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Wednesday 6 July 2016

In the Wake of Brexit it's Vital We Stand United Against Racism and Xenophobia

Feature written for the Morning Star by Co-Chair BARAC UK, Zita Holbourne 

Also read Bracist Britain, a British Black Perspective written by Co-Chair of BARAC UK, Lee Jasper 

THE Brexit campaign was toxic, built on fear, hatred and othering, wrongly blaming migrants for the effects of austerity and cuts.
So is it any wonder that it bred an explosion of racist and xenophobic hate crimes immediately after Friday’s referendum result?
Racism is not something new. It has always been there — no amount of race equality legislation or policies have made it disappear.
We hear phrases like “Britain is a very tolerant society” and “We’re living in a post-racial society.”
Well, I don’t want to be simply tolerated — I want to be treated as an equal with equal chances and opportunities for me, my family and communities.
As for a post-racial society, over the past six years austerity has amplified racism. It has deepened, not gone away.
We’ve seen the deeply racist Immigration Act introduced that sets us back several decades.
We’ve seen the rise of the far right and the shift to the right of mainstream political parties.
Black and anti-racist campaigners received death threats during the referendum campaign from fascists and the week before the vote we witnessed the brutal murder of Jo Cox MP because of her stand against xenophobia and for migrant rights.
In the hours after she was murdered, there was an attempt to play down the reason she was killed and many of us thought that this horrific act might change some minds — but it didn’t.
I and many of my friends awoke to the news of the referendum result on Friday morning and our hearts sank.
I wept — for our children’s futures, knowing that their struggle against racism was just about to get harder.
My son said: “You’ve spent decades dedicating your life to campaigning for race equality and against racism and in one day that work has been undone.”
I spoke to several friends that day and they all said the same thing — they were looking to leave Britain and go to the homelands of their parents. Most of them were born in Britain, but it now seems an unwelcome place and we know that our lives are about to get even harder because hate won.
That’s not to say I believe that everybody who voted Leave is racist — far from it.
I know that people of all races and politics voted to leave for a wide range of reasons, but it would seem that everybody who holds racist views voted to exit and the overwhelming message coming out of the Brexit campaign was that if Britain left the EU it would stop migrants coming here.
The campaign scapegoated migrants and gave no consideration to the impact on migrant, black and Muslim communities and the consequences of an exit on us.
Our fears during the campaign have now been realised before our eyes on our streets across Britain in the past few days.
As horrified and upset as I was on Friday morning, it was still a shock to witness an explosion of racist, xenophobic hateful displays and acts played out on our streets.
In quick succession I saw reports in the news and on social media of children in schools, people going about their everyday business being targeted and abused and of people out on the streets displaying racist signs and slogans.
In the lead-up to voting day, we increasingly heard the phrase “I want my country back” from those who supported the Brexit campaign.
This was not restricted to private conversations between friends. People boldly declared this in vox pops, in open conversations and even in our workplaces, black trade union reps were told this by their members.
People felt emboldened and with the result they became empowered — not just adults but small children at schools told by fellow pupils that they needed to pack their bags and leave, black and Muslim people told: “You’re next.” People punched in the street, taxis refusing to take black people, cars driven by African and Muslim people smashed, a Muslim woman told by a bus driver: “This is my country so I make the rules.” And this is just a small sample during the first 48 hours from Friday morning.
At the weekend I attended a trade union equality seminar in Birmingham where Polish people described how they had received hate mail through their letter boxes.
A Polish worker at the hotel told me that he was scared. He has lived in Birmingham 15 years and always felt safe and welcome, now he feels very unwelcome. This fear was repeated in conversations all week.
By the end of one week I feel as though I am running a racist incident helpline myself because of the number of people who have contacted me for support and advice due to racist abuse and attacks they have experienced, attacks on public transport, a mother beaten up by another mother on the school run because she challenged the xenophobic comments made about Romanian people — “I hope they [the Romanian mothers] and their children and babies all die on the way home,” an Asian worker in a grocery store verbally abused by a customer, a young black man physically attacked by his manager, a Muslim woman racially abused by a bus driver — I could go on.
Given that so many race monitoring organisations and race equality councils have been forced to shut their doors due to cuts, we know that the support for people in their communities that used to exist is no longer there.
So we are inviting people to contact Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (Barac UK) if they need advice and support.
Nobody should have to suffer in silence and not everybody will feel able to go to the police for a number of reasons.
It’s essential that these incidents are reported. While the police have stated that reports of hate crime have increased by 57 per cent we know that hate crimes are grossly underreported and that the real figure is likely to be much higher.
If this is just week one, I dread to think what is to come. But it is for all these reasons that this week, national black organisations, migrant groups, black trade unionists and the wider trade union movement have held emergency meetings to discuss how we respond.
On Thursday, national black organisations including my own Barac UK came together in an emergency meeting also attended by Operation Black Vote, Runnymede, Race on the Agenda, NUS Black Students Campaign, Voice 4 Change, The Monitoring Group, Blak Sox and Media Diversified.
The meeting agreed to issue a statement on how to respond with a message about mobilising in our local areas and communities, communities working together and taking action to support those under attack.
In addition to these meetings the TUC general council also met this week and agreed on a new campaign against racism.
It is essential for any such campaign to not just involve trade union and anti-fascist organisations but communities too.
The PCS union executive, to which I am elected, also held an emergency meeting this week on the EU result and our political campaigning and at that meeting agreed a campaign against racism.
The NEC agreed that we would work with the TUC to launch a new targeted and sustained anti-racism campaign in light of the EU referendum result.
Such a campaign must focus centrally on the need for an end to cuts in public services and investment in our communities, including an education campaign on immigration. We will review and expand our own anti-racism and equality campaigning on that basis.
And we also confirmed our support for Jeremy Corbyn. Jeremy and John McDonnell have both provided unwavering support to PCS campaigns over many years, whether it be raising our members’ issues in Parliament or standing with us on picket lines, even when the Labour Party leadership of the day was not willing to do the same.
In particular, they have supported our central campaign for an alternative to austerity and an end to the cuts in pay, jobs and pensions inflicted on our members by all governments in recent years.
Barac UK also stands in solidarity with Corbyn against the attempted coup by Labour politicians and is deeply disappointed to see MPs and councillors campaigning against him.
Corbyn and McDonnell have provided solid and consistent support for Barac UK and black communities and for our work campaigning against racism and injustice, providing solidarity, practical and political support and a strong presence and voice against racism and xenophobia.
In the face of growing hatred, we need political leaders who are totally committed to standing up to racism and Jeremy and John have demonstrated a lifetime commitment to doing this.
Next week the TUC race relations committee will also meet to discuss the new TUC campaign against racism and how this is taken forward in conjunction with communities impacted.
But we all have a collective responsibility to stand up to these attacks and to stand up and support people who are attacked and abused, reporting hate crimes and documenting them and building a strong united campaign.
It is not enough to state we are anti-racist or anti-fascist, we need to stand up to all forms of racism and xenophobia and offer practical support as well as political activity to tackle the root causes and effects that lead to a climate of fear, division and hatred.
  • Zita Holbourne is co-founder and national co-chair of Barac UK and elected to the PCS national executive committee and the TUC race relations committee. She is also an author, poet, artist and curator.

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