On Tuesday British Prime Minister Theresa May announced plans to hold a snap general election on June 8. Following Britain’s decision last summer to exit the European Union she said that, “Britain needed certainty, stability and strong leadership” ahead Britain of settling its divorce from the EU. This surprise news came as a shock to the political establishment in London. Last year May ruled out holding an election before 2020, but she has now reversed course.
May’s about face has caused political and public opinion waves across Britain, especially because her announcement comes mere weeks after the government set in motion the official process to leave the European Union, known as Brexit. May has said this was a historic moment for Britain, one that the country would not be turning back from.
A sizable number of black Brits might see the new vote as a second chance to take a stand against a future they did not vote for in the first place. In total, 73 percent of black Brits voted for Britain to remain in the EU, as did 67 percent of Asian voters. Meanwhile, 53 percent of whites voted for Britain to leave the EU.
The Brexit referendum has put a spotlight on racial divides in Britain, and has led to a marked rise in racism that is making many black Britons feel like they are no longer welcome at home. The news of this impending election has added more intensity to the Brexit fallout black Britons have been dealing with since the referendum last June. But, Simon Woolley, director of Operation Black Vote (OBV), an organization that campaigns for racial justice in Britain, said the prime minister’s decision “was probably motivated more by Brexit EU politics more than any immediate domestic political considerations.” He added that over the next several weeks OBV would “fight for race equality and fight against xenophobia. We’ll engage in a late voter registration drive, hold hustings meetings in marginal seats, write a black political manifesto and hold a national meeting with major party leaders.”
Brexit has made many black people question their place in British society, and this pending vote may yet heighten this experience. Rikette, a popular jazz singer from Brixton, says that, “as a black Briton, Brexit has made me question just how British I am. This is something I have not had to think about before, and, due to the rise in racist abuse, this has made me feel a little more vulnerable in public spaces, especially on public transport.” Indeed, since Brexit was enacted the number of hate crimes recorded on public transit has increased.
Zara Tewolde-Berhan, 24, a writer in London born to Eritrean parents, says “the message of Brexit is clear, it does not make me feel welcome.” And now with an election looming she says, “I feel like this was a rushed decision to call an election, I am so confused and uncertain about my future now, and I am worried what this will mean for black people in Britain.” As a young person who, like her age group, voted overwhelmingly to remain part of the EU, she says she fears that the economic effects of Brexit will have a disproportionate impact on black Britons.
“I feel that opportunities are now much slimmer as a Black Brit,” she says. Black and Asian graduates are twice as likely as white graduates to be unemployed. This is something Tewolde-Berhan experienced when she graduated from university and struggled to find a job. Black male graduates in London are twice as likely to be unemployed as their white counterparts; there was an unemployment rate 16 percent for black male graduates in London last year.
This is shocking considering that 44 percent of London’s 8.6 million people come from an ethnic minority. Nor is it just young black graduates that face such grim unemployment prospects. Across the board, black workers in Britain earn far less than their white counterparts with the same qualifications — at every educational level. According to research from the Trades Union Congress (TUC), a confederation of unions in Britain, there is a 23 percent pay gap between black and white workers. Their research also shows that black graduates earn £14.33 an hour while white graduates earn £18.63.
Charlene Prempeh, brand director at London-based Nataal, a media consultancy that promotes African creatives, says “In London, the key change since Brexit is that the subject of race has become dinner party fodder — every white person I know is keen to profess how liberal they are, how much they want the country to stay open, how they are not racist.” Prempeh, whose family migrated from Ghana, also says, “However, outside of London the atmosphere is openly hostile.”
On a recent day trip to Whitstable, a seashore town about an hour and a half south of London, where she says once “people would have been too embarrassed to stare” at her, Prempeh “felt uncomfortable enough to avoid eye contact and in the end we left the town early.” Official figures from the British government show that there was a huge rise in racist and religious hate crimes immediately after the Brexit vote. Further, the number of hate crimes recorded by regional police forces in England and Wales rose by a 100 percent in the months following. This spike has led the police to announce extra plans to help protect vulnerable groups.
For some British black people, Brexit shattered the illusion of truly belonging in Britain. Chrystal Genesis, a London-born broadcaster whose family hail from the West Indies, feels that for her the immediate consequence of Brexit has been that people she knows feel that white people have become more openly racist. In some instances black politicians have come under attack. David Lammy, a Member of Parliament from London, called the police after receiving a surge in online abuse and death threats. Genesis says this reminds her “that no matter how long you have lived here and grown up in Britain and even if you are third generation, you are never truly British. That is a fact.”
Brexit has not only reopened racial faultiness in Britain, but it has begun to normalize a new racism in the so-called post-racial age that isn’t all that different from the racism that greeted black immigrants like Genesis’s grandfather who arrived in Britain in the 1950s from Jamaica. “It felt like the stories my grandfather told me when I was young about the 1950’s when he was invited over to Britain to work by building up Britain after the war, and the racism and awful experiences he encountered. It’s beyond appalling now how the same racist attitudes show themselves; the only difference is that it is a different decade,” she says.
Prior to the vote, most black lawmakers supported remaining in the EU as most of them belong to the Labour Party. But a few Conservative Party lawmakers of color, such as Kwasi Kwarteng and Adam Afriyie did support leave. Labour Party politician Chuka Umunna, who was once touted as British Obama, is leading a campaign to hold the government to account over their Brexit negotiations with the EU. Other prominent black British public figures came out against Brexit also. Writing in Ebony, Kehinde Andrews, a professor of sociology at Birmingham City University, said Brexit had redrawn racial faultiness in Britain and the results of the referendum reflected “the nation’s buried racial tension.” Woolley, at OBV, wrote of Brexit, “Not since the 1970’s have we seen day-to-day extreme racial abuse and violence on the streets of Britain.”
For many black citizens, Brexit has confirmed that Britain is more than just uncomfortable with change. Anti-immigration sentiment was at the heart of what drove the UK to end its 44-year relationship with the European Union. Fears about immigrants and diversity drove many older voters into the pro-Brexit campaign, with just 39 percent of those over 65 voting to remain in the EU
Since the Brexit vote, Britain has also become less tolerant. According to police in England and Wales, hate and religious crimes rose 41 percent after Britain voted to leave the EU. A national poll in March found that in the seven months following the Brexit vote over a third of black, Asian or minority people in Britain had witnessed or experienced racial abuse. And on the day the government trigged the process for Britain to quit the EU, researchers documented a spike in online hate speech.
Moreover, May has disparaged those who did not vote to quit the EU as “crybabies” and mocked as “citizens of nowhere” and “metropolitan liberal elites” anyone who says Brexit is bad for Britain. Dissenters are routinely accused of being disloyal and un-British. For many black Brits, May’s attacks about “citizens of the world” were especially galling as many of are connected to an international diaspora that transcends national borders.
Ismail Einashe is a journalist and Dart Center Ochberg Fellow at Columbia University Journalism School.