Brexit: Resist The Simple 'Racism' Narrative

Image of a family snap photo showing the United Kingdom Union Jack and European Community flags - ripped in two as a divorce
Image of a family snap photo showing the United Kingdom Union Jack and European Community flags - ripped in two as a divorce photo.

As we all try to process what has happened in the United Kingdom, it will be tempting to grasp on to a simple narrative with a simple moral for the rest of the world: it was hatred of brown-skinned people that won it. (I'm already seeing this all over my facebook feed.) And it certainly played a role. UKIP played on the worst fears of dark-skinned hordes with a poster bearing an uncanny resemblance to Nazi propaganda. White supremacists were emboldened by the poisonous rhetoric, and one of them murdered an MP. And, in the wake of the Leave vote, racial hate crimes are on the rise. But this story, though horrific and important, is not the whole story. If we focus only on it, we risk missing important lessons that need to be learned from the devastating result. (We also risk further emboldening racists, if we lead them to believe that more than half the country is with them.)

The "hatred of dark-skinned people" story cannot make sense of the many people from the Indian subcontinent I met when I was out leafleting for Remain, who were worried about immigration. These people weren't worried about skin colour. They were worried about strains on public services like the NHS, which they genuinely attributed to immigration rather than to the massive cuts that David Cameron has made.

And what of the parents of a friend, one of them a (brown-skinned) refugee, who voted for Brexit? Their motivation was again immigration, and their reasoning straightforward: this small island is full. We can't handle any more people. Once more, they believed the stretching of public services to be due to an influx of people rather than to cuts.

While we're on the topic of false belief, it's worth pausing for a moment more on what one of the Asian men I met said (where 'Asian' is here used in the British sense, for someone with origins in the Indian subcontinent). He told me proudly that "we" (Britain) used to rule the world, back before the EU, and that with Brexit we could do so again. That's right, he was identifying with the Empire--which he thought could be brought back by a withdrawal from the EU.

Now, a lot of this could be attributed to racism, even if not skin colour. People are swayed by racist attitudes of which they are not conscious; even victims of racism can harbor racist attitudes (even against their own group); and less-recent immigrants may well be prejudiced against more-recent immigrants. Moreover, 'immigrant' is a dogwhistle term, long-used in British (and other) politics to prey upon racist sentiments. And, finally, racism need not be understood as a matter of skin colour: anti-semitism is often considered a form of racism, and the Irish, despite their very pale skin, used to be considered non-white in America. So yes, one could tell a story on which race was at the root of each of these anecdotes. (Or, more broadly, bigotry.)

But the surface stories also bear examination, and we are making a grave error if we overlook them. Many of the people voting to leave the EU genuinely blamed immigration for the starving of social services, which was in fact caused by Cameron's austerity policies. Many of the people leaving the EU genuinely believed that the UK economy would be thriving and we'd be on top of the world if not for the EU's fetters. Many people were excited by the thought of saving £350 million per week, and putting this money into the NHS (the most widely reported promise of the Leave camp, a promise already renounced). These beliefs were manifestly false, and regularly debunked.

But either they never came across these debunkings or they didn't believe them when they did. This fact-insensitivity is something that we must urgently pay attention to. And a key cause of it is something also urgently in need of attention: poor and working-class people have been told for decades that the experts in charge will look out for them. They have been made promise after promise about how free trade will actually help them, and about how lowering taxes on the rich will improve life for everyone. These promises have been revealed as patently false and cynically manipulative. Given this, it is completely rational for them to distrust the elites, including the politicians, bankers, and economists who have been forecasting economic doom from Brexit. Much of our knowledge of the world is based on what others say, and of course we are often faced with conflicting testimony. When this happens, we decide whom to believe based on dubious markers of authority (like social class or accent); but also on better markers like past track record. The politicians, bankers and economists have the dubious markers of authority, but their track record gives genuinely good reason for doubt. Disbelieving them can, then, strangely almost be seen as a kind of victory for rational judgment over bias. (Almost, because those they believed were distinctly lacking in any indicators of trustworthiness at all.)

But total distrust of experts means a lack of access to one of the most important sources of facts that there could be. And democracy only makes any sense at all when the populace is able to base its decisions on facts. We are at a crisis point here: Lies are being told, immigrants are being scapegoated, and there is widespread distrust of those trying to get the truth out. Somehow, we need to find a way out of this. We need to break out of this fast. And when I say 'we', I don't just mean the UK, as a very similar dynamic is being played out in the US. If we don't find a way to make sure the truth gets through, we may end up with President Trump.