Eastern Europeans, Brexit and Racism

By Jon Fox, University of Bristol

The spike in hate crimes that followed the Brexit vote in the summer of 2016 serves as a poignant reminder that Eastern Europeans are still 'not-quite-white'.  But at the same time this was a racism that was indiscriminate in its discrimination, targeting not just Eastern Europeans – the EU part of the problem –  but racism's favourite targets of yesteryear as well.  The toxic rhetoric surrounding immigration in the build up to Brexit allowed some Brexiteers to interpret the referendum results as endorsing their exclusionary views.

This is of course a distressing development, captured in police statistics that document a post-Brexit surge in racially and religiously motivated attacks. This suggests racism is making a comeback in the aftermath of Brexit.  But then it never really went away.  Indeed, the kind of anti-Eastern European racism and discrimination that's recently been grabbing newspaper headlines may have increased in intensity and frequency since Brexit, but it's building on solid foundations developed over the last ten or more years.  From Loyalist attacks in Belfast in 2009 that forced more than a hundred Romanians to abandon their homes to the brutal murder of a Polish worker in Wrexham in 2007, Poles, Romanians, and other Eastern Europeans have been targeted and victimised by racially motivated aggression for years now. 

And these are just the incidents that get reported by the media and recorded in police statistics.  Racism is of course a far more pervasive phenomenon than that.  In our comparison of the labour market performance of 2004 and 2007 cohorts of Eastern Europeans vis-à-vis white British workers, Nabil Khattab (Doha Institute for Graduate Studies) and I uncovered evidence that Eastern Europeans (particularly the 2007 cohort) suffer disadvantage in rates of unemployment and wages that can't be attributed to their human capital levels.  This ethnic penalty suggests that there may be some kind of structural discrimination at play that explains these discrepancies.

There's also the perception of racism.  Discrete racially motivated incidents still happen to a tiny proportion of the population (even if in relative terms that proportion has increased).  But these individual acts (widely reported in the media), combined with the frustration and resentment that festers with entrenched marginalisation (as suggested by the ethnic penalty research), contributes to a more generalised climate of fear, anxiety, and suspicion amongst Eastern Europeans.  Whilst most Eastern Europeans will not become actual victims of racially motivated incidents, more and more are coming to see themselves as potential victims of racially motivated incidents, as members of a group increasingly vilified in public and political discourse.  This can have negative consequences on their emotional wellbeing, and it has also been shown (anecdotally) to influence adjustments to their everyday practices (like language use) and life strategies (like leaving the UK).

This is a problem that deserves our attention, not just the more outrageous incidents that find their way into the papers, but these equally pernicious and more pervasive forms of racism and xenophobia increasingly embedded in our institutions and transmitted through political discourse.  A recent one day conference in Sheffield sponsored by the BSA Early Career Forum, 'Belonging in a post-Brexit-vote Britain:  Researching race, ethnicity and migration in a changing landscape', provided scholars with an important occasion for sharing ideas, experiences, and expertise in these areas. 

('Hungarian and Romanian migrant workers in the UK:  Racism without racial difference?' ESRC grant number RES-000-22-3358, 2009-2011.)