According to the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), the EU referendum result has ‘taken the shame out of racism’. To confirm this assertion, the IRR has been busy appealing to the public to send it reports of racist incidents. London mayor Sadiq Khan clearly shares the IRR’s concern. A few days after the referendum, he said: ‘I’ve asked our police to be extra vigilant for any rise in cases of hate crime and I’m calling on all Londoners to pull together.’ In turn, the Metropolitan Police have added apparent substance to the fears of Khan and the IRR. Between 24 June, the day the referendum result was revealed, and 2 July, the Met received 599 allegations of hate crime, a rise of more than 50 per cent on the weekly average.
So what’s going on? Has Brexit really brought out the racist enemy within? It certainly seems probable that the official Leave campaign’s focus on immigration may have emboldened a few migrant-hating racists. But there is another prejudice at work here, ramping up the fears and concerns of a racist surge. And that’s the prejudice, held by many in the metropolitan elite, against the UK’s white working class, the majority of whom voted Leave. They see this much-maligned social strata as bigoted, backward and, yes, racist. It therefore makes sense to the likes of the IRR or Khan that there will be a rise in racism post-referendum. After all, as they see it, that’s why so many white working-class people voted Leave in the first place: because they’re racist.
This prejudice predates the referendum result. Many Remain voters were firmly convinced that Leave voters were racist long before the actual vote. Hence the speed with which Remainers, post-result, sought out examples of ‘racism unleashed’ and reported them on social media. For example, on my own Facebook page the Monday after the result, someone posted a mobile phone snap of a smashed window at a Spanish tapas restaurant in south London. Its caption read ‘Spanish and Turkish restaurants in Lewisham had their windows smashed over the weekend. Very widespread reports coming in now.’ The post quickly received 1,833 shares. One commenter noted: ‘The ghost of Sir Oswald Mosley now stalks the streets of England.’
The same picture and caption soon appeared on Twitter. According to one tweeter, it showed ‘the rise of fascism across the country… linked to Brexit’; another said ‘fucking outrageous, this is what #Leave is about… cut the shit and admit it’; and the IRR itself asked, ‘is there any chance we could use your pic for a round-up of post-Brexit racial violence?’. The IRR was joined by reporters from the local and national press asking the same question.
But was the picture all it seemed? On a south London discussion forum, the picture prompted a great deal of discussion, before one contributor pointed out, ‘I’m no expert, but that looks like a robbery attempt’. A few other contributors then said that there had been a spate of botched shop burglaries in the area over the past few months. The Met have since confirmed what many were starting to suspect: ‘These offences are not considered to have a hate-crime motivation.’ Indeed, local Lewisham police have since said that there has been no spike in reported hate crimes since the Brexit vote.