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Brexit: What's Race Got To Do With It?

People at the Leave.EU campaign's referendum party at Millbank Tower in London react to a regional EU referendum result on Thursday.
Jack Taylor
Getty Images
People at the Leave.EU campaign's referendum party at Millbank Tower in London react to a regional EU referendum result on Thursday.

On Thursday night, the votes poured in: After months of debate, the United Kingdom officially voted to leave the European Union in a referendum nicknamed "Brexit."

Shortly after the results were made public, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he would leave office in October. Global stocks tanked, and the British pound crashed to a 31-year low. World leaders from the U.S. to Japan to Germany spoke out about the far-reaching effects the referendum would have.

The scale of this reaction was predictable — after all, the U.K. joined the EU's predecessor, the EEC (European Economic Community), back in 1973 and has been one of its most influential members for decades. As the (now formerly!) fifth-largest economy in the world, even moderate changes in Britain's political stance affect global markets.

So why did the U.K. vote for something so politically and economically disruptive? Some say race has a lot to do with it — specifically, the racial tension that has resulted from the U.K.'s recently welcoming in record numbers of immigrants. In 2015, 630,000 foreign national migrants came to the U.K. from both inside and outside the EU. This year, the U.K. has ushered in an additional 333,000.

The campaign to get the U.K. to leave the EU (also known as the "Leave" campaign) was spearheaded by the right-wing, populist UK Independence Party, or UKIP. The party, led by Member in the European Parliament Nigel Farage, says that the EU "means the end of the UK as an independent, self-governing nation with its own government and its own borders."

For months, UKIP has fought for the United Kingdom's independence from the EU — some say by capitalizing on racially charged animus toward immigrants. In the Washington Post, writer Anyusha Rose points to the Leave campaign as evidence that in the U.K., "racism is no longer racism — it's legitimate opinion."

Areeq Chowdhury, a British writer and the founder of WebRoots Democracy, said last week that it's "important we remember that this is a referendum that has only been made possible due to a long, hard-fought campaign by those on the far-right and political movements ridden with allegations of bigotry, xenophobia, and racism." He continues:

"Nigel Farage — the UKIP leader who once said that his party 'would never win the nigger vote,' refers to Chinese takeaways as 'a chinky,' and said people would feel 'concerned' to live next to Romanians — is the man who should take a significant chunk of the credit for us having this referendum. It was his party's success in the European Parliament elections, as well as defections which he brokered from the Conservative Party, which has led us to this point today."

Zack Beauchamp over at Vox writes that the UKIP has spent the past 10 years "focusing, obsessively, on the threat from immigrants, from both inside the EU and out."

That work seems to have been fruitful. Beauchamp says, "Over the course of the past 20 years, the percentage of Britons ranking 'immigration/race relations' as among the country's most important issues has gone from near zero percent to about 45 percent. Seventy-seven percent of Brits today believe that immigration levels should be reduced."

Many politicians say anti-immigration sentiment shouldn't necessarily be cast as racism — they argue that immigrants take jobs from native-born British citizens, that immigration drives down wages for everyone, and that the desire to keep jobs abundant and wages high is a goal that millions share, across racial and political lines.

And Timothy B. Lee, at Vox, argues that there are compelling reasons that British voters might have decided to leave the EU besides immigration — including the weakness of the euro and the EU's entrenched corporate interests. Still, concern about the rate of immigration is central to Lee's list.

But James Bloodworth, writing for International Business Times, says the issue can't be explained in purely economic terms. Even as the number of migrants arriving in the U.K. rose to a record 333,000 in May of this year, immigrants have been an overall boon to the British economy. Bloodworth explains:

"Hostility to immigration — and by extension hostility to Europe — is driven by cultural concerns as much as by economic worries. That's certainly what the University of Oxford's Migration Observatory has been saying in recent years. It has pointed out on a number of occasions that cultural concerns better explain negative attitudes towards migration than a person's economic position. In essence it is about whether England feels like England."

J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, cautions against casting everyone who backed the Leave movement as a bigot but also writes about the danger of painting immigrants as monsters and villains:

"Leave has been busy threatening us with another monster: a tsunami of faceless foreigners heading for our shores, among them rapists and terrorists.

"It is dishonourable to suggest, as many have, that Leavers are all racists and bigots: they aren't and it is shameful to suggest that they are. Nevertheless, it is equally nonsensical to pretend that racists and bigots aren't flocking to the 'Leave' cause, or that they aren't, in some instances, directing it. For some of us, that fact alone is enough to give us pause. The picture of Nigel Farage standing in front of a poster showing a winding line of Syrian refugees captioned 'Breaking Point' is, as countless people have already pointed out, an almost exact duplicate of propaganda used by the Nazis."

Some British politicians are trying to soften the blow. Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, wrote a message on his Facebook page telling EU residents living in London that they are welcome and that the city is grateful for them.

Lauren Hansen, a writer at The Week, wrote, "Mayor Khan's comments are especially poignant in this post-Brexit world as the continent's largest city grapples with the tension between an anti-immigration sentiment and the diversity that makes London, and cities like it, thrive both economically and culturally."

Of course, it would be remiss not to mention the parallels that many are drawing between the Brexit movement and Donald Trump's campaign rhetoric. Trump has publicly supported Britain's vote to leave the EU, and folks told NPR's Frank Langfitt that "similar issues — globalization and economics — are driving the Brexit and U.S. presidential campaigns."

In an article called "What Do The Brexit Movement And Donald Trump Have In Common?" the New Yorker's John Cassidy wrote:

"Certainly, a parallel factor in both men's rise is racism, or, more specifically, nativism. Trump has presented a nightmarish vision of America overrun by Mexican felons and Muslim terrorists. UKIP printed up campaign posters that showed thousands of dark-colored refugees lining up to enter Slovenia, which is part of the E.U., next to the words 'breaking point: The EU has failed us all.' "

In the months to come, the U.S. will have the advantage of seeing how this vote plays out in the U.K. before voting in its own presidential elections in November.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.
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