With the twin exceptions of the fall of the Berlin wall and the invasion of Iraq, no event of the last half century will have consequences as far-reaching as Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. As with every moment of lived history, there have been no shortage of theories as to why the Leave campaign won: it was the economic dislocation caused by globalization; the revolt against the elites; the rejection of regulations imposed from afar. Brexit happened because the working-classes had been left behind; because demagogues cynically manipulated the electoral process; because the establishment media was arrogant and dismissive of genuine concerns.
All these explanation contain grains of truth, but they are only half the story — the other half, the one that is sidelined and rationalized and downplayed, is far more disturbing. Since the results were finalized, there has been a stubborn refusal among the commentariat and the political class to acknowledge the role that racism played in the vote.
Racism not as a peripheral cause. Racism not as a tertiary cause, but rather racism as the central factor in determining who won on June 23. This silence is particularly disquieting when one considers the spike in hate crimes — that is, crimes motivated by racial hatred of the Other — over the last few days, crimes where the perpetrator’s worldview had recently been validated by victory.
The argument that Brexit was caused by economic fragility is, to reverse Churchill, a giant enigma wrapped in a riddle. The enigma is that the evidence suggests the opposite: Britain was attracting the highest-skilled immigrants of any European economy in the last decade, a pool of talent the country needed because of its sub-replacement fertility rate. These immigrants were not coming to “steal jobs” but to contribute.
According to researchers from UCL, European immigrants to the UK paid £20 billion to the British treasury between 2001 and 2011, contributing 64% more in taxes than they took in public services, far more than native white citizens. There is a bleak irony here, because in ten or twenty years, the same immigrants paying billions into Britain’s coffers today, would, in effect, be subsidizing the pensions and health care of the aging white citizens who voted to leave.
Similarly, the idea that Leave voters reacted to a recent dip in wages is also false. Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation, an economic think tank, tested this link empirically and concluded that there was “no relationship between how an area’s prosperity changed in recent years and how they voted.” He went on to note that “some areas with big pay boosts voted to leave and some that have done very badly out of the last decade and a half still voted to stay in the EU.”
It was not the numbers that mattered but the perceptions of the Other. One poll found that Brits who intended to vote Leave thought that EU citizens made up 20% of the UK population, four times higher than the actual number. The same poll found that nearly 4 in 10 Britons believed that the number of children in the EU receiving a Child Benefit payment from the UK was “40 to 100 times the actual level.” Simply put, a whole swath of Leave voters were tormented not by poverty but by a bogeymen living next door — the foreigner, the minority, the immigrant, the Other.
To admit that racial hatred is inherent in our society is to admit that what we have said about the tolerance and respect of our societies is a lie.
Britain, and Europe more generally, has never been comfortable discussing race other than in platitudes, and this is no less true after June 23. It is the ordinary routine of societies that believe themselves tolerant not to see racism even when it stares them in the face, to look away and to suggest other factors are the real source of their malaise.
Throughout the media, as well as on social media, countless writers were rushing to distance the Leave vote from racism. “This isn’t about racism” and “Not everyone who voted Leave is a racist” were common posts. This is the liberal citizen’s response to the argument that racism is ingrained in a society. It is a point that is both obvious and meaningless.
Nothing is only ever about a single issue, and the statement that “this isn’t about racism, it’s about [fill in the blank]” can be prefixed to any racially charged incident to dilute the connection. (Police shootings of black citizens in America aren’t only about racism; colonialism wasn’t only about racism; slavery wasn’t only about racism — ad infinitum.)
As far as the minority and the immigrant are concerned, however, whether racial hatred is at the top of the racist’s mind or whether it is subconsciously felt when he fires an employee or vandalizes a business or asks “So, where are you really from?” or casts a ballot, is entirely irrelevant. The result is the same: Exclusion that prefigures violence.
As a matter of record, since the disingenuous and flimsy answer of “minorities and immigrants also supported Brexit” (or any other loathsome policy or politician) is always dredged up in these debates, let me state outright that a single minority’s support for a cause does not matter. There are African-Americans, Hispanics and Muslims who back Trump, and their doing so does not make him less racist. People are deluded about their own interests all the time and can be easily manipulated by politicians skilled in the craft of fear-mongering.
