Most people who voted Leave did not do so out of racism. But no opinion poll is needed to hazard a guess at the voting preference of those who are unabashed racists. Regardless, the Leave vote sparked a resurgence of racism across the land. There was a 5-fold increase in hate crime within a week. Synagogues, mosques, schools and community centres were vandalised. People were attacked and verbally abused in the street. Racists stood outside multicultural schools flicking victory signs and telling people who didn’t look like them to “go home.” Sinister notes—and worse—were pushed through letterboxes. Suddenly closet racists were out and proud, emboldened in their everyday conversations, not even bothering with the standard prefix of “I’m not a racist but....”
Not that racism was dormant prior to June 23. According to the Home Office, 52,528 hate crimes were reported in 2014-2015, over 80 percent of them racially motivated, and that was an 18 percent rise in a year. In general black Britons are chronically under-represented in the professions, and over-represented in the prisons. In the field of mental health, young black men are far more likely to be referred to secure psychiatric settings via the courts than their white counterparts; black people of African and Caribbean heritage are six times more likely to be sectioned than white people. In therapy consulting rooms, clients tell shocking stories of violence, oppression and abuse.
Racism is a dangerous river of fear and loathing. It courses, often silently and unseen, beneath the corridors of power and politics, snaking through workplaces, pubs and backwater suburbs across Britain. It's an ancient river that runs deep. Sometimes it can burst its banks.
Here are 5 reasons why the UK is plagued by racism:
1. The Brexit campaign
The Leave message—about democracy, sovereignty, independence and the economy—was also at times fueled by bigotry, blaming migrants for the ills of the nation and appealing to people’s fear of foreigners. Veiled references—and sometimes unveiled ones, too—were made to the erroneous idea that Turkey would soon join the EU—a Muslim country, one that, as pro-Leave leaflets pointed out, is next to Syria, and Syria is next to Iraq! There were some unpleasant examples of leaders stoking the flames of prejudice, most notably from UKIP leader thrice resigned Nigel Farage, who doesn’t like hearing people on the bus speaking in foreign languages (unless it’s his own children, whose mother tongue is German), and who suggests foreigners come to the UK to get treated for HIV and/or sexually assault British women.
The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, told parliament that Farage’s comments on the latter were “inexcusable pandering to people’s worries and prejudices, that is, giving legitimisation to racism.”
Farage was also photographed in front of a 32-foot UKIP poster of a vast snaking trail of people apparently queuing to get into Britain—except they weren’t EU migrants in the UK. They were desperate refugees in Eastern Europe, fleeing their ravaged homeland, Syria.
Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP for Brighton Pavilion, said: “Using the innocent victims of a human tragedy for political propaganda is utterly disgusting. Farage is engaging in the politics of the gutter.”
There is a petition to charge Farage with incitement to racial hatred.
The 5 stages of Brexit
No Man is an Island
No man is an island, Entire of itself,
In the aftermath World War Two, workers were needed to rebuild a broken Britain. Immigrants began to arrive, especially from former colonial countries and allies in the Cold War, and were welcomed at first. But the mood quickly soured. Britain was to become the first European country to experience significant anti-immigration public sentiment, especially following the “race riots” of 1958. A series of restrictive laws followed, accompanied by much racial rhetoric that appealed to the electorate’s more suspicious, curtain-twitching side. This attack on vulnerable new arrivals—already under literal attack on the streets in many cases—was amplified by Enoch Powell’s notorious 1968 speech in which he foresaw “rivers foaming with much blood.” (He didn’t mention the foaming river of xenophobia.)
Besides the cultural, scientific and personal benefits of immigration, there is evidence that shows immigrants to be net positive contributors to the British economy, too (one study showed a contribution of £4.4 billion between 1995-2011). Yet the focus is overwhelmingly on the negative impact. Political parties compete for the perceived electoral asset of “toughness” toward outsiders, a self-reinforcing stance that is further amplified by nationalist rhetoric, negative media coverage, the emergence of extreme right-wing groups throughout Europe and the expansion of the EU.
3. The legacy of scientific racism
The notion of a hierarchy of “races,” based on the presumption of specific, biologically-determined characteristics, emerged in the Renaissance, survived the 18th century Enlightenment, and continues unabated to this day. Racial prejudice indeed “may be as old as recorded history,” says science historian Stephen Jay Gould.
At the height of the colonial period, however, in the mid-19th century, racial thinking in Europe took on a new complexion with the advent of anthropological “research” that attempted to demonstrate white supremacy and thus justify colonial domination.
