Two Forms of Racism in Brexit

By Doctor Comrade

Immediately following the United Kingdom's referendum on staying or leaving the European Union ("Brexit"), many commentators quickly admonished the lower classes for overwhelmingly voting to leave. Uneducated, older, conservative voters chose "leave," while degree-holding voters and young people voted to "remain." The reason, as some pointed out, was the lower-class fear or hatred of the EU's open borders policy that has allowed many immigrants to move to Britain, an antipathy caused by racism, xenophobia, and economic insecurity.

Criticizing "leave" voters for racism is generally well founded. One Labour Party MP, who initially campaigned for leave, said that the leave campaign was "trying to hit the racist issues," causing him to abandon Leave because of its racist rhetoric. Anyusha Rose argued that the political climate has gotten so toxic that is has normalized and legitimized overt racism. After the referendum, anti-Polish cards were distributed in Cambridgeshire with slogans such as, "No more Polish vermin" and "Leave the EU" printed on them. And the success of the neo-fascist UK Independence Party (UKIP), led by one of Leave's most strident voices Nigel Farage, signals that the right-wing of UK politics has relied on racist, anti-immigrant fears to bolster support for "leave."

And yet, not all people who voted for leave did so because of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. Many claim to have voted to leave the EU because it would improve Britain's economy. Richard Seymour wrote that many members of the working classes voted "leave" because they were voting against economy that "wasn't working to their benefit." These are people who have been victimized by global economic changes which have left them behind: industrial jobs have been exported to other countries, wages have stagnated, and the welfare state has not provided them with relief. It should be no surprise that their material conditions--poverty or near poverty, joblessness, and a climate of economic pessimism--caused them to revolt against the EU.

However, these two positions--the racist/xenophobic position and the economic pessimist position--are not inseparable and shouldn't be treated as two distinct systems. What we can see in the Brexit referendum are two equally heinous forms of racism: one, the overt and disgusting public expression of nationalism and chauvinism; the other, a tacitly racist worldview which results in acceptance and perpetuation of racist rhetoric. Most leave voters--even if they are not racist in their beliefs or behavior--must share culpability for the effects of "leave" and the political discourse during the Leave campaign. While one group of Leave voters--the overt racists--voted for "leave" because they have racist intentions of expelling immigrants, the other group--the tacit racists--have embraced a policy which was supported by racists and will probably have racist effects.

This is the difference between what I call positive racism and negative racism. Positive racism (not positive like "good," but positive in the philosophical sense like "affirmative" or "active") is the racism with which we are all familiar: Nazism, Jim Crow segregation, lynching, the Ku Klux Klan, etc. Positive racism is openly espoused: its rhetoric is explicitly racist and posits a particular worldview in which one race (almost always Northern Europeans) is the superior race and therefore should exclusively hold political and social power. Negative racism denotes the more subtle forms of racism that are harder to detect yet just as dangerous. Negative racists often observe racism and injustice, yet choose to do nothing. They are much harder to see because they are often not racist in belief or behavior, and they do not espouse racist beliefs in public discourse, yet their actions (or inaction) have racist results.

Brexit helps us to understand these two forms of racism. Positive racists, like members of UKIP, are easily detectable. They used racist propaganda to encourage Britons to vote for "leave." The Brexit campaign was an example of how the British people--as a whole--could have rejected the anti-immigrant, racist nonsense promoted by British fascists. "Leave" was touted by many as a way to assert a national identity against Europe at a time when the EU was allowing Europe to be flooded with Muslim refugees. However, even Brexit's economic justifications were chauvinistic: that the economy must be reclaimed for the British worker, in contradistinction to the less-than-worthy immigrant worker or foreign national. Or, in other words, that the white British native should gain preferential economic considerations over their European, Muslim, non-white, or other immigrant counterparts.

This has many parallels with the presidential election in the United States. Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan has had to endure the candidacy of Donald Trump. Donald Trump is positively racist, especially against Latino/as and Muslims. Paul Ryan has not used the same rhetoric in his endorsement of Trump, choosing instead to voice his opposition to some of Trump's positions while still endorsing him for President of the United States. This spineless, pathetic man would rather endorse an openly racist, demagogic, dangerous charlatan than condemn him fully and unequivocally.

There is no neutrality in the face of injustice. Immigrants must be welcomed into Europe, and any attempt to denigrate immigrants should be met with universal condemnation. Brexit was as much a referendum on the acceptability of immigrants as it was about economic independence. But economic independence is deeply tied to the notion of essential Britishness: white native Britons should receive better outcomes than other kinds of workers. And so we can see the ways in which a voter who chose "leave" may not be racist in their behavior, but have nonetheless promoted the rhetoric of racism and the effects of racism.

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