Thus, the working-classes of Michigan backed Ronald Reagan, under whose watch their lives would be destroyed. There are British Asians who voted Leave; just as there are Muslims and other immigrants who did so. The polls, however, show that two-thirds of British Asians voted to remain, as did seven-in-ten Muslims, and three-quarters of black voters.
If the enigma was the media’s obsessive focus over economics, the riddle was their reducing racism to a footnote when the Leave campaign was clear about its motives from the start. Boris Johnson called Obama “part-Kenyan” after the US president urged Brits to stay in the EU. Nigel Farage, the right-wing lunatic who built his career out of disenfranchising minorities, was equally clear. This is a man who once said that UKIP “would never win the nigger vote.” A man who defended the term “chinky” and warned of a “nuclear bomb” of sex attacks if immigration continued. A man who called Muslims a “fifth column” who “hate us and want to kill us.” A man who wanted to scrap laws that ban discrimination, thereby quite literally legalizing racism.
Self-realization is a price too high to pay for a civilization that has safely bundled itself up in so many myths that it can no longer separate truths from falsehoods.
Members of Farage’s party have admitted to having a problem with “negroes” (”there’s absolutely no way I’m a racist,” this councillor muttered afterwards), compared a rapper to a chocolate bar, lamented the fact that “Paki” was no longer a usable word, and put the only black face in its party manifesto on the international aid page—a picture of a wailing African woman next to a smiling white man. To top it all off, the day before Jo Cox was murdered, Farage unveiled a poster depicting a horde of brown faces about to barge into Britain. The propaganda suppurated with the vile stench of the 1930s, updating Sir Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists for the times.
No, Brexit was not about racism.
The fact of the matter is that a deep-seated racism pervades British and European society — a racism that Brits and Europeans would rather not face because it is the legacy of a history they have tried to forget. It seems impossible, irrational even, to consider that the same attitudes that led Britain to subjugate half the world might still be a latent poison running through its DNA today.
This is why the sanitizing, liberal answer of “this isn’t only about racism” is so infuriating: It covers its moral casuistry with an intellectual sophistication that will search for any cause but the racial one. It has the effect of ducking the issue, of looking the other way for the sole purpose of making ourselves feel better, because to admit that Brexit or Trump or Le Pen are indeed about racism, to admit that racial hatred is inherent in our society, is to admit that what we have said about the tolerance and respect of our societies is a lie. And if what we have said about the values of our societies is a lie, then what else is a lie? That bit about Britain bringing capitalism and culture to India? That line about all men being created equal in America? Our very history indicts our present when such admissions are made, and the image we have contrived of ourselves shatters.
But self-realization is a price too high to pay for a civilization that has safely bundled itself up in so many myths that it can no longer separate truths from falsehoods. The burden of this ignorance is borne by those people who do not have the privilege of being ignorant, of people for whom “this isn’t only about racism” is not an evenhanded answer but a bankrupt one.
No individual believes himself to be a racist, just as no society thinks it is a racist society. And because it is no longer respectable to be explicit about one’s hatred of another race or ethnicity, we instead use code words and signals and symbols to express loathing of those we disparage in our minds as barbarians. This sort of racism, buried between the lines and hidden from view, is far more insidious than the racism of old because it is much harder to spot and much easier to defend or ignore. Again, the consequence is the same: A relegation of the Other as an Untouchable in that caste system of white racism, a caste system that is well-suited to enshroud its words and deeds in comforting cloaks.
A friend of mine — who, like me, was recently a graduate student in England — put it aptly the day after the Brexit results when he said that not all Leave voters were xenophobes, but all xenophobes voted to Leave. The proportion of Leave voters who were xenophobes should not be dismissed as non-negligible. To do so is to participate in the myth that Britain and the West have buried their racist demons.
Until Britain and Europe come to terms with the fact that racism is fundamental and not incidental in their societies — as America is only now beginning to recognize after two centuries of protests and riots — the hatred of the Other will continue, as will its nefarious results, whether they take place on election day or on the streets.