The publication of Origin of Species in 1859 and The Descent of Man (1871) by Charles Darwin proved to be transformative in furthering racist ideologies: Now, whatever their origin, different “races” could be viewed in fact as different varieties of human or even as separate species, each at a different stage of evolution, with “the European” at the top of the hierarchy and “the African” at the bottom. This was backed up with photographic “evidence” and new “sciences” like craniometry—researchers such as Samuel Morton claimed a racial hierarchy of skull size. Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton championed eugenics—controlling breeding to preserve racial (and thus, by his logic, intellectual) purity.
The findings of “scientific racism” and Darwinian ideas about the “survival of the fittest” were claimed as justification for imperialism. Poverty, war, the late 19th century “scramble for Africa” and the genocide of native people by the West—not to mention 1,000 years of slavery—were all seen as the result of an inevitable, scientific, natural law, devoid of any moral responsibility.
A century ago, European control had expanded over 84 percent of the earth’s surface. The British Empire is over, but the remnants of the discredited, antique beliefs on which it was built, worn out notions of an inherent racial hierarchy with whites at the top, perhaps live on in some cobwebbed recess of the British psyche.
4. The legacy of colonial social engineering
For the Europeans, notions of racial superiority were a guiding principle not only in the urge to create colonies, but in the mechanics of their construction, too. A classic strategy of “divide and rule” was used: the colonised majority was broken down into a variety of political minorities. The nonindigenous subjects, such as the Indians of South Africa or the Tutsi of Rwanda, were first identified and treated as a separate race, then the indigenous natives were divided into many separate “tribes” or “ethnicities,” claimed to be based on pre-existing cultural identities. Whether they were “tribes” in Africa or “castes” in India, what were formerly loose or non-existent cultural identities became viewed as static, immutable, long-standing and often polarized groups, enshrined in law. Arbitrary racial hierarchies were reinforced and live on in attitudes today.
Says Mahmood Mamdani: “Britain, more than any other power, keenly glimpsed the authoritarian possibilities in culture ... Britain creatively sculpted tradition and custom as and when the need arose.”
There isn’t a great deal of writing or research on the psychology of racism, perhaps because it is such an emotive issue. But there is an argument that prejudice is a part of being human. Our survival has depended on a certain level of anxiety, vigilance and distrust towards the unknown, and an affiliation with the safety of the known. Malcolm Gladwell says we navigate through life with the help of “thin-slicing,” in which we use our senses, our experience and our beliefs to process a given situation very quickly, largely unconsciously, and take action.
Sometimes thin-slicing can be completely wrong, with disastrous consequences, such as when white policemen gun down an innocent nonwhite civilian like Jean Charles De Menezes. Last year in America, young black men were nine times more likely to be killed by police, with a total of 1,134 such deaths.
A number of studies have shown just how easy it is to create “in-groups” and “out-groups” based on the most meaningless of differences, and the hostility towards the out-group can escalate with depressing ease. Examples are the Lord of the Flies-like Robbers Cave experiment with two arbitrary groups of 12-year-old boys, Jane Elliott’s classic schoolroom blue eye brown eye exercise, or Saturday afternoon tribal violence between people who support different football teams.
Using the power of projection, the out-group is demonised: “we” are good; “they” are bad—deviant, dangerous, dirty, lazy (and any number of other aspersions). The more unknown “they” are, the easier it is to imagine them as devils. Racism—and concerns over national identity—are strongest in the least diverse parts of Britain.
This crude scapegoating of people from foreign fields, or “othering,” is vigorously and cynically exploited by poisonous politicians (Farage, Donald Trump, far rightists like Marine Le Pen), newspapers (the Daily Mail has been peddling xenophobia for a century), apartheid regimes (South Africa), dictators inciting genocide (Somalia, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia), or western governments seeking to justify illegal overseas interventions (Iraq, Afghanistan).
The message used to be that the Russians were the primitive barbarians who want to take over the world. Now it is Muslims (the idea that 1.6 billion people—more than a fifth of humanity—speak with one voice or think with one mind is patently foolish).
Writes Mark Salter: “The ‘barbarian’ represents a rhetorical well from which politicians have drawn throughout the twentieth century and from which they still draw.”
“Race” is a construction: There is no basis for making sweeping assumptions about groups of people—positive or negative—based on skin colour. Farhad Dalal defines racism as: “The manufacture and use of the notion of race.”
But racist stereotypes are nevertheless hard to escape from; they are embedded in our culture. We unwittingly enact them, reinforce them, and hand them down. They are part of our social unconscious. They can be made conscious, and the othering, denigrating stereotypes and those who promote them can be treated with the contempt they deserve. But the history remains. No amount of whitewash will change that.
NEXT TIME: No. 3. Misinformation