Protesters holding Stand up to Racism sign

Pandora’s Box has been opened by the Brexit referendum and it is difficult to see how the evils that it has allowed to escape can be put back in the box. Already there are reports of increasing race hate crimes – many directed at Polish and other European migrants but also directed at Muslims and other migrant and minority groups.

Although many who voted for Britain to leave the European Union were not in themselves racist the campaign itself was riddled with dog whistle politics about migrants and foreigners. At times the sound of the whistle was obvious and audible (as with the disgraceful  Farage “Breaking Point” poster of a line of refugees at the Slovakian border).  Groups such as Britain First and the English Defence League are now capitalising on this climate and trying to provoke disorder, racist attacks and appeals to “send them home”.

Anti racist and anti fascist reporting sites like Hope not Hate and Tell Mama will have their work cut out in monitoring the increasing outrages that are likely over the next few weeks and months. The notion that immigrants are to blame for most of the ills that confront less well off members of society has now become the received wisdom, repeated over and over again by politicians, pundits and the press. Former Tory Party chairman Sayeeda Warsi has warned that “immigrants and their descendants (some who have been here for three, four or five generations)  are being told to leave Britain” in the wake of the “divisive and xenophobic” Brexit campaign.

In the midst of this dangerous atmosphere the government is now set to enact dangerous legislation under the Immigration Act. This legislation will compound the process of demonization of all migrants as well as wider minority ethnic communities. The Immigration Act will force landlords and other public officials to profile service users so as to identify those who do not have the correct paper work and permissions to work, rent, drive and receive other services . The Government is also set to try to do away with the European Convention on Human Rights which is one of the few protections against the worst excesses of  such racism and discrimination.

Against this dark climate we must all work together to rebuild trust and defend our different communities. We must ally together against the Immigration Act giving free rein to landlords and many public servants to profile and single out minority ethnic people in ways that we thought had disappeared since the 1960s. We must defend the European Convention on Human Rights and continue to challenge all the areas where there discrimination and racism continue to scar our country  – whether this is in employment and education, stop and search,  the penal and policing systems and other areas of gross inequality.

Even more important than the EU is the question about  what sort of country Britain wants to be, and that question will continue long after the referendum.  Do we want to continue to be a positive, tolerant society capable of challenging inequality and discrimination and addressing our differences in a civil manner? Or are we going to respond by retreating even further into our enclaves and spitting hostility at each other across the growing divide? The great US Black thinker WEB Du Bois said that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” Whether  we can learn to live together better and address racism and inequality effectively will be the problem of the twenty-first century. And we have not got off to a good start.