes linked to colonialism and empire, including Sir Winston Churchill's residence at Chartwell, and a book on imperialism’s legacy in the countryside, titled Green Unpleasant Land.

Plans for the study come after a 2019 report from Campaign to Protect Rural England, which found that people from ethnic minority backgrounds account for around one per cent of visitors to England’s national parks.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has previously reported that minority groups often view the countryside as an “exclusively English environment” - concerns echoed on the BBC’s Countryfile.

Signposts to Mecca

Groups such as Black Girls Hike and Muslim Hikers have attempted to increase interest in the countryside among minority counties. In the latter’s case, that has included placing signs pointing to Mecca in sites across the Peak District.

In 2021, the trust commissioned research into Lord Lever’s company, Lever Brothers. The firm used subsidiary organisations to manage palm oil plantations in the Belgian Congo and Solomon Islands in the early 20th century, before it merged with Dutch concern Margarine Unie to form Unilever in 1929.

The research documented “the distressing labour practices in the … plantations owned by Lever, including mistreatment, forced labour and abusive practices”.

The trust vowed to address the legacies of exploitation raised in the research, stating: “In the work of the trust, particularly through our scholarships and research, we have funded many independent studies of the legacy of colonialism, racism and other forms of [related] injustices.

“As well as reflecting on our own past, we will continue to fund important research that can help us understand such wrongs.”

The research and subsequent commitment followed a promise following Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 to “continue to offer Leverhulme grants to study these and other social inequalities and in this way help rid the world of the systemic injustices of racism”.

The trust has been contacted for comment.