The Brexit referendum in 2016 marked a distinct moment in Britain’s multicultural history. The Leave campaigns supercharged emotions around immigration and integration that had been building over the preceding years. Playing on xenophobia and fear, they deployed provocative images of the 2015 European refugee crisis and fed off anti-Muslim prejudice by raising as a spectre the idea of large scale immigration from Turkey. The UN special rapporteur on racism and xenophobia has argued that the referendum vote has left Britain’s minorities “more vulnerable to racial discrimination and intolerance.”
It’s rare in the political world for Britain’s ethnic minorities to be asked directly about how they think the big issues of the day will effect them, but HOPE not hate’s research across the country has always been driven by the belief that every community deserves to be heard and understood if we are to build a society based on co-operation and unity. In the current febrile political climate it is more important than ever to hear how BME people felt about their lives and prospects. This inevitably involves challenges – for example some polling companies couldn’t even take on the project because they struggled to find the numbers for a representative sample and of course, it is unavoidably reductive to treat Britain’s varied and distinct minorities as a single bloc.
But the strength of the responses were so striking that the clear pattern can’t be ignored. When asked about people’s individual experiences of racism in day-to-day life, the responses are shocking. A third of BME people said that they had witnessed or experienced violence or threats of violence in the last year and half had witnessed or experienced racist comments being made in public. Even more sadly, it is the youngest who are bearing the brunt with almost half (47%) of those under 35 witnessing or experiencing violence or threats and a staggering 70% reported seeing or experiencing with racism on social media.
Unavoidably, Brexit is a huge concern amongst ethnic minority communities. Two thirds of our survey were concerned that Brexit was feeding prejudice and division and taking our country backwards, whilst half of BME people think that the state of race relations has gotten worse in the last five years. Of all the possible outcomes a majority (57%) of BME people oppose no-deal Brexit, and almost the same amount (52%) think that a no-deal Brexit will worsen race relations. The largest body of opinion (44%) felt that BME communities would be disproportionately impacted by ‘no-deal’ Brexit. All these findings paint a bleak picture and it’s no surprise that a large majority (61%) felt pessimistic about the future.
Our polling has exposed the scale of fears and concerns amongst our BME communities and government, devolved and local authorities need to respond seriously and take action that moves beyond tokenism and takes on hate crime in our streets, in the press and online. A more detailed breakdown of our poll and our wider research shows that anti-Muslim prejudice is mainstream and needs to be taken more seriously by authorities.
Our wider work has shown that attitudes towards Muslims are more negative than towards other groups, and gives a springboard to the far-right who have moved away from biological racism to a more ‘palatable’ platform that taps into broader social prejudices.
Acknowledging the continuing effects of the most divisive aspects of the Brexit campaign and the particular dangers a cliff edge Brexit to minority communities, some of whom are already multiply disadvantaged, shouldn’t be dismissed as an attempt to discredit the referendum decision. As we edge closer towards October 31st and the reality of a high risk no deal, politicians need to do everything in their power to make sure that our BME communities’ fears do not become a reality.
All HOPE not hate’s work has taught us that social and economic instability proves fertile ground for extreme politics built on hate and fear. To begin to repair the damage the last few years have done to Britain’s multicultural identity we must commit to a politics that doesn’t divide people into opposing groups, that rejects identities built on exclusion instead of inclusion and that values togetherness over victory.
Rosie Carter is senior policy officer at HOPE not Hate