There was a time, in the country that so many Brexit voters would like to take ‘back’, when it was commonplace to have signs in the windows of rented accommodation that read ‘no dogs, no Blacks, no Irish. ‘ We have spent decades moving away from the society where such discrimination was semi-respectable; through painstaking work on the ground; through slow shifts in attitudes; through open resistance to racist violence and intimidation from the men and women who have frequently had to fight for their place in British society; through myriad acts of solidarity by the many individuals and organizations who have welcomed them and stood alongside them.
Did we made racism disappear from the UK? Are we a ‘post-racial’ society? No, because racism can never be entirely eliminated from any society, and keeping it at bay requires a constant effort, and a constant willingness to pay attention whenever it manifests itself. Nevertheless, we made considerable progress towards creating a society in which overt racism was marginalized and drained of its lethal legitimacy and respectability. .
As a result of the Brexit referendum, that achievement is under its gravest threat since the rise of the National Front in the 1970s. In little more than 48 hours since Friday’s result, it is already becoming disturbingly clear that immigrants and foreigners in the UK are now facing a vicious and widespread epidemic of racism and xenophobia that is unapologetic and openly celebratory.
Reports are pouring through social media from up and down the country of verbal and even physical abuse of anyone foreign, speaking in a foreign accent, or who looks ‘foreign.’ On Facebook I have seen stories of an 80 year old Italian woman who has been living here for 50 years, who was told that it would be better to go back to her own country; of a woman attacked on the tube by a man who became enraged when he heard a foreign accent on the tannoy; of a Polish man and his son beaten senseless and left in the street; of leaflets in Huntington put through letterboxes telling ‘ Polish vermin’ to go home.
Social media is filled with tweets like these:
There is a lot more where this came from here and here Today the Independent reported hundreds of hate incidents. Since Friday, the website Thisiswhatyou’vedone uk has received dozens of reports of verbal and physical abuse directed at foreigners and immigrants or men and women perceived to be immigrants. Many of these attacks have cited the Referendum and the decision to leave the EU as a justification and a carte blanche, such as the reports of strangers stopping people in the streets to tell them to tell them ‘ We voted Leave, it’s time for you to leave.’
To date not a single major politician has condemned these incidents. The Brexit politicians, who did so much to stoke up and pander to anti-immigrant hostility in the last weeks of the campaign, have been absolutely silent about it. Clearly not all those who voted Leave were racists and xenophobes, but racism and xenophobia were crucial and indispensable components of a campaign that persistently played on fears and prejudices about immigration, whether these ‘immigrants’ were EU workers, putative Turkish immigrants, or the refugees who Nigel Farage said were a threat to the ‘security of British women’, who he portrayed in his atrocious poster.
Not all Leavers voted because of immigration, but many clearly did, and the Leave campaign’s flagging up of immigration in the last two weeks of the campaign had a decisive impact in shifting the momentum away from Remain. It is now becoming clear that these developments have unleashed forces that will be very difficult to put back in the box, and that many of those who voted Leave did so in the expectation that the immigrants they feared and loathed would a) stop coming and b) leave the country.
The explosion of racism and xenophobia that we are now witnessing is not simply the result of the campaign itself, but the campaign has crystallized and brought to the surface all the toxic currents that have percolated through British society for the last fifteen years or so in response to ‘mass migration.’
Of course those who fanned the public’s ‘concerns’ about immigration always insisted that they were not ‘racist’, just as Leave campaigners get uppity if you suggest that their campaign had anything to do with racism. But here’s the thing; racism isn’t just about skin colour or biology. It doesn’t only apply when you talk about ‘race’ or accuse Jews of polluting the German ‘reservoir of blood.’
Racism can constantly adopt new justifications, new disguises and assumptions, in its attempt to marginalize and discriminate. If you spend decades telling the population – as various politicians and our disgraceful tabloid press have done – that immigrants are a problem, that they are benefit scroungers and health tourists, thieves and criminals, intruders, parasites, cultural aliens, and a threat to our security, then you can’t be entirely surprised when the dregs of the nation take to the streets to demand ‘repatriation’or push leaflets through peoples’ doors calling them ‘vermin’ or demand to know why foreigners ‘don’t speak English.’
Johnson, Gove and Farage all pandered to these sentiments, and it is clear that some members of their audience now feel more empowered and more legitimized than they did before, and that ‘taking their country back’ means driving out anyone they don’t think belongs to it The result is a truly dangerous situation, for immigrants first of all, and also for the culturally and ethnically diverse society that we have so painstakingly constructed.
No one can be surprised that Farage & Co have nothing to say about this, but sections of the left have also disgracefully continued to marginalize or play down the importance of racism and xenophobia in driving the Leave campaign, or else, as John Pilger did, they have simply ignored them altogether
The rest of us can’t afford to be so sanguine. We need to remember the words of Linton Kwesi Johnson once wrote back in the 80s: ‘ Asian/West Indian/ an’ Black British/stan firm inna Inglan/inna disya time yah/far nuh mattah wat dey say/com wat may/we are here to stay inna Inglan/in disya time yah.’
Now, in these new times, we can add Poles, Romanians, and many other nationalities to that list, and we need to stand firm with them, because the monsters are out of their box, released by the outrageous frauds and liars who played their dark political games in order to con the nation.
It’s up to all of us to put them back, and show our solidarity with the men and women who have made this country their home, who have us much right to live in it as anyone else.
They may not be part of Brexit country, but they do belong to the nation that the rest of us inhabit, and we need to fight for them, and alongside them, for their sake, and our own.