The inelegance with which we nearly always place the word race in inverted commas when writing about race relations illustrates our unease in dividing people into racial categories. This unease is a recognition that the social relations we describe as racial have been seen as highly problematic since the 1939–45 war against Nazi Germany. But our discomfiture is increasingly felt in an age of mass migration and the greater participation of nearly if not all countries and communities in the global economy. In Britain, the problematic of race and ethnic relations has spawned an impressive body of literature concerned with both academic and policy issues, and this corpus of literature may be said to set the parameters of the field of British race and ethnic relations. None the less, there still are surprisingly few attempts made to define a set of social relations which may be unambiguously designated as the field of race relations. Indeed, it often appears that the search for a definition of this field and its historical beginnings is a futile enterprise. The result is that commonsensical understandings and vague historical markers are the best we can hope for. The principal aim of this chapter is to suggest, therefore, what we have in mind when we speak about race relations and what these relations might mean in the historical and sociological contexts of post-imperial Britain.
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