Britain’s EU referendum cannot simply be regarded at its face value as a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. It was a noxious campaign on immigration, which was preceded by years of political and media discourse that has mainstreamed anti-immigration sentiment.
The Brexit vote legitimised racism: it took the shame out of racial hatred and unleashed waves of its verbal and physical expression. The Economist reports hate crime data from the National Police Chiefs’ Council of 3,076 incidents of harassment or violence between 6-30 June, a rise of 915 on the same period the previous year. More recent figures, from 5-18 August , indicate 2,778 cases, an increase of 14% on the same period in 2015.
The stark reality behind these statistics can be seen through the following summary by The Independent of hate crime incidents since the EU referendum: “Gangs prowling the streets demanding passers-by prove they can speak English.
“Swastikas in Armagh, Sheffield, Plymouth, Leicester, London and Glasgow.
“Assaults, arson attacks and dog excrement being thrown at doors or shoved through letter boxes.
“Toddlers being racially abused alongside their mothers, with children involved as either victims or perpetrators in 14 per cent of incidents.
“A man in Glasgow ripping off a girl’s headscarf and telling her ‘Trash like you better start obeying the white man.’
“Comparisons with 1930s Nazi Germany and a crowd striding through a London street chanting: ‘First we’ll get the Poles out, then the gays!”
This provides a critical backdrop and climate to the horrific fatal assault on a Polish man, Arkadiusz Jozwik, in Harlow, Essex, on 27 August. Why and how have we arrived at this moment? To answer this, we need to adequately understand the history and nature of racism in Britain.
Sociologist Gurminder K. Bhambra, in a blog post written soon after the EU referendum result, states that what was “unleashed in the weeks prior to the vote was the most toxic discourse on citizenship and belonging, and the rights that pertain as a consequence”. She questions the idea of Britain as an “independent” nation, given its history as part of wider political entities: notably, the colonial Empire and Commonwealth, and the European Union.
The idea of the British nation has long been dependent on “a racially stratified political formation” of its making and, decisively, it has been: “the loss of this privileged position — based on white elites and a working class offered the opportunity to see themselves as better than the darker subjects of empire […] — that seems to drive much of the current discourse. Austerity has simply provided the fertile ground for its re-emergence and expression.” Thus, she argues, to understand “Britain” one needs to understand its colonial and imperial Empire and governance.
The 1948 British Nationality Act was a turning point, for previously Britain’s colonial subjects were defined as British subjects, but with the Act they became Commonwealth citizens. And as the bodies of these Commonwealth citizens migrated into the space of the British nation-state, “mythologies of the changing nature (or, perhaps more accurately, face) of Britain” developed: “Mythologies that continue to reverberate in the present and have taken on a renewed political vibrancy in light of the debates regarding our continued EU membership. […] The transformation of darker citizens from citizens to aliens over the 1960s and 1970s was based on a visceral understanding of difference predicated on race that brought into being two classes of citizenship — full citizenship and second-class citizenship. […] immigration into the country was increasingly managed by the passing of Acts to discriminate among citizens on the basis of race.” (Bhambra, 2016)
From this twentieth century history, Bhambra concludes that the “common-sense position” on what it means “to be British or English is to be white”, as based on the “mythology of a white Europe or a historically white Britain”. The consequence of this (racist) common sense is a grave misrepresentation of Britain’s “multiracial political formations”. As such: “we must rethink our analyses to take into account the imperial configuration of Britain and all those who were subjects within it and subject to it. If this is not done, then that demonstrates a commitment to a racialized national history that has no space for its darker subjects.” (Bhambra, 2016)
But for me, this academic narrative leaves unexplained the present-day racism against Eastern Europeans, for example. Without a doubt, racism before and since the EU referendum affects Britain’s darker subjects, but what has evolved is not simply or only a racism that targets those of different skin colour. Other markers, both visible and invisible, are also at play as signifying negative racial difference and inciting hatred. Helpful here is the work of the sociologist Robert Miles (1993), who makes the point that proposing (or indeed assuming) the ideology of racism has its historical origins in colonialism can lead to a conclusion that racism is an ideology created exclusively by “white” people to dominant “black” people.
However, “in part, the origins of racism can be traced back to pre-capitalist social relations within and beyond Europe” and “its reproduction is as much determined by the rise of the nation state as by colonialism” (Miles, 1993). From the highly cited and regarded work of Stuart Hall and the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) collective, a dominant academic understanding of racism has problematically developed, as Miles observes, “often implicit in their writing is the assumption that the only contemporary form of racism in Britain is that which has people of Caribbean and South Asian origin as its object”. Yet: “Many physical characteristics (both real and imagined) have been and continue to be signified as a mark of nature and of ‘race’ […].
