PostRefRacism, a Twitter account set up to document post-referendum racist incidents, has just released a report on post-referendum racism in Britain. Compiled with input from similar groups, Worrying Signs and iStreetWatch, and endorsed by the Institute for Race Relations (IRR), the report garnered widespread media attention in the past week, as did police data revealing a 20% spike in reported ‘hate crime’ after the referendum, with a total 6,000 incidents.
PostRefRacism’s report is potentially useful in breaking down this alarming headline figure, given its exclusive focus on racism. It identifies 636 individual reports of ‘racist and xenophobic hate crime’ – less than 11% of the total ‘hate crime’ figure released by police – of which 88% involved verbal abuse or ‘propaganda’. Of course, Twitter usage is hardly universal. But PostRefRacism worked very hard to reach this figure. With its 10,000 followers, it received nearly 99,000 tweets from 25 June to 4 July. However, 80% of these were generic expressions of concern, with only 20% reporting actual incidents, boiling down to only 636 separate cases – 25% of which were hearsay, and none of which have been verified.
The report’s most troubling claim is that 51% of these incidents ‘referred specifically to the referendum’, while 14% affected children, 12% were Islamophobic, and 4% were ‘other’. However, 51% of the 636 incidents fit into none of these categories. That is, at most 159 cases (51% of 51%) ‘referred specifically to the referendum’. Assuming they were all perpetrated by individual ‘leave’ voters, that leaves 17,410,583 Leavers who did not abuse anyone, despite a third saying they were primarily motivated to restore immigration controls – not to mention the other 29,095,259 eligible voters. Put differently, there are about 853,000 Poles living in Britain, but PostRefRacism recorded only 54 incidents where Poles were the reported victims (0.00006%).
Clearly, there is the possibility of under-reporting, and even one incident is one too many. Verbal abuse can be desperately upsetting for victims, and we should stand in full solidarity with them. But in a country as populous and diverse as Britain, do these figures really demonstrate widespread racist intolerance?
We must also ask what the phrase ‘referred specifically to the referendum’ actually means. Sometimes there is a clear (albeit obtuse) link: someone saying ‘shouldn’t you be on a plane back to Pakistan? We voted you out’. But more often, reports seem to involve generic phrases like ‘go home’ (74 stories), ‘leave’ (80 stories) and ‘fuck off’ (45 stories). Reprehensible as such comments are, it’s unclear why we should attribute them ‘specifically to the referendum’. Racist bigots have been telling non-white people to ‘go home’ for decades – it is a standard, despicable trope. The IRR’s own digest, which provides substantive detail of each case, involves many such outbursts – most of which cannot plausibly be linked to the referendum. The ethnic breakdown of reported victims – only 21% of whom are identified as Europeans – also suggests continuity with long-established patterns of racism against non-whites. The geographic pattern of incidents also fails to correlate with the ‘leave’ vote, with 44% originating in London.
The data thus boil down to a statistical uptick in an underlying current of low-level racist activity. As James Aber has argued here on TCM, a tiny, hard-core minority of racist individuals, who existed prior to the referendum, apparently felt emboldened to be more abusive following the result. Alarmist reports that made it appear that their attitudes were widely shared may even have emboldened them further. But such upticks are not new; far larger surges invariably follow terrorist atrocities. Anti-Muslim crimes in the US jumped 1,600% after 9/11; hate crimes in London increased 600% after 7/7; and anti-Muslim incidents in France jumped 281% after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The smaller uptick in Britain does not necessarily indicate any longer-term realignment. Polls on voting intentions do not suggest any shift towards right-wing parties. There is no surge for UKIP, still less for the British National Party – who, let us not forget, garnered just 1,667 votes in the 2015 general election. Conversely, there is overwhelming public support – 84% – for the residency rights of EU nationals already living in Britain. No doubt, racism must continue to be challenged – but, as Philip Cunliffe argues on TCM, we do not need the EU to do this.
This analysis is necessary not to dismiss the experience of racism but to understand it and shape appropriate responses. As Stathis Kouvelakis warns British leftists, embracing this discourse of widespread working-class racism is seriously detrimental to any progressive agenda, particularly if one believes it is historically embedded into the English character, as some now argue. It destroys the notion that the vast majority of the population are capable of acting as agents of progressive social, political and economic change. It fuels instead either liberal insistence on containing and suppressing mass sentiment, Labour-rightists’ pandering to anti-immigration attitudes, or right-wing populist efforts to exacerbate and exploit ethnic divisions.
Rather than aiding the enemy, leftists ought to be challenging these slanders against the white working classes and asking why, as Kouvelakis puts it, class struggle is being distorted into anti-immigration sentiment that, in its nastiest form, shades into racism. As we have argued, simply decrying racism merely evades this fundamental question. The answer is obvious enough. Following the crushing defeat of organised labour in the 1980s, the political class has practised 30 years of neoliberalism, resulting in flat-lining wages and living standards, followed by eight years of austerity in which real wages have fallen at the same rate as those in crisis-struck Greece. Social security, housing and decent work are all dwindling. Politicians of all stripes absolutely insist ‘there is no alternative’ to this shrinking pie – yet then admit millions of new mouths to share it. In this context, it can surprise no-one that a defence of living standards takes the form of resistance to immigration. Indeed, the hegemony of TINA makes anti-immigration sentiment a structural feature of political life. It is this hegemony that the left must challenge.