Business as Usual: Racism’s Relation to Brexit

By Ali Meghji

When Anoop Nayak recently came to give a talk at my university, several of the faculty were quick to deny his claims of a ‘purging of the [white] British nation’ – I doubt they would reject it with such positivity now. Sociologically, the result of the EU referendum is not particularly surprising; it is the culmination of decades of anti-immigrant racist discourse practiced and legitimated at the macro-political level.

There are police reports of a 57% spike in hate crime after the referendum result. This has led many across the media to start making claims that, overnight, racism has become legitimate, and Britain has become a ‘racist nation’ that is no longer safe for racialised minorities or immigrants to live in. Further, the perpetrators of recent hate speech are labelled as ‘bigoted’ and ‘ignorant’.

However, these views present a limited conception of racism, overlooking two particularly salient issues. Firstly, racism exists beyond the attitudes and prejudices of particular individuals and groups; it acts as a process which regulates social structure to maintain a racial hierarchy. Secondly, racism is so pernicious because it’s ascribed rationality – focusing on ‘ignorant’ racists thus overlooks how racism is allowed to circulate legitimately. Turning our attention towards ‘racism without racists’, we can see how the Leave campaign was always going to have significant momentum.

The so-called ‘divisive’ rhetoric deployed in the Leave campaign, and the sentiments of ‘go back home’ being used in the hate speech across the nation, have been around far longer than the recent weeks – especially at the governmental level. From New Labour’s creation of [Muslim] suspect communities in their Prevent programme, to David Cameron’s criticism of communities ‘completely counter to our values’, and the Home Office’s ‘go home’ illegal immigration vans, racializing immigrants and legitimating symbolic violence towards them has been quintessential to British political projects of the 21st century. Further to governmental discourse, we have a mass-media that is free to refer to all migrants (and refugees) as ‘rapists and murderers’, that can unequivocally state that ‘Enoch Powell was right’, and that convinces the (white) working-class that immigrants are taking their jobs, and draining public resources. Far prior to the EU referendum, therefore, a mainstream racist ideology was already created that positioned the white British nation as under threat from foreign invasion.

Colonialism may have been dismantled years ago, but whiteness remains at the top of our racial hierarchy. Boris Johnson claimed that ‘Project Fear’ is now over – he’s right, but for the wrong reasons. Brexit was not a spur of the moment decision, but the result of a fear of whiteness’ position being destabilised. The referendum result has reproduced the racial status quo, which was already being regulated by the same racism which many are now declaring as ‘new’. National discourse has focused on how immigrants will bring an end to our country, but really it is whiteness that will have it burned to the ground.

Ali Meghji is a PhD Student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. He tweets at @alim1213.

Originally posted 2nd July 2016.


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