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The seeds of post-Brexit racial violence lie in government policy

Racist attacks are condemned by politicians who stop short of examining their complicity. New research suggests policy ignites hatred.

“In the UK illegally?”, “Go home or face Arrest” went the slogans on the government’s Operation Vaken mobile ad-vans in July 2013. “Go back” out of “our country” echoed the abuse following the summer’s referendum.

Multiculturalism has failed, we need British values, in the face of Islamist extremism, announced Prime Minister David Cameron in February 2011.

In August 2014 journalists were invited to film immigration raids to remove homeless migrants from around Marble Arch in central London; Theresa May, as home secretary in August 2015, announced plans to ban EU migrants unless they had a job.

In June 2016 a 34-year-old doctor was attacked on his way to a football match in Plymouth. “We only tolerate you lot because of the income you bring,” went the abuse. In Milton Keynes, on 30 June, a migrant was deliberately picked on and robbed at knifepoint because of his homelessness.

On 1 July a law firm received a Facebook message: There is “only one law in the UK: abide by it or GTF Out”. Two days later in a Sunderland shopping centre, a woman had her veil ripped off. “You’re in Britain, live by British rules,” yelled her attacker.

Almost every utterance shouted alongside a specific racist attack was already a dominant ideological policy position. The hostile environment that Theresa May promised the country in 2012 has certainly become one on the ground.

Now, five months after the referendum, many organisations are in the business of explaining the horrific level of post-Brexit racial violence witnessed in the UK. That there was such a rise in violence is agreed on by everyone from newly created online forums like #postrefracism to police chiefs and home secretary Amber Rudd. What there is less agreement on is how to analyse and therefore combat such racism.

On the one hand you have academics such as Imran Awan (Birmingham City University) and Irene Zempi (Nottingham Trent University), backed by the anti-fascist group Hope Not hate, who see the 25,000 individuals who sent abusive and offensive tweets after the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox as revealing both the impact of  reading Nazi propaganda and the need to  tackle hate ‘speech’ on line. Such an approach can allow racism to be reduced to a question of individual bigotry.

Then you have the quasi-governmental Equality and Human Rights Commission whose officers David Isaac and Rebecca Hilsenrath, unusually, on 25 November wrote a letter of rebuke to all political parties. “Politicians of all sides should be aware of the effect on national mood of their words and policies, even when they are not enacted.”

You have the responsibility, they tell politicians, to see that “the right to free and fair elections [are] supported by accurate information and respectful debate ... essential to our democratic process”. And: “There are those who used, and continue to use, public concern about immigration policy and the economy to legitimise hate.”

The EHRC clearly sees the role of politicians as pivotal in delegitimising hate.

Individuals may have wielded the stick, politicians may have added during the Brexit debate to the toxic brew. Both have to be seen in a larger and historical context according to the radical think tank, the Institute of Race Relations. First, the IRR, which has collated a database of racial attacks in the UK since 2010, points out that though such violence indeed ‘spiked’ during the summer, it should not be seen as something new. Second, it warns against treating such violence as merely a law and order problem. Such a view in fact depoliticises the issue and lets the government off the hook.

This is the crux of Racial violence and the Brexit state. Its author Jon Burnett argues convincingly exactly how, in over 100 incidents he analysed, the racial epithets used during  75% of attacks, including those recorded above, exactly echoed a series of government pronouncements and policies on migrants, religion, refugees and immigration since 2011. “Go-home” messages on vans become “go home” abuse on the street.

The racism evidenced in attacks revealed the following in perpetrators: an affirmation the country was theirs again; cultural norms could be reasserted; racism was linked to “entitlement”; campaigning to remain was “betrayal”; anti-migrant and anti-Muslim racism intersected; new racisms rooted in former racisms. Above all, the attacks had their gestation within policy measures which expressed the same aim or sentiments.

A. Sivanandan, in his foreword, adds, “In siphoning off racism and racial violence, which are socially-based, to the terrain of law and order, the government conceals its complicity in creating state racism.” And for him the Brexit state which has made nativism the state ideology and “take back control” its political culture, has elevated institutional racism to fully-fledged state racism.

The struggle then is on two levels: against “hate crime” and against state racism, both at once.


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