ODVV Interview: Brexit normalized xenophobia...
Multiculturalism is a treasured British asset, and people of diverse national, ethnic and religious backgrounds have historically contributed to the British society at the same time as benefiting from the economic, social and educational opportunities it has been offering to its residents equally. Some scholars assert that British multiculturalism has retreated, blaming the divisive Brexit debate for the regression of diversity in the United Kingdom; however, the country is still a conglomerate of citizens representing nearly every nation, racial group and faith in the world, living in harmony despite their differences.
Some sources argue that the first wave of migrants to the contemporary British Isles arrived in the 16th century. Nevertheless, it was mostly following the World War II that immigration began to significantly transform the UK and its demographic composition. After the war, less than one in 25 of the population had been born outside the United Kingdom. According to BBC, that figure is closer to one in seven today. A report by the Global Future has revealed that nearly 40% of the leading cultural figures of the United Kingdom are from migrant or minority ethnic backgrounds. The think tank’s survey of 2,000 British adults found that nearly seven in 10 of Brits believe diversity has improved their national culture, against a 15% minority who disagree.
Since the June 2016 referendum in which the majority of Britons voted to withdraw the UK from the European Union, discord has been rippling through the country and immigrants were particularly scapegoated for what the mainstream population perceived to be their role in diminishing the economic resources, taking away jobs and altering the cultural values of the society.
David Gillborn is a professor of critical race studies at the University of Birmingham. He is the Director of Research and Founding Director of the Centre for Research in Race and Education at Birmingham. He serves as the editor-in-chief of the journal “Race, Ethnicity and Education.” He studies racism and racial inequalities in education. In an interview with Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, Prof. Gillborn responded to some questions about the debate surrounding the Brexit referendum, the spike of anti-Muslim prejudice in the United Kingdom and the immigration policies of the British government. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: Are the large-scale policies and major legislation in the UK in areas such as immigration, employment, counterterrorism and criminal justice racially equitable? Is it possible to discern if racism has been institutionalized in the bureaucratic setup of the country?
A: Racism saturates the UK; from the everyday interactions in schools, factories and on the street, through to how legislation is framed and enacted. Crude race hatred does still exist, but most racism is more subtle and less obvious. This is what critical race theorists mean when we talk about “white supremacy,” not the crude obvious racism of fascists and neo-Nazis, but a much more widespread and unrecognized racism that simply assumes that the interests of white people are, and must always be, the first and most important issue.
This kind of subtle and insidious racism is harder to spot on the surface, but can be seen in widespread figures showing that people in some minority groups simply do not get a fair deal. For example, black children are less likely to succeed in school; those that do get the highest possible grades are still less likely to get into the top universities and, if they do get in, they are less likely to get good jobs afterwards. Black adults are more likely to be on temporary contracts and less likely to be promoted.
Q: In 2012, the former Prime Minister Theresa May, in her role as the Home Secretary, had raised the controversial idea of “hostile environment” for the illegal immigrants. How has the measure contained illegal immigration to the UK? What toll has it taken on the legal immigrants? How has the desired hostility contributed to violating the rights of Britain’s Afro-Caribbean citizens, also referred to as the Windrush Generation?
A: “Hostile environment” was a spiteful policy which reflects wider policies that treat citizens in increasingly inhumane and reactionary ways.
The most immediate people who were affected were potential migrants – legal and otherwise. But the wider role of the policy was to placate white racist fears and anxieties. In fact, the campaign probably raised those fears to greater heights – it also signaled to white people that a new level of racial hostility was now “normal” in government. Certainly, the campaign – and the whole Brexit debate – normalized a level of xenophobia and public hostility to anyone viewed as non-white and non-British. This extended to British citizens born and raised in the country. The day after the Brexit vote, many Black British citizens were abused on the street and told to “go home,” meaning to leave the country!
The Windrush scandal is a classic case of the damage that can be done: lives ruined, in some cases lost, through a bureaucratic process that assumed the worst of people; assumed guilt, assumed bad intent, gave bureaucrats no allowance to use common sense. It was racist to the core. The latest report talks about “some elements” of institutional racism. This is too weak. The Windrush scandal was racist and it was entirely predictable.
Q: According to the UK law, a government response to racially-motivated hate crimes doesn’t require the establishment of the “racist intent” by the perpetrator. This is while the racist intent must be proved when a religiously-motivated hate crime is investigated. Britain has recognized Jews and Sikhs as racial minorities, which entitles them to legal protection by the law enforcement and other government agencies. This doesn’t apply to Muslims who are on the receiving end of a great deal of violent crimes. Why is that so?
A: The distinction between Jews and Sikhs as a “racial group” in law and Muslims, Hindus and Christians as “religious” is odd. However, in practice the evidence suggests that people of color, whether Muslims or Sikhs, tend to have a tough time getting the racist element of the crime taken seriously. Regardless of the formal legal position, there is evidence that police officers and courts are frequently reluctant to accept that “race” was involved unless a crude racial insult was used.
