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Racism and inequality: The truth about Brexit

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In the week that UK Prime Minister Theresa May will trigger Article 50, beginning our official departure from the European Union, Runnymede's Research Consultant Dr Zubaida Haque looks at what we're not saying about racism and inequality, and why it matters.

Discussion around the Brexit vote has become synonymous with debates on immigration. The prevailing narrative has been that the number of immigrants to the UK, particularly since 2004, has had an enormous impact on the British voters ‘left behind,’ – lowering their wages, taking their jobs, overwhelming public services and increasing the crime rates. But this debate has been considerably unbalanced, focusing on the apparent impact of EU migrants on ‘left behind’ British voters, while ignoring the real causes of inequality and voters’ concerns.

Perceptions do not match reality
Firstly, anti-immigration attitudes have had little to do with the actual number of immigrants, and did not begin in 2004 when the European Union was expanded. While there has been a substantial increase in negative public attitudes towards immigrants since 2004, polls even as far back as 1978 - when net migration was around zero - showed that almost three quarters of the public agreed with the statement that we were “being swamped” by other cultures. This means that even if this government managed to bring down migration to the tens of thousands, anti-immigration sentiment is still likely to remain high among British voters.

It’s not about the numbers
Secondly, the facts about the impact of immigrants on UK citizen demographics have been deliberately obscured. Despite the “migration meltdown” and “influx” warnings of the Daily Mail, only a small proportion of the British population are EU migrants (around 4%), less than 1% of all benefit claimants are EU nationals, less than 2% of social housing tenants in the last five years are new migrants (and most of these are refugees) and both not only have crime rates gone down generally since 2004, but they have not been affected by the numbers of EU immigrants. And perhaps, more importantly, government-sponsored surveys have shown that areas with the highest proportions of new migrants are less likely to hold negative attitudes towards immigrants, compared to areas with lower numbers of new migrants.

Not just the white working class
Thirdly, despite UKIP’s and Nigel Farage’s political insinuations, Brexit voters did not consist of only the white working class. An analysis of Brexit voters showed that a third of Asians voted for Brexit, and high proportions of all ethnic minorities voted Leave in Birmingham and in some boroughs of north and west London. This is important to note because it suggests that the ‘anti-immigrant’ rationale proffered by the populists as the key driver for Brexit is not as truthful as they would like us to believe. The Brexit motivations are more complex because the ‘left behind’ group (a proxy for those in lower socio-economic groups – semi-skilled, unskilled and unemployed groups who are more likely to be working in manufacturing areas and on lower wages’) do not only consist of white people, as evidenced by Runnymede’s report on Race and Class post-Brexit. This omission is important for two reasons: firstly because black and minority ethnic (BME) groups have historically been neglected from any narrative about the working class in this country and secondly because, while there may be some reservations about EU immigration that British ethnic minorities might share with their white counterparts, research has shown that ethnic minority groups have different views about the cultural and economic impact of immigrants. Moreover, the breakdown at ward level of Brexit votersshowed that while lower qualifications was a strong predictor of the Leave vote, this link did not apply to Asian voters to the same extent. So, not only might Asian Brexit voters have different views about the impact of immigration compared to their white Brexit peers, but they may also have had different motivations for voting Brexit.

An easy scapegoat
Fourthly, it has been convenient for the government - and careless of Labour - to jump on the immigration bandwagon, while underplaying the impact of technological change, reduction of manufacturing, the disproportionate impact of austerity cuts, and recent changes to the tax and benefit system on lower skilled white and ethnic minority workers. Arguably these factors and policies have had considerably more harmful impacts on poorer socio-economic groups and BME communities compared to the more visible impacts of immigration, but current political narratives suggest that neither the Conservatives nor Labour are interested in addressing the real causes of poverty and inequality. Instead, focusing on immigration, and thereby highlighting the symptoms rather than the causes of inequality, has been an easy and expedient scapegoat for political neglect.

Blurred lines
Fifthly, the anti-immigration lobby have wittingly (and perhaps unwittingly) obscured the boundaries between new migrants who have come into the UK and ethnic minority and European populations who have been settled in the UK for several decades. This blurring of the lines has meant that settled Eastern European and ethnic minority populations have been the victims of anti-immigration resentment against newer migrants, as reflected in the rise of racially or religiously aggravated hate crimes in England and Wales last year. But we must not delude ourselves into thinking that this racism and xenophobia is just a result of Brexit. It was 2013 when Theresa May, then Home Secretary, allowed mobile billboard vans aimed at undocumented migrants with the slogan, “Go home or face arrest” to drive around London’s most diverse boroughs. Not only was the pilot scheme a huge failure, but the blunt spot checks stigmatised many British ethnic minority citizens who were stopped and searched while waiting for trains at stations. It is not racist to talk about immigration, but that doesn’t mean that the anti-immigration language before and after Brexit has not been racist.

The trend of growing inequality, racism and xenophobia has become apparent for some time now, but Brexit is pivotal because the toxic campaign, which was capitalised on by critics of multiculturalism, has normalised hatred towards immigrants. The narrative of ‘them and us’ and increasingly ‘good vs bad immigrants’ has become so rife that it has penetrated all areas of the UK, pitting communities against each other, and mainstreaming racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia. We cannot be complacent about this. If there’s anything that we’ve learnt from Trump’s campaign, it is the way divide-and-rule strategies can split cohesive communities, and sow the seeds of distrust, self-interest and resentment between groups. But this pressure cooker approach is short term and can only be contained for so long; eventually the tensions between groups will lead to a backlash that we could have predicted but can no longer control.

Follow Zubaida on Twitter: @ZubHaque

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