I went to bed on the night of June 23 feeling nervous, but not so nervous that I couldn’t sleep. I knew that the polls on Brexit were running close, but I also knew that the bookies had never wavered in their conviction that we would remain in Europe. Also, I knew that the very worst of the Leave campaign had now come out so clearly that nobody could miss it. Just the previous week, they had produced a poster so close to Nazi propaganda that it was reported as hate speech. Later that same day, MP Jo Cox was murdered in the street for her pro-European views. Surely, I thought such naked xenophobia and violence would be the death of the Leave vote.
At 5.30 the next morning, I stared at the computer in shock and horror. Leave had won. And despite all the other reasons that many Leave voters cited—chief among them the lie that the National Health Service would receive 350 million pounds more each week—this was presented as a massive victory for racism and xenophobia. And it rapidly became so. Racist hate crimes rose 49 percent immediately following the vote. After a brief period of chaos, the Prime Minster became Theresa May, widely viewed as a sensible pragmatist (and previously an opponent of Brexit). But this “sensible pragmatist” took the lesson of the vote to be a simple, xenophobic one. Within an eye blink, we began to learn that because “the people have spoken” even foreign doctors would no longer be welcome here to save British lives. And soon we learned both that the government was no longer willing to receive advice from the non-British, and that people with dual citizenship no longer counted as truly British. People like me.
Xenophobia feels different when it’s directed at you. I have always been enraged on behalf of its targets, but during my time here I have only rarely been one. Protected by class privilege, white skin, and American nationality, I have sometimes been privy to anti-immigrant rants. But when I point out (in my American accent) that I’m an immigrant the invariable response is “I don’t mean you.” But now things have changed—now they (at least the government) do mean me. I know that I still have all the protections of class privilege and white skin, and that things are very easy for me compared to other foreigners. And my foreignness is not apparent until I speak. Knowing how painful it feels anyway, I am in awe of the bravery of dark-skinned women who go out in hijabs, into this world of anti-Muslim hatred. I genuinely don’t know how they do it.
And now we face another momentous, vertiginously terrifying vote next week. Yes, Clinton has been very much ahead for some time. But now, thanks to the bizarre intervention of James Comey, it seems likely that Trump is gaining—and it is difficult to measure these gains, with so little time left. I know that on November 8, I will not sleep. I may not be able to form coherent sentences. Again I think of how much harder that night will be to get through for others: for people whose skin colour or religious clothing marks them as a target wherever they go; for the millions who fear deportation for themselves or their loved ones; and for all the victims of sexual violence who cannot believe that a man who boasts of assault may soon hold the presidency. And also for the rest of the world, unable to do anything but watch in fear as they wonder if the nuclear button will soon be in the hands of someone who has already amply demonstrated his poor judgment, lack of restraint, and hair-trigger temper.
If Trump wins—and even if he comes close—we can be certain that this will be viewed as a victory for racism. Already the Ku Klux Klan is triumphantly touting his campaign’s successes as showing the popularity of their world view. And we can also be certain that this will help to increasingly legitimate horrific behaviours that are currently still widely condemned.
To see why, consider what psychologists have learned about littering. Most of us have been thoroughly taught that littering is bad, but of course there’s some human inclination to take the easy way out and simply drop that piece of paper you find shoved under your windshield wipers. Yet, in general, you probably overcome it. It turns out, though, that if you are in a parking garage which already has a lot of litter, you’re much more likely to give in to that tendency. Humans tend to comply to norms, and learning that a lot of other people are behaving in some way—even one you’ve been taught is wrong—makes you more likely to behave in that way.
Sadly, we have reason to suppose that racism works this way too. Although we’ve nearly all been taught that racism is bad, we nearly all do have racist tendencies (even if only unconscious ones), just from growing up in a society structured by racism. As we see more people around us behaving in racist ways, the force of those anti-racist norms weakens. This is why, psychologists have suggested, hearing racist humour makes people more tolerant of discrimination. We saw this in Brexit, and we’ve seen it already in the racially motivated violence and abuse both at Trump rallies and in Trump’s name.
Philosophers Rae Langton and Mary Kate McGowan have argued that racist utterances matter because they have the potential to change our standards of acceptable behavior. This, they say, is why it is so vital to object, and to do so forcefully. The research described above backs this up: people adapt themselves to the behavior they see around them—not just to what they’ve been taught is right. When an election becomes in effect a referendum on xenophobia or racism—as Brexit was, and as the US election is—we are at a moment of immense consequence. We can have either one of the most powerful endorsements of racism, or one of its most powerful repudiations. This choice has sadly already been made in the UK. In the US it is still before us.