By Terese Jonsson
If I had been able to vote in the referendum, I would have voted Remain. Considering the political and media preoccupation with immigration, it was clear that there was no space within mainstream debate for any more complex interpretations of a Leave vote other than as further legitimising Far Right racism as well as so-called ‘genuine’ concerns about immigration. The Brexit result is deeply disturbing for this reason, with a rise of racist attacks, demonstrations on the streets and the emboldening of Far Right parties in other European countries.
But in challenging the overt racism of parts of the Leave campaign, Remain became too easily positioned as the anti-racist option. Within white and middle class dominated liberal discourse a ‘Remain’ vote was romanticised as about tolerance, unity, and diversity in the face of hatred, as if racism is the purview of the Far Right. Individualising racism and projecting it onto deviant others conceals the fundamentally racial history and structure of this country, and of Europe. It suggests there was even the possibility of this country voting against racism, when in fact either result would have reinforced it, in different forms. The wealth of Britain and other powerful European states was built on slavery and colonialism, and any sociological analysis which does not consider the significance of this history for understanding the modern world is limited. Similarly, any construction of the EU as simply a benign force for peace in the post-WWII era erases its imperial dominance through unjust trade agreements, the millions of deaths caused by military operations by European states in the post-war period, and the daily lethal and devastating consequences of the enforcement of Fortress Europe’s racialised borders.
Post-Brexit white liberal left analysis tells us that this was a ‘working class revolt’. Of course the classed dimensions of the vote are significant, but so are the racialised ones, with polls suggesting that 73% of black and 67% of Asian voters voted Remain in contrast to 47% of white voters. As black and Asian people are more likely than white people to live in poverty, this suggests that the majority of working class people of colour voted Remain. Calls are being made to listen to disillusioned (implicitly white) Leave voters, yet, while the need for investment in housing, jobs, and public services can hardly be overstated, concerns about immigration must be understood in the context of Britain’s colonial history, in which the political elite has always courted the white working class through narratives of imperial, white superiority. Further, on the point of listening, Akwugo Emejulu asks (reflecting on the sudden white attention to racism), “What does it mean that … people of colour were not taken at our word, as others have been, about what we experience?”
Fascist violence and ideology must be contextualised in relation to the racist structure of the state, and the whiteness which frames dominant narratives, whether in politics, media, cultural institutions or universities. This argument is of course not new, and has long been central within critical sociological scholarship on ‘race’, as attested by the contemporary relevance of The Empire Strikes Back’s searing analysis of the connection between popular and state racism, and the “post-war forgetfulness which obscured the historical connections between England and her colonial Empire”. Equally, postcolonial and decolonial movements and scholarship have long been challenging the colonial and parochial world view which sees Europe as the exceptional origin and site of civilization, culture and knowledge.
Times ahead for Britain look uncertain; a self-imploding, crumbling empire is an ugly place. Exactly who will be listened to about what to do from here will make all the difference in the world.
Terese Jonsson is Lecturer in Sociology in the School of Social, Historical and Literary Studies at the University of Portsmouth. She tweets at @missing_words.