Moreover, cultural characteristics have also been, and continue to be, signified to the same end. The reification of skin colour therefore mistakenly privileges one specific instance of signification and ignores the historical and contemporary evidence which shows that other populations (Jews, Irish people, etc.) have been signified as distinct and inferior ‘races’ without reference to skin colour […]. Moreover, it restricts analysis of the nature and determinants of racism to a debate about the effects of colonial exploitation.” (Miles, 1993)
Miles’ exploration of the history of racism provides astute explanatory power to the contemporary era surrounding Brexit. Miles’ explanation of the historical interrelationship between nationalism and racism vis-à-vis capitalist development is instructive: “In the context of its formation, nationalism was […] a revolutionary doctrine because it sought to overturn monarchy and aristocratic government by an appeal to the popular will of ‘the people’ who were the ‘nation’ […] For much of the nineteenth century, nationalism was synonymous with a struggle for political sovereignty within defined spatial boundaries and for some form of representative government. […]
“By way of contrast, there was no single political strategy that emerged from the general theory of biological, hierarchical differentiation expressed in the idea of ‘race’. This was not only because there was little agreement about the boundaries between the supposed ‘races’, but also because scientific racism did not posit a single, coherent political object.
“The theorisation of ‘race’ and ‘nation’ took place at a time of ‘internal’ European political and economic reorganisation and ‘external’ colonial expansion, in the course of which the range of human cultural and physiological variation became more widely known to a larger number of people. The extension of capitalist relations of production increased the circulation of commodities and of people, and this increasing mobility, migration and social interaction provided part of the foundation upon which the ideologies of racism and nationalism were constructed. The increasing profusion of physiological and cultural variation, as recognised in western Europe, became the object of intellectual curiosity and, thereby, of the theoretical practice of scientists and philosophers. But it also became the focus of political attention and action as populations within and beyond Europe were nationalised and racialised by the state […]” (Miles, 1993)
While distinct ideologies, nationalism and racism can overlap: the construct of the “nation” as based on cultural differentiae is compatible with the notion that the nation is founded on a biological “race”. Miles continues to demonstrate that first the feudal aristocracy’s, and later the bourgeoisie’s, “civilisation” project became fused with racism — a civilisation project which was central to emergent and developing capitalist social relations within and outside Europe:
“In France, notions of politesse and civilité were used by the feudal aristocracy to contrast the refinement of their behaviour with that of the ‘inferior’ people whom they ruled. […] the bourgeoisie became its leading exponent once it had displaced the aristocracy as the ruling class. By the early nineteenth century, the bourgeoisie, conscious of its material achievements and more firmly in political control in at least certain parts of Europe, began to assert that its values and manners were more a matter of inheritance than a social construction. In these circumstances the notion of civilisation (Elias 1978: 50): ‘serves at least those nations which have become colonial conquerors, and therefore a kind of upper class to large sections of the non-European world, as a justification of their rule, to the same degree that earlier the ancestors of the concept of civilisation, politesse and civilité, had served the courtly-aristocratic upper class as a justification of theirs.’” (Miles, 1993)
Depending on conjuncture and interests, the boundaries of blood have been mapped and remapped: “Hence, during the nineteenth century, in certain circumstances the English working class, or fractions thereof, were signified by the dominant class as ‘a different breed’, an uncivilised ‘race’, but in other circumstances, as a constituent part of the English (or British) ‘race’, a ‘breed’ which contains ‘in its blood’ civilised and democratic values. […] The result was a racialised nationalism or a nationalist racism, a mercurial ideological bloc that was manipulated by the ruling class (or rather by different fractions of it) to legitimate the exploitation of inferior ‘races’ in the colonies, to explain economic and political struggles with other European nation states, and to signify (for example) Irish and Jewish migrants as an undesirable ‘racial’ presence within Britain.” (Miles, 1993)
Thus for over two centuries the signification of racial difference has been a central aspect of class relations and class struggle both inside and beyond Europe. To maintain domination: “Europeans in different class positions have racialised each other, as well as inward migrants and those populations that they colonised beyond Europe. During the twentieth century, there have been further examples of the racialisation of the interior of European nation states (as in the case of the Jews), as well as a racialisation of larger-scale inward migrations, including colonial and non-colonial migrations, since 1945.” (Miles, 1993)
We might productively consider the present period in Britain as an extension and evolution of this history, in which racism vilifies an internal European Other and an Other from outside Europe.