Race equality post-Brexit: Shared challenges in the UK and Europe

By Omar Khan, Director of the Runnymede Trust

Highlighted by the Brexit vote, Trump and the rise of the far right across Europe, the work of anti-racism networks and allies are more important perhaps now more than ever. Ethnonationalist movements across the western world increase racial inequalities and hinder the chances of creating more fair and equal societies. In this article Omar Khan of Runnymede Trust focuses on the role of the anti-racism movement following the UK Referendum.

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union has highlighted trends that are apparent across Europe and now the United States.

Although people voted ’Brexit’ for a variety of reasons, for those working to challenge racism in the UK and Europe the result crystallises underlying issues for our cause over the past few decades. The referendum campaign’s ugly language and the horrific murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox by a man the judge in her trial described as a ’white nationalist’ brought into the open levels of xenophobia and racism that many had believed Britain had left behind.

We must show solidarity and speak out not only because the rise of the far right in one country harms ethnic minorities in that country, but because it emboldens those views everywhere, and shifts public discourse in all our societies

Our first challenge is that Britain and indeed many other European societies still don’t understand or recognise the continued and historic nature of racial inequalities and racism in our societies. Whenever we try to highlight or explain the issue there is often an immediate, defensive pushback even from non-racist fellow citizens.

This suggests a second challenge: that evidence on racism and race equality doesn’t appear to make much of an impact on public opinion or policy makers either. With the Oxford English Dictionary adding ’post-truth’ to its 2016 edition, it is perhaps unsurprising that Runnymede’s almost 50 years’ of research evidence is still so poorly understood.

Within Europe, Britain was seen to have a distinctive approach, particularly with respect to data collection on race or ethnicity. In most EU member states, such data are not collected, preventing policy makers from measuring discrimination and implementing policies to ensure equality in outcome. With Britain outside the EU the worry is that policy makers, politicians and indeed the wider public will be even less likely to collect equality data.

More generally, however, and despite the referendum result, anti-racist organisations must now more than ever seek to work together across national boundaries. Not only is it clear that outcomes in one country make it more palatable for xenophobic outcomes in another country, but the far right has shown a ruthless willingness to learn form and work with each other, despite their supposed ’nationalist’ visions. As with Anders Breivik, Thomas Mair, the murderer of Jo Cox MP, read and supported international white supremacism, in Mair’s case including in South Africa and the US, not only Europe.

This shows that the fight against racism and xenophobia in each of our countries is one that we must all do our best to support. We must show solidarity and speak out not only because the rise of the far right in one country harms ethnic minorities in that country, but because it emboldens those views everywhere, and shifts public discourse in all our societies, including the essential question of who we are.

Right now the United Kingdom, Europe and indeed the United States are at a crossroads. The world is watching to see whether we will affirm the values of democracy, equal rights, and humanitarianism, or whether we will descend into ethnonationalist majoritarianism. The shameful collective response to the refugee crisis (with important exceptions) is one sign that ethnonationalism is winning, with Brexit, Trump — and perhaps Le Pen next?

In response anti-racist organisations need to work harder to communicate our vision, messages and policies. It is infuriating to read analyses that ignore the fact that most ethnic minorities in Europe are working class, but also suggest that we haven’t been focusing on equality or socio-economic issues. We need to highlight more strongly than ever that our aims are to ensure rights for everyone even where these are unpopular and to reduce racial inequalities to enable a fairer society.

We need to highlight more strongly than ever that our aims are to ensure rights for everyone even where these are unpopular and to reduce racial inequalities to enable a fairer society

The millions who voted for Brexit and Trump (and potentially in 2017 for Le Pen) weren’t only motivated by ethnonationalism. We need to improve our messaging to show why our positive vision of a Europe as a beacon of democracy, equality and humanitarianism, and the policies anti-racist organisations have long recommended, offers a better future than that promised by ethnonationalists.

Yet we must also not underestimate or misidentify the challenge. The academics Pippa Norris and Ron Inglehart have shown that cultural anxiety rather than economic insecurity was a better predictor of voting for Donald Trump. For such voters ’making America great’ or ’taking our country back’ doesn’t mean support for fairer economic policies that will benefit everyone, but is rather an assertion that people like them should have more favourable treatment.

With all the discussion of race and class, we’ve apparently forgotten that racism typically expresses itself in terms of the denial of economic resources to ethnic minorities. We must not only resist the racialisation of the ’white working class’, and the allied erasure of the non-white working class, but also the idea that a policy programme to deny opportunities to ethnic minorities can be framed as supporting economic justice. Europe-wide policy proposals to ban Muslims or Africans from entering even as refugees are obviously motivated by racism or at best ’cultural anxiety’.

The Brexit vote hasn’t created these challenges. Inside or outside the European Union the United Kingdom was never wholly at ease with nor able to offer equal voice or opportunities for ethnic minorities living here. The lesson for us - and indeed for all countries in Europe - is not to require people of colour and anti-racist organisations to keep quiet even where our rights are under threat. Our vision and policy suggestions have yet to be realised and offer the only template for Europe to affirm its heritage of democracy, equality and justice. As history shows, that heritage has long competed with an often successful ethnonationalist vision across Europe.

The European Union was in many ways created to reject the ethnonationalist tradition. This fact was perhaps not well enough understood in Britain but the rest of Europe has also been too complacent that the EU by itself would be enough to cement the alternative democratic and egalitarian values. Every European country needs to build its own version of this vision, and one that includes ethnic minorities as equal citizens. Those committed to racial justice are well placed to support that effort, and learn from and support each other so that we can reduce racism and fulfill the promise of liberty, equality and fraternity.


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