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The mystifying of racial violence

By Jon Burnett, Institute of Race Relations

With a rise in hate crimes after the Brexit referendum, Jon Burnett of the Institute of Race Relations points out how racist violence often mirrors the government’s policy framework towards marginalised communities. Political responses and media reporting are perpetuating existing narratives without focusing on underlying causes for the attacks.

The racist violence that intensified following the UK’s EU referendum in June this year has been condemned repeatedly. With far-right groups renewing calls for the repatriation of immigrants, people being accosted and told to leave the UK, beatings and stabbings, the political establishment has turned its focus onto hate crimes to an extent that has not been seen in decades. According to the police, whilst an initial ‘spike’ in hate crime has subsided, the number of incidents reported to them remained around 14 per cent higher than the previous year (in September 2016). The Home Secretary Amber Rudd, meanwhile, says she has ‘a very clear message’: ‘We will not stand for it … We are Great Britain because we are united by values such as democracy, free speech, mutual respect and opportunity for all.’

What her government – and its interpretation of these values – will stand for, however, is a set of policies which directly mirror the contours of this physical violence and abuse, and express them in official form. A briefing paper published in December by the Institute of Race Relations analyses 134 media-reported racist incidents that took place in the month after the EU referendum. And in doing so it provides, in the first instance, an overview of the contours of racist abuse. Those most frequently targeted were either Muslim or European (mainly eastern European) migrants, but incidents also included black and Jewish people. Most incidents involved racist abuse, whilst some took the form of graffiti and attacks against property. A few involved arson. In around one in five of the incidents, people were physically attacked, and in one case a person was stabbed repeatedly.

There is a parallel, for example, between a policy framework which publicly demands that irregular migrants ‘go home’, and the racist attacks where the perpetrators demand the same

These incidents also give a perspective on the ideological similarities between the violence of the state and acts depicted as hate. In 51 per cent of the 134 acts recorded in this research, the racist abuse used appeared to mirror the dominant thrust of concrete government positions, as well as those posited in the context of the referendum debate. There is a parallel, for example, between a policy framework which publicly demands that irregular migrants ‘go home’, and the racist attacks where the perpetrators demand the same. There is a similarity between the assault of a homeless migrant, on the basis that s/he should be removed from the country if they are not visibly contributing, and a policy framework which sees multi-agency immigration teams prowling the country and removing migrants on the same basis. In one example of racist abuse documented, a man who was assumed (wrongly, as it happened) to be eastern European had ‘we only tolerate you lot because of the income you bring in’ shouted at him. What is the difference in rhetoric between that and a policy framework developed by successive governments which says Britain will cherry-pick the ‘brightest and best’ whilst doing away with the rest?

Reclaiming ‘anti-racism’

Of course, given that these acts are gleaned from media reports, they cannot be held as fully representative of either the number or the ‘kind’ of incidents that took place in this period. After all, the fact that the media is selective about what is and isn’t news is well-known. But what the reporting of these incidents reveals is how racial violence is depicted at a time when it is widely interpreted as presenting a crisis for social order. The reports show the manner in which a network of ‘primary definers’ came to dominate a narrative of racism following the referendum, what it constituted and how it ought to be responded to. And they show how the parameters of debate that were set by the police, other bodies from the criminal justice system and political figures were frequently reproduced by the media.

In this framework - in which it was most often representatives of the criminal justice system or political figures who were enlisted to interpret racist incidents - racist violence following the referendum was largely portrayed, as the domain of ill-adapted, inherently violent people. Racism was individualised, reduced to its physical manifestation, and, in the process, removed in this dominant narrative, from the structural conditions which sustain and legitimise it. And then we had the somewhat ironic spectre of a tabloid media, which ruthlessly and persistently attacks migrant communities, in this context condemning as ‘thugs’ those who physically attack or threaten those same communities. It reflects the somewhat perverse political culture emerging from Britain’s establishment, which ensures that the social structures ultimately remain untouched. And in so doing, a political culture which promises to continue treating entire communities with contempt, which abandons entire communities to market forces and which embeds fundamental inequalities goes unchallenged.

Racism was individualised, reduced to its physical manifestation, and, in the process, removed in this dominant narrative, from the structural conditions which sustain and legitimise it

All of this has significant repercussions for the populist and far right. The vote to leave Europe encapsulated a number of factors including a legitimate rage against capitalism, and a hatred of the faceless elites that have been complicit in the destruction of towns and cities, as well as the erosion of long-fought-for rights and protections. But integral to the demands to ‘take back control’ in a number of areas was the clearest of calls to reduce the number and ‘type’ of immigrants. Britain was at ‘breaking point’. And now ‘Independence Day’ has been achieved, the parameters of its political and cultural landscape are beginning to show. This is a Britain where the embedding of border controls into the fabric of day-to-day life – hospitals, banks and workplaces, for example – is intensifying. It is a Britain where the government mines data on foreign children in schools and where the rights of EU nationals to reside are reduced to bargaining chips for the terms of Britain’s withdrawal. It is a Britain where the gap between the dominant thrust of mainstream politics and the politics of the far or populist right is now wafer thin.

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