Separating ‘racial self-interest’ from racism doesn’t work

Can we ‘cordon off’ the overtly racist attacks and abuse against Europeans which followed Brexit from the demand from immigration control supported by a majority of Leavers – one of the two main motivations (along with ‘sovereignty’) for people to vote Leave? Eric Kaufmann thinks we can regard immigration-restriction as the ‘racial self-interest’ of the ‘white British’ and cites Max Weber to present this as a ‘rational’ attitude. In my new paper, available now in draft form, I accept that ‘instrumental’ can be regarded as distinct from ‘absolute’ racial attitudes, but argue that they both manifest racism.

If we are to examine immigration attitudes in Brexit, we need to start from how the issue was weaponised, not only by Nigel Farage and Leave.EU, but also by the officially recognised Vote Leave campaign led by Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and then Labour MP Gisela Stuart.

I argue that Vote Leave engaged in strategic racism; through a discussion of its TV and Facebook propaganda I show how ‘instrumental’ and ‘absolute’ racist tropes were combined, and through a discussion of voters’ attitudes, I argue that it would be difficult to disentangle ‘instrumental’ and ‘absolute’ racial positions. Ironically an ‘instrumental’ racism of a different kind is clearly distinguishable mainly in the choices of Vote Leave’s leaders. (It will be interesting to see how far Channel 4’s drama, Brexit: The Uncivil War, focusing on Vote Leave’s strategist Dominic Cummings, who I refer to a lot, confronts these issues when it airs this week.)

I argue that Weber’s methodology as a whole points us in the direction of seeing racism as a general, structural concept, and I analyse Vote Leave’s strategy and propaganda as an adaptation to structural dilemmas of political racism in Britain since Enoch Powell.

Readers who are interested mainly in Vote Leave may find the shorter summary published on openDemocracy more accessible.

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