Folks on this side of the Atlantic tend to think of my people as proper souls with fancy accents who raise their pinkies to hold a teacup.
A raised finger was definitely brandished in last week’s disastrous vote to exit the European Union, but it wasn’t a pinkie. For all the fast talk about economics and making Britain “great again” — sound familiar? — Brexit pivoted mainly on racism, and if you live in New Orleans it should terrify you because it bodes ominously well for Donald Trump.
If I may say so, I know a thing or two about racism. I was born a limey, but my years on this side of the pond — among other gigs, as a Lens reporter and occasional contributor to Salon — gave me more than passing acquaintance with New Orleans and the Deep South. Now I live in Oakland, Calif., where the Black Panthers got their start, a city with an uncanny ability to keep a white man mindful of his racial and gender privileges.
Since Friday, I have been back in touch with mates — a lot of them of color — whom I was schooled with in Southeast London. In Brexit’s aftermath, overt racism has been startlingly resurgent. The Facebook walls of brown kids are being daubed with warnings. The “muzzers,” as in Muslims, are being heckled to get out of England.
I checked in with a WhatsApp group of my school friends in time to catch an offhand comment to the effect that the half of us who’d grown up the sons of successful Indian, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi immigrants would no longer be welcome in our country after the vote. The person who wrote the remark was roundly called out, and threatened with a dose of schoolboy violence. But my jaw did gape a bit at the divisiveness coursing among my old mates. I remembered them as a fraternal if sometimes roguish bunch. I texted back four letters: “OMFG.”
The ugliness evident amongst the crew from my alma mater was only a droplet in the much broader wave of racial abuse, including hate crimes, reported since the referendum. People are being called “Pakis” in their hometowns again, an ethnic slur that I haven’t heard since the 1980s, apart from when President George W. Bush used it, not realizing it’s the English equivalent of the n-word.
A video filmed in Hackney after the referendum shows a man arguing with someone in a car before telling the person to “go back to your country.” A man in a pub reportedly knocked out an Italian with a bottle in retaliation for being asked simply how he had voted. In Newcastle on Saturday, protesters held a banner saying, “stop immigration, begin repatriation.” You want more of this kind of thing? Mashable offers a compilation.
To quote President Barack Obama, about the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee to succeed him: Where does this stop?
Of course, as has been equally true of the U.S. Tea Party — and always vociferously denied — a pretense of legitimate policy concerns sugarcoats the racism, as if anything Obama could possibly have advocated was more disturbing to the know-nothing right wing than the simple fact of a black man occupying the White House.
The sugarcoating from Nigel Farage, who as head of the United Kingdom Independence Party led the charge for Brexit, was to insist that the campaign was really about money and governance. We contribute £350m a week to the European Union, he said, money that, were we to leave, would now be available to prop up Britain’s ailing National Health Service. After the vote went his way and global markets swooned, an evidently startled Farage indulged in what Louisianans call “crawfishing.”
Skedaddling like a mudbug, he dismissed the idea of shoring up NHS with the savings, a pledge that had proved particularly persuasive among the generally under-educated working poor — sound familiar? — who voted for Brexit. It’s “one of the mistakes that, I think, the Leave campaign has made,” said Farage. But it was not hard to find video of him loudly embracing that very “mistake” days earlier.
Likewise video of Boris Johnson, the right-wing former mayor of London, a man with dreams of becoming prime minister who sports a blonde comb-over of gargantuan strangeness (sound familiar again? Gahhhh!). A widely circulated photo showed Johnson campaigning in the hinterlands on a platform backed by a bus that explicitly promised that the Brexit “savings” would go toward health care.
As they interview the pro-Brexit lot about their plans to actually, you know, get on with it, British and European journalists have been slack-jawed to learn that there really is no plan. Never was one. It’s not even up to us, the Brexit backers contend. Like the racist outbursts on the streets, it’s not their responsibility.
Well, I would submit it’s time to take responsibility: Britain for shooting itself in the foot, or perhaps the head; Americans for letting a candidate such as Trump get any closer to the White House. Because if you think the market gyrations the day after Brexit were nerve wracking, wait until Trump ad libs more recklessly ignorant vows to renegotiate (default on) America’s national debt or go back to the gold standard.
