It was as obvious as it was downplayed. In all the bombast, fear-mongering, misrepresentations and downright lies perpetuated by all sides in the Brexit debate, the potential impact on Britain’s eight million plus ethnic minority population was being muffled. It was competing for attention in the dominant cannon fire of immigration, economy and sovereignty.
The tone of the ‘debate’ had been reduced to near-hysterical whipping up of the emotions by protagonists on the Leave side, which were unfortunately unchecked by the Remain camp. The Leave campaign attributed the ills and prevailing condition of the country to unchecked immigration, especially from Eastern Europe. This resulted in the creation of an atmosphere dripping in toxicity with obvious unintended consequences.
It didn’t take long for the first reports to come trickling in—the votes were still being counted on the day of the poll when a female friend and her infant daughter were yelled at—“Go home N******s, we just voted you out!” By the next morning, several other friends had reported being subject to similar verbal racist assaults. By the next evening, there had been so many media reports of racist and xenophobic attacks that social media pages coordinating them had been set up under #PostRefRacism. After documented attacks including on a Polish community center, and eyewitness accounts of respected journalists and high-profile politicians, the prime minister, leader of the opposition and mayor of London had all made pleas for tolerance and reassurance of safety for all communities. Given the subsequent increase in reported incidents, these pleas seem to have largely fallen on deaf ears.
The referendum solidified the notion of a widening to the concept of ‘otherness’ beyond visible minorities. There are obvious ironies to the notion of white Europeans, like Muslims before them post 9/11 and London’s 7/7, finding themselves at the sharp end of racism—but then, so is the notion of ethnic minority immigrants voting to keep out more recent immigrants.
Every one of the 50.1% had their reasons for voting to leave, including the ethnic minorities. (a significant number of ethnic minorities themselves seemingly voted to leave as well). I always feared that the luxury of viewing Brexit from a narrow lens of economic self-interest was one ethnic minority people in the UK could not afford—given the enthusiastic support for leaving that avowed racist political figures had displayed. That we are a far way from the blatant racism and resultant social unrest that pockmarked the 1970s and 80s is self-evident. Since the early 2000s there’s been a period of intense diversity awareness initiatives across especially public sector institutions, so it’s became easy to presume that the country had entered a new age of racial tolerance.
But behind the fall in overt racism, there were nevertheless several warnings that what seems to have happened was that people had not necessarily learned to tolerate each other more, but rather had learned how to disguise these feelings better. Racism was therefore reduced to refutable deductive exercises– e.g. the number of visible ethnic minorities employed in higher levels of public institutions, debates about reasons for the disproportionate numbers of minority youth stopped and searched by police.
While these white populations were bemoaning the loss of their traditional industrial base that had sustained their livelihoods and been the epicenter of communal self-identity, they witnessed the move into their areas of African and Asian second- and third-generation middle classes and then the unanticipated significant inflow of over 2 million people from Eastern Europe following EU enlargement in 2004. To compound matters, the UK’s response to the 2008 financial crisis was to implement a program of biting austerity measures and the widespread disinvestment in public services at a time of particularly increased demand for them.
In these circumstances, it was obvious that there would be a convenient finger-pointing exercise to immigrants as the cause of a lack of school places, increased waiting times at hospitals, reductions in social housing availability, increased competition for limited employment opportunities, etc. Every economic downturn in the Europe since the 18th century has coincided with or caused an upturn in racism. There is an inexorability to the pattern: economic downturn, host community feels pinch, host community blames immigrants, far-right attacks increase.
Indeed, studies have shown that perceptions of race are stronger during economic recessions. What will always be fuel to the fire is a significant political event—and there has been nothing more significant in the UK in recent times, probably in living memory, than the recent referendum.
And where does all this leave us? Firstly, it’s a wake-up call for the country as a whole, but especially for the minority communities in UK, that the lull into a false sense of security about us being in a new age of post-racial tolerance should be revisited. If all it takes is the opportunity to safely vent in an election for the veneer of racial tolerance to be unceremoniously stripped away, then we all have more work to do.
For the next generation in particular, who have not been a part of or witnesses to any concerted antiracism effort and for whom issues and names such as Stephen Lawrence and the Brixton Riots are barely noticed chapters in a rarely told history, the events of the last week would have come as a brutal shock to the system. When schoolchildren are being confronted with comments such as “bye bye, you’re going home” and having graffiti stating “Romanians Go Home” scrawled in school toilets, I cannot but wonder about the safety of my young son in the future.
Unfortunately, the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better: as the Brexiters realize that the promises made during the referendum campaign about reduced immigration numbers amongst others is not deliverable, there is likely to be increased anger and hostility by a minority of racists and scapegoating troublemakers manifesting in yet more attacks and other forms of overt prejudice.
While the authorities—police and schools in particular—have a massive role to play in not just upholding the law and keeping people safe and feeling safe, there is also an uncomfortable but necessary conversation parents need to have with their children. Black parents may feel unpracticed to have the same kind of conversation their parents had with them about staying safe on the streets from racist attacks, but we may have to re-learn very quickly. Regardless of how people voted in the referendum, we need to come together more to inform, support and empower each other to confront racism and prejudice wherever it is found and not succumb to petty recriminations and pious “I-told-you-so”s.
We also need to balance all this with the fact that in the overwhelming majority of cases, regardless of differences, children and young people in the UK nowadays DO get along with each other better and more naturally. As my teenage daughter went off to watch a parade last weekend in the company of her two best friends, one white, the other Asian Muslim, I cannot but believe that they present a picture of the kind of future we all deserve. But to get there, we all have so much more to do.