Brexit has re-awakened extreme racism in Britain

The United Kingdom is coming to terms with the majority of the British people voting to leave the alliance of 28 member states that make up the European Union (EU). “Brexit,” as it has been dubbed, has created a shockwave that led to the resignation of the prime minister, $2 trillion in global equity share losses and endless debates about a divided nation. According to a local poll, Scotland wanted to stay in the EU, England voted to leave; 73% of 18 to 24 year olds backed the EU, while 60% of over 65 wanted to leave; and a majority of the employed voted to stay, whilst most of the unemployed opted to go.

The discussion in Britain has mostly missed out one of the biggest divides that the vote uncovered: 53% of White voters wanted out and 73% of Black voters wanted to stay in the EU. Black voters overwhelmingly supported staying in, not because of any love for the union but because they recognized that the driving force behind the desire to leave was racism.

Being part of the EU means being subject to European laws and Vote Leave campaign’s motto was to “take back control” of the nation from the bureaucrats in Europe. Vote Leave’s supporters argued that Britain “could be great again” if the country did not have to send hundreds of millions of pounds to Europe, and have its hands tied by such inconveniences as the European Court of Human Rights. But when Vote Leave was undercut by virtually every economist and the vast majority of business leaders, many of whom predicted the economic chaos, the organization played its Trump card: immigration.

The EU began a process of expansion in 2004, adding countries from Eastern Europe for the first time. A central philosophy of the union is the free movement of people, with citizens of each member state being free to live across the union. Eastern Europe is considerably poorer than the west and therefore millions of people have travelled to other countries for work. In the United Kingdom this has led to record levels of migration, with 330,000 more people coming into the country than leaving in the past year. Vote Leave played to people’s fears about immigration but ex-Prime Minister David Cameron was certain that people would not “vote themselves poorer because they don’t like the Poles living next door.” He could not have been more wrong, with the White working class being the group who tipped the vote to leave. It should be no surprise that he misread the mood, because Britain has always had a problem coming to terms with its racism.

For years, media and politicians have fanned the flames of racism and xenophobia. In 2008, the public service broadcaster the BBC aired the “White Season,” a series of documentaries that openly questioned whether the White working class was “becoming invisible” in multicultural Britain. Even the left leaning Prime Minister Gordon Brown famously declared the need for “British jobs for British workers” in 2009. Pushing for a vote to leave the EU in the first place was a tactic to win the last general election because controlling immigration was a vote winner. This atmosphere of blaming immigrants for the plight of the White working class enabled the rise of the far right, and gave legitimacy to the UK Independence party (UKIP), once described by Cameron as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists.”

The leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, became one of the leaders of the Vote Leave campaign and was at his hateful best when he unveiled a campaign poster that was so offensive it was reported to the police. The poster showed a long line of migrants with the caption “Breaking Point,” urging people to leave the EU to stop the hordes coming in. The poster demonstrates why Black Britain has been so anti-leaving the union. The vast majority of immigrants from Europe are White, and the unfairness of uncontrolled European migration at the same time as an extremely regressive immigration policy towards the Caribbean, Africa and Asia has caused tensions. At the last general election some minorities rallied to the cause of UKIP in keeping out European migrants, and the Vote Leave campaign made noises about rebuilding links to the Commonwealth, or Britain’s old empire. However, the racist nature of the Vote Leave campaign was so transparent it was easy to see through. It is no coincidence that Farage’s poster did not show White European migrants; it was a shot of Syrian refugees crossing from Croatia into Slovenia; two places a long way away from Britain. If there were any lingering doubts for Black Britain, this poster was a reminder that “immigration” is always a code word for “race.”

The image of the nation that Vote Leave drew on was to restore Britain to its former glories, when Britannia ruled the waves. It is (or at least should be) impossible for Black Britain to look back with pride at “Great” Britain, based as it was on slavery and colonialism. Britain once commanded an “empire where the sun never set” that spread across the globe. An empire where other countries were brutally exploited and Black people reduced to subjects of the mighty crown. The country that developed on the island of Britain was built on the back of this colonial oppression and was always happy to exploit the dark skinned subject, but never comfortable living with them. When Black people first migrated in large numbers to the country after the second World War there was a violent reaction from the White population. Race riots, campaigns to “keep Britain White,” a mainstream conservative politician running on the slogan “if you want a nigger for a neighbor vote Labour,” and Malcolm X comparing the situation for minorities in parts of Britain to the treatment of “the Jews were under Hitler.” I grew up in a time where the far right National Front would still mark their territory but had largely gone underground. Racial tension always simmered but Brexit has triggered a racial fault line that has unleashed racist violence and abuse.

Since the result of the vote came in there has been a spate of racial attacks across the UK. Immigrant cultural centers have been defaced; mosques have been attacked and; social media is full of stories of people being harassed and abused. Britain has not suddenly become more racist overnight, but Brexit has lit a spark of racial unrest that has surprised many.

Many, that is apart from Black communities. We had hoped that the kind of open hatred that is being seen on the streets had declined, but the realities of racism in Britain could never be a surprise. The institutional forms of racism that create unemployment, incarceration and reduced life expectancy for Black communities are just as brutal as direct racial attacks. Chris Rock once quipped, in response to White people’s complaint that they were “losing the country,” that “If you’re losing, who’s winning? Cause it definitely ain’t us!” The vote for Brexit was just one more reminder that for all the illusion of progress, racism is still in the DNA of nation.

Kehinde Andrews is a professor at Birmingham City University in the UK. He is also author of the book “Resisting Racism: Race, Inequality and the Black Supplementary School Movement” and the co-editor of the book “Blackness in Britain.” Follow him on Twitter @kehinde_andrews