In reality, for every pound contributed to the European Union, Britain has been getting back £10 in economic return. It’s not a figure that one has to search hard to uncover, either. It just got lost amid the bilious and racist tenor of the campaign that more directly assailed immigrants. No matter that, as in the United States, immigrants have been shoring up the economy of an aging nation for decades. Of course, racists don’t base votes on fact; bigotry is a more powerful impetus and a much more emotionally satisfying self-indulgence.
Ex-mayor Johnson, now biding his time as a member of Parliament, could not be bothered to offer a coherent rebuttal to Obama’s recommendation that Britain stay in the European Union. Instead, Johnson described the American president’s “ancestral heritage” as “part-Kenyan.” For residents of England’s rural areas who, as in the American South, are generally more racist than the cosmopolites they despise, the comment was a dog whistle and the message was clear: “He would say that, because he’s black. And we don’t like black people, do we?”
Johnson has also disparaged his successor as mayor, Sadiq Khan, in terms that play on race and religion, calling him “friendly with extremists” for appearing on stage with a local Muslim cleric. Oops! Turned out the imam is, like Johnson, a conservative and also appeared on stage with Zac Goldsmith, the candidate Johnson had backed to succeed himself. Khan, a human rights lawyer, is the British-born son of a bus driver.
And don’t blame the Brexit outcome on rainy weather. Seventy-five percent of Britons voted in the referendum. It’s been over a century since that many eligible voters participated in choosing an American president.
Perhaps the most ominous bit of stagecraft associated with Brexit was Trump’s appearance the following morning in Scotland.
The New York Times was aghast that Trump had gone to Europe without first arranging to meet with any dignitaries. He had not even brought advisers with him, which may be why his next maneuver was to embarrass himself and his nation by scheduling a press conference on his Scottish golf course.
Wearing his campaign’s official “Make America Great Again” baseball cap, he seized the moment to applaud the British for the economic disaster that Brexit was already bringing on. Britons were to be lauded for “taking back control” of their country, Trump crowed (sound fam … Oh, never mind). No matter that the pound was cratering as Trump spoke, guaranteeing that consumer prices would jump painfully for the working poor. Trump instead focused on the increase in foreign visitors that a weakened pound might bring to his golf course.
In the week before Brexit, Trump’s polling numbers had begun to sag even more badly than the pound. It remained to be seen if grabbing the spotlight in Scotland helped reverse that trend. But don’t count Donald out.
Just as the pollsters and pundits had written him off as a buffoon and a political loser before he swept to the top of the Republican heap, so too the Brexit crowd flew below radar. Racism is a politics that prefers not to speak its name. It masquerades as another issue — jobs, health care, the national debt — before expressing itself in the quiet anonymity of the voting booth. Racists may not know much, but they have the good sense to keep their opinions to themselves — until there comes an opportunity to vote.
Louisiana knows that well enough. A an ex-Klan wizard and avowed Nazi named David Duke drew a majority of the white vote in his run for governor in the early 1990s. Support for Brexit also eluded pollsters, perhaps in part because the sods who voted for it with such enthusiasm more typically don’t vote at all.
Brexit came as a shock. Britain — London, anyway — thought the “remain” camp had a lock on the referendum. We assume, here in the United States, that Hillary Clinton will appeal to our calmer, smarter instincts. But it’s the quiet racists who could elect Trump — even after seeing how badly Brexit has damaged the economic prospects of the very crowd duped into supporting withdrawal from the European Union.
Brexit’s ultimate irony is already becoming clear. Not only does it portend an economic decline that jeopardizes the prospects of a generation of working Brits, it’s not even likely to satisfy their racist yearnings. As a Tory member of Parliament observed within hours of the vote, immigration to the U.K. won’t abate one iota — not if England wants continued access to the world’s biggest market, Europe, an access it now needs more urgently than ever.
Former Lens staff writer Matt Davis won the Press Club of New Orleans’ investigative reporting award in 2012 for exposing corruption at the city jail.