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Brexit and the legitimation of racism



Since the EU referendum result, many on the white-left have called for us to stop moaning and make the best of the current situation. Whilst I recognise and sympathise with the logic of such calls, I believe they are not only premature and somewhat naive, but also come from a position of privilege that must be acknowledged.


Talking of racism, the late Critical Race Theorist Derrick Bell warned that ‘we can only delegitimate it if we accurately pinpoint it’. Heeding his words, we must be allowed to take stock of our situation and permitted time to develop an understanding of the current climate. Only once this important work is done can we begin to consider progressive anti-racist responses.


As should be clear by now, rather than based on economic forecasts, or a considered analysis of the sociopolitical consequences of leaving or remaining, the farce that was the EU referendum was primarily premised on an anti-immigration discourse, and some lies. Indeed, so scared of immigration were many of the ‘leavers’ that they chose to trigger a potential economic recession. The fearmongering of Farage, Boris and the ‘leavers’ was not adequately challenged by the ‘remain’ camp and unsurprisingly anti-immigration rhetoric quickly proliferated into anti-immigrant sentiment. Immigrants have become the perfect scapegoat that distract us from the reality of the increasing economic inequality between the masses and those who rule us. Indeed, whilst many of the population increasingly blame immigrants for a whole host of social ills, we continue to be ruled by a government of self-interested Etonians who have little in common with the masses. This is a problem that will only increase should Scotland, perhaps quite rightly, choose to leave the UK and, taking a high proportion of Labour voters with them, consign us to years of Conservative rule.


It is in the context of this anti-immigrant sentiment that the act of white terror that ultimately led to Jo Cox’s murder must be situated. Jo Cox was a passionate campaigner for the rights of refugees, and was known to be preparing a timely report on the rise of Islamophobic attacks in Britain. With the perpetrator reportedly having shouted ‘Britain First’ as he callously murdered her, and then giving his name in court as ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain’, it is difficult to imagine a clearer example of the links between dangerous far-right rhetoric, and the terror we see on our streets. Farage’s comments about a victory without a bullet being fired is not only deeply disrespectful to the memory of Jo Cox, but gives an insight into the climate that has been created.  


Whilst Cox’s murder is a particularly emotive and shocking case, we cannot afford to shy away from calling this what it is: an act of far-right terrorism! Whilst the white privilege of the alleged murderer has seen mainstream media talk of a lone wolf with mental health issues, if progress is our collective aim, we must face up to the realities of this murder. Indeed, incidents such as this do not occur in abstraction from the social world, in some kind of political vacuum. As her husband urged then, we must unite to fight against the hate that killed Jo Cox.















Although particularly shocking and devastating, it would be a misnomer to think that Jo Cox’s death is an isolated example. As the country ultimately voted to leave the EU, anti-immigration sentiment, although of course existing before the referendum, has now been given an air of legitimacy in mainstream politics. Whilst a ‘remain’ vote would surely not have rid us of the scourges of racism, xenophobia and fascism, we must surely recognise the extra validity that Brexit has engendered. Explicit expressions of racism and xenophobia are seeping into public discourse as, through misplaced calls to ‘make Britain Great again’, the parameters of acceptability appear to have shifted.


Critical race theorists have painstakingly emphasised how individual expressions of racism are manifestations of much larger racist structures. If they were not, they would not make sense, or have any power. This is evident in Jo Cox’s murder, and in the links between Donald Trump’s rhetoric and the racist bullying of Latino and Muslim school kids in the US. Not all examples are this tangible but this does not lessen the reality of strong links between the individual racism and the racist social climate.


The EU referendum result has altered the fabric of our society and, thus, it should come as no surprise that the result has been followed by a seeming increase in reports of hate crimes and racist incidents. On a personal level, in the space of a few days, I have had to learn of a colleague and friend being told to ‘go back home’, and watch as a white man, self-assured in his right to racially abuse, called a young Asian man ‘paki’, in broad day light, in a city centre. These are anecdotes that are reflected across the country, and should come as no surprise.


Following the referendum result, Ash Sarkar of Novara media posted the following on twitter;


‘Lexiters: today I beg you look at the people around you who are terrified of deportations and racism for themselves, their friends and their families. I beg you look 'em dead in the eye and find a way to say "we won".’


Whilst I’m sure that Lexiters will find a defence for their position, what Sarkar importantly highlights is a need to recognise the role of race in left-wing activism. Had anti-racism been deeply embedded in the work of the left, the racist attacks that have followed the Brexit vote might have been foreseen.  Until race is central to our shared struggle, our efforts can never be fully emancipatory.


Before we consider our next steps, as we are being harassed and brutalised in the streets, let us first understand the challenges that we are up against. Anti-racist action must be able to recognise the racism it seeks to fight. And, if necessary, allow us time to grieve and recover before the long battle that is ahead.