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Back to the Future? Brexit, Trump and the Post-racial

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Sociologist Dr Katy Sian gives the lie to the notion that recent political developments have led to a re-emergence of racism; instead, it never went away.

Following Brexit and Trump’s election, liberal commentary has expressed shock and disbelief, suggesting that racism has made a sudden comeback into public space. Such a response can be explained by the circulation of the post-racial fantasy.

Between 2010 and 2013 I worked with Professor Salman Sayyid and Professor Ian Law on 'TOLERACE', a research project examining the semantics of racism across Europe (including Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark) It was evident there was a growing sense across these nations that racism had been dealt with.

We argued, in the context of the UK, that such sentiment was the consequence of a number of interrelated shifts.

First, the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry and the Macpherson report. A key recommendation of the report was that police should recognise an incident as racist if one of the parties or a third party described the incident as racist. As a result, white people became the largest group of ‘victims’ of racism. This subjective definition was based on a conceptualisation that saw racism not as a specific system of oppression, but as a clash of people of different ethnicities. This undermined the structural dimension of institutional racism (Sian, Law and Sayyid 2013: 33).

The second shift came via New Labour and the idea that Britain has become a multicultural society at ease with its diversity. Chicken tikka masala was advertised as the nation’s most popular dish and Britain was redefined as ‘Cool Britannia’. Within this context, racism was seen no longer as a significant problem and its occurrence was marginal and exceptional (ibid: 34). The implementation of an umbrella human rights organisation worked to empty out race issues from both the political elite level and the grassroots level, whereby third sector organisations devoted to anti-racism were gradually crushed; Britain ‘got over’ racism sometime in the 1980s, so the story goes.

The rise of diverse, racially marked populations and the emergence of categories such as asylum seeker, economic refugee, and Eastern European, radically altered Britain’s ethnic landscape, which had been previously organised around a white majority and South Asian and black minorities. This fragmentation seemed to suggest that social policy could no longer be contained within the conventional categories of racism and anti-racism. As a result the post-racial logic became central in organising political and popular opinion (ibid: 40). The post-racial can be defined as the disappearance of racism from the public domain. The election of the first black president of the US, alongside commercial celebrations of particular forms of blackness in advertising, music, and sport, signalled the arrival of the post-racial. This sprinkling of colour symbolised a landscape no longer contaminated by the horrors of racism (ibid: 13). For those who maintain racism is alive and well, talk of post-racial is either ironic or insincere: a fantasy fabricated by the wicked for the foolish. A black president, rock stars from the developing world, and all the ethnic food you can eat does not transform the violent hierarchies that remain in place grinding away at the souls of the dispossessed (ibid).

Our research showed that black and Asian people were being failed by the educational system, with limited access to the workplace, and racist vilification in the media, with little change in terms of structural disadvantage. Alongside this, the war on terror normalised abuse of Muslims and legitimised racist state practices of profiling, torture, rendition, and detention. Economic debates and austerity regimes have played their part too in creating hostility and fear among the general public. The victory of the far right, rising patterns of racist violence, and entrenched discrimination are routinely accepted in this context (ibid: 7).

Accounts that define racism in terms of individual attitudes and beliefs have remained the most influential, informing public policy and commentary and coexisting with hegemonic accounts of liberalism. (Liberals, rather than the political definition, are those who see societies as a combination of individuals and ‘truth’ as captured by rational speech). This perspective denies the structural effects of racism, and by linking the existence of racism to racists, the solution becomes individual reform rather than social transformation (ibid: 14).

The far right, the neocons, the continuation of the Thatcher regime, and many well-intentioned liberals, have all had a part to play in this new political eruption. As we argued in 2013, a post-racial society that fails to recognise the depth of racial configurations cannot eradicate racism but only affirm it through another register (ibid 16-17) - such a register has come through Brexit and Trump. The idea that racism vanished is what Ian Law (2012) describes as a mistaken mantra. Let’s not forget, when Britain was in the EU xenophobia was still rife. Fortress Europe was never a safe haven for people of colour with refugees risking life and limb to enter this supposed space of dignity, liberty, and respect for human rights, only to be denied access. Similarly the US is a nation built on the genocide of Native Americans; lynchings of African Americans; and phoney wars. Although post-Brexit and post-Trump there has been an undeniable rise in racist violence, let’s not be fooled into thinking that racism suddenly reappeared.

National narratives around ‘getting our country back’ have existed ever since postcolonial migrants entered Western nations., From speeches on segregation, integration, and the failure of multiculturalism; to a string of far-right movements and claims of an ‘immigrant take-over’ propped up by headlines, Britain has always had a problem with dealing with the ethnic diversity of its nation as it represents the loss of the symbol of Empire. The story of making Britain or America great again is somewhat of a broken record, which travels on different racially marked bodies at different moments in time. While current events have fostered the conditions for racism to flourish, they certainly did not create them. For most people of colour, whether in Britain, Europe or the US, these nations have never represented a welcoming home, every day is a struggle, regardless of Trump or Brexit. Since the birth of the colonial enterprise, racism has been an intrinsic feature of these modern states and their nation-building projects. Perhaps over the past 20 years it was better concealed for those floating high in their liberal bubble.

Those devastated by Brexit and Trump appear to be committed to a post-racial fantasy that suggests such countries previously symbolised a beacon of equality, peace, and freedom. The votes exposed the ugly nature of racism and burst the post-racial liberal bubble. As Sayyid (2014) notes, those liberals who were disgusted at Nazi Germany, were content practising similar forms of governance out in the colonies where it was well hidden (Sayyid 2014: 16-17). The same liberals support bombs, bullets, and torture under Obama, because they are packaged in the shiny wrapper of democracy. Similarly the banner of the EU offered a nice buffer for the inhumane treatment of refugees. Before Brexit and Trump these practices were easier to swallow for a liberal majority. Current events confirm that these nations are unable to let go of an arrogant, narrow, out-dated vision of the world, which is fast losing its currency across the globe. Brexit and Trump have bought to light what happens when we are complicit in allowing our states to dismantle anti-racist, civil rights, and multicultural politics in favour of the post-racial dream.

*This article is based on research generated from the TOLERACE project (2010-2013), University of Leeds, and findings from: Sian, Law and Sayyid (2013) Racism, Governance, and Public Policy.

Sian, Law and Sayyid. (2013) Racism, Governance & Public Policy: Beyond Human Rights: Routledge
Sayyid, S. (2014) ‘A Measure of Islamophobia’ Islamophobia Studies Journal, Vol 2. No. 1, pp. 10-25.

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