All Leave Voters Are Racist, But Not All Racists Voted Leave

Among the morass of horrendous views shared on Brexit, the much-tweeted view that “not all Leave voters were racist, but all racists voted Leave” is possibly the worst. This is not for its apparent defence of some Leave voters against racism, but for its absolving of Remain voters of such charges: “We aren’t racist — we voted Remain, for God’s sake”.

To crudely categorise (one) continuum of views into discrete categories, Remain voters can be broadly defined as falling into two camps. The first of these is those who recognised that the EU wasn’t perfect — even was a long way from perfect — but felt that the political implications of Brexit would be an empowerment (both in the immediate term and the long term) of the political right in all its guises. The second is made up of those who thought, actually, the current state of things is very good and the EU is pretty much perfect (see, for instance, every single person on twitter with the word “remainer” in their profile).

Despite this, the referendum has been retrocast as a simple story between good and evil: the sensible, enlightened (middle class) liberals voting Remain versus the idiotic, reactionary (working class) racists who voted Leave [1]. Those whose Remain vote was motivated by their passively benefiting from the capitalism, imperialism and death in which the EU is enmeshed are thus recast as anti-racist heroes. Witness the (EU) flag-waving recent protests against Brexit, at which organisers both object to “escalating instances of racist abuse on the streets”, and also reproduce narratives that those migrants to be defended are those who “are contributing and paying their taxes”, who “are not just here to sponge”.

Indeed, it is hard to read the character of such protests and the views popularly expressed at them as anything but an expression of liberal self-interest, even of “racial self-interest” — which is to say racism. Migrants are welcome so long as they’re of the right colour, the right skills set, the right crude net economic contribution. Flying the flag of the EU — the rate of deaths at whose borders is literally one thousand times that at the Berlin Wall — goes alongside an expression of support for some migrants. The latent negative solidarity here lies completely unexamined.

In a… survey of 1,600 Britons, 46 per cent of Remain voters in last June’s EU referendum but only 3 per cent of Leave voters agreed that [for a white person to want less immigration to “maintain his or her group’s share of the population”] was racist.

All of which brings us back to “not all Leave voters were racist, but all racists voted Leave”. The colossal falsity of such a claim becomes clear in the light of recent polling showing that over half of Remain voters were not willing to call a barely-watered-down version of the Fourteen Words for the obvious racism that it is. Indeed, such a claim would seem to be precisely wrong: (almost) all Leave voters fail to describe racist views as racist, but not all those failing to describe racist views as racist voted Leave. This is backed up not only by respondents to this single question, but by the character of protests focussed narrowly against Brexit: How can people expressing at best partial solidarity with a subset of migrants who are overwhelmingly white (and who are very often rich) — and fuck the rest — be seen remotely as opponents of racism?

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from twitter user @arjan____

It hardly needs to be said that all of this is inflected by interlocking relationships between power, class, and stereotypes of the typical Leave voter. The Guardian can send their resident Bigotry Correspondent out to mostly white working class, post-industrial areas — Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland, South Wales — ask them if they think it’s unfair that all the jobs and houses go to the fucking foreigners, and report that many of them do. Less attention is paid to Colonel Blimp (Rtd) in the Home Counties who voted Leave: such people are tangentially included insofar as they fit into the “Old People Are All Rich And Bad” narrative. But even less are Remain voters invited to justify their vote as an approval of the general state of things, or in the context of the thousands of deaths at the edge of the European Union. It is patently obvious that this partial coverage is a function of the class and racial character of the make-up of, not to mention the common sense of, journalists who dominate the liberal section of the media.

But if it is true that all Leave voters are racist, and not all racists voted Leave, what does this mean? The first thing to recognise is that Leave and Remain voters swim in the same sewer. The media and political climate for decades has been characterised by the increasing promotion of divisions among the global working class as a whole: those within the UK, within the EU, and outside the EU. Job losses have been ascribed to foreigners taking your jobs, pressure on the NHS has been ascribed to health tourists, a lack of housing has been ascribed to refugees. The real enemy, of course, is not named.

Your susceptibility to arguments made by supporters of Brexit in this regard is likely to be substantially determined by whether it is indeed your job that has disappeared, your local health service that’s been run down, or your rented house that’s a state — in other words, whether you live in deprived areas of the likes of Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland, or South Wales [2]. To be clear: voting Leave because you think the foreigners are taking your jobs is still a racist vote even if you have lost your job, and it should be described as such. But to cast only those voting Leave as being racist is to dislocate the racism that exists structurally and place it on the shoulders of the awful working class who voted Leave. More than this, it acts to both excuse the Remain voters who don’t think Keep Britain White is a racist slogan and, more importantly, remove from the picture the powerful figures ultimately responsible for the production of this climate.

The familiar question of “what is to be done?” here seems to seek a way towards an impossible goal. If it is harder to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the world, it is surely harder still to imagine the end of political whiteness. If the rate of profit were to suddenly fall to zero tomorrow, its immediate replacement would not be a post-racial utopia. But can the demolition of racist structures, and the countering of racist talking points, serve as a catalyst for a move in the direction of popular left-wing thought?

More than this, are these not prerequisites for such a move? While dominant accounts state that the fucking foreigners are taking your jobs, can we reasonably expect that people embrace anything but that which promotes more racism? The recognition of the relative difficulty in imagining the end of capitalism compared to the end of the world is not a sigh of defeatism but a call for the creation of such futures in the popular imagination; in the same way, nor should the difficulty in imagining the end of racism lead the left to embrace these very real concerns, but to attack this racism and build the necessary positive, unconditional and universal solidarity that this implies.

[1] The working class here, of course, are universally racialised as white in such accounts.

[2] To provide a clarity that should not be necessary (but obviously is), large chunks of these places voted Remain: in large part, I’d suggest, not in embrace of the EU as an immaculately conceived utopia.

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