There has been an increase in sensitivity to anti-Semitic incidents in recent years but Islamophobic incidents are more common.
“Tell MAMA” is the best source on this, not just for the statistics but also for details on the lack of response, by police and politicians, and for the way that hate crimes against Muslims frequently peak after politicians give speeches about immigration or integration.
There are long and complex academic arguments about the best way to define Islamophobia. Some people argue that, because Islam is a religion, not a “race,” anti-Muslim hostility is not a form of racism. My approach is to emphasize an understanding of how these actions and discourses work in the real world. In the UK, Europe, North America and Australia, there is no doubt that anti-Muslim sentiment and white racism cross-connect in complex but powerful ways. Therefore, I am assuming here that, in the vast majority of cases, Islamophobic actions are also racist.
Q: E. Tendayi Achiume, the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, pointed out in a report on the state of human rights in the UK that there has been “a sustained and pervasive discourse” in the British media vilifying Islam and portraying it as inherently violent. Even her predecessor had concluded upon his visit to the country that Islamophobia was deep-rooted in the UK. What do you think are the reasons?
A: Islamophobia has grown rapidly in recent decades. Non-white Muslims, including adults and children, have always experienced racism, in school and in society more generally, but 9/11 marked a sea change in public discourses about Islam and Muslims. Mainstream media, goaded by more extreme tabloid newspapers and online outlets, became involved in the kinds of “culture wars” rhetoric of right-wing conspiracy theories. The economic crash of 2008 added a new impetus to this. At times of crisis, racism always provides ready-made scapegoats. The migration crisis arising from the situation in the Middle East has worsened this still further. European nations of all political shades, not only the far-right administrations like Hungary, have reacted with increasingly racist and inhumane policies towards non-citizens and citizens of minority ethnic background.
Q: You pointed out the mainstream media. What is the role the British media, particularly the tabloid newspapers play in widening the racial gaps and pitting the white majority against the religious and ethnic minorities? Why is the presence of the British blacks, browns, Asians and Muslims in the mainstream media so trivial while they constitute a relatively big population?
A: Much of British political and media life is dominated by a relatively small group of people who share a similar background in terms of their social class origins, education – often private school, then Oxford and Cambridge University – and ethnicity – White.
This means that when minorities do break through, a surprising number will be on the political right. For example, Sajid Javid, Priti Patel, Rishi Sunak – these are British Asians who align themselves with the white majoritarian discourses. Baroness Warsi is an interesting example; she was in that group but has been increasingly isolated the more she speaks up against Islamophobia in the Conservative Party.
The media, especially national daily newspapers, are incredibly influential. Although their actual circulation is dwindling, they have lost none of their political power. Most of the papers are right-wing; some, such as Daily Mail, Times and Telegraph have a lot of influence on the views that shape discourse within the ruling conservative party. Researchers who have interviewed policy-makers report that the Daily Mail, in particular, has huge influence on setting the agenda.
Q: In late 2019, the noted British rapper Stormzy and the football icon Gary Neville stated in interviews that Britain suffers from racism. Media, pundits, political figures and online trolls attacked them vehemently, deploring the fact that the two celebrities had spoken out against racism. Some observers said the British society is not ready to embrace a challenging debate on racial discrimination. Do you also believe the ground is not fertile for a productive conversation on racism in the UK? Is the British society denying that racism is prevalent?
A: Britain is built on racial oppression. The industrial revolution was fueled by slavery and contemporary capitalism is thoroughly racialized. Britain will never “be ready” for a discussion about white racism because white people, regardless of their social class and position, are deeply invested in racism, economically, socially and psychologically. So, anti-racism has to fight for space all the time. Unless we fight for change, it simply will not happen. As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it, “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Q: With the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, will the interracial relations become more challenging and tense? Is Brexit equivalent to the rejection of racial diversity, tolerance and the idea of “London is Open” proselytized by Mayor Sadiq Khan?
A: The EU referendum campaign, and the surrounding discussion about Brexit, was strongly racialized. Only one ethnic group had a majority of people voting for Brexit: white people. The campaign saw growing levels of racial harassment on the street. The atmosphere is toxic. White people feel able to voice their prejudices under the guise of “free speech.” The situation is the worst I can remember since the 1970s.
Q: What is the role of social media and online platforms in fomenting racist sentiments and attitudes in the UK? Are the Muslims, Jews, Asians and other minorities protected in the British cyberspace?
A: No one is protected in cyberspace. Every vulnerable group is exposed to direct and largely unregulated abuse online. It is impossible to quantify the effect, but there is no doubt that social media has played a part in fermenting racial division. The organization “Hate Not Hope” has done a lot of research on this. Neo-Nazi groups have been especially quick to use social media. However, the routine racial discourse of mainstream politicians is just as dangerous.
There were spikes in the street harassment of Muslims following both Trump’s retweeting of far-right videos in 2017 and Boris Johnson mocking veiled Muslim women in 2018.
By: Kourosh Ziabari