Here’s What We Can Learn from the Lasting Rise in Post-Brexit Hate Crimes
Until we talk about what makes people recoil from difference in the UK, the figures will always feel abstract.
We've had a bit of time to reflect, and now it's official. The UK definitely saw a significantly higher number of people report being the victim of a hate crime this summer. What started as the month when a gunman tore through an LGBT club in Orlando, killing 49 people, ended with the horrific and senseless murder of MP Jo Cox, the UK's decision to leave the EU and a spike in reports of racial aggression and general bigotry in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
On Wednesday, the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) put up a brief press release that confirmed what most non-Brits and non-white Brits may have already suspected: what seemed like a short spike in hate crime incidents in the wake of the Leave vote had turned into more of a lasting increase. At its peak on Saturday the 25th of June, there were 289 offences recorded across the UK. In the fortnight from the 16th of June to the 30th of June, the NPCC say a total of 3,192 hate crimes were reported to the police.
For a sense of perspective, over the four-day period from the Thursday of the Brexit vote until the Monday after, we saw a 57 percent rise in hate crimes reported, compared to the same period in May. A month later, in the last week of July, there was a 49 percent increase in incidents when compared to the same week in 2015. The most recent available data showed we'd had 2,778 hate crimes written up in the fortnight from the 5th of August to the 18th of August – a decrease of 414 from the fortnight before, according to the NPCC, but still a 14 percent increase from the same fortnight in 2015.
All of these seemingly abstract numbers basically point to one conclusion: people were reporting the most hate crimes right after the Brexit result, and incidences of hate crimes have largely fallen week-on-week ever since – but they're still higher than they were last year. What's changed?
In one sense, nothing much, if you're used to red-top newspapers and mainstream tabloids like the Daily Mail and Daily Express forming your world views. For years now, the populist print press in this country has waged a systematic campaign against empathy and understanding in its reporting of human migration, displacement as a result of conflict, post-Soviet Eastern European job markets and what exactly Islam is.
If you implicitly tell millions of people to fear and innately reject entire ethnic and/or religious groups for long enough, they're probably going to develop a silent bias against those groups. At first, it's nothing wild. Nothing that would have them shouting obscenities on a day-to-day basis, but a sort of niggling sense that when something goes wrong in this part of the world, there are a few types of people most likely to be at fault.
For terrorist attacks in western Europe, you'll learn that all Muslims are somehow responsible. For taking the scant jobs in your area, you blame the Polish people willing to work for less pay. Queues at the NHS clinic? Too many recently arrived economic migrants. And so on. Let this poison sit for long enough, and it only takes a combination of anxiety over resources – positioned as zero-sum game – plus a bid to reclaim an imagined ideal of a lost Britain to light the match that explodes in a spitting rage against the "other". But don't take it from me. That was the analysis made by the NPCC, in the wake of June's hate crime spike.
"Some people took that as a licence to behave in a racist or other discriminatory way," said Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton, the NPCC's lead for hate crime, speaking to the Guardian in July. "We cannot divorce the country's reaction to the referendum and the increase in hate crime reporting." Just a couple of weeks earlier, Hamilton said the increase in hate crimes was "similar to the trends following other major national or international events" – and he's mentioned terrorist attacks in other countries as an example in the past. "I do not believe it suddenly emerged. Some people felt it gave licence to vent views or behaviour."
So a rot has set in, emboldened by a national discourse that, at best, asks for tolerance and at worst lets misdirected anger fester. We should not only aim to "tolerate" people of different backgrounds, but to understand them. Though the NPCC believe things have improved enough in recent weeks to stop monitoring all hate crimes across the UK on a weekly basis, a load of numbers on a page won't do enough to help us understand the root causes of what we've seen over the past few months.
The UK has a robust system for reporting hate crime but not one for talking about where bigotry comes from. At the risk of repeating myself, we're going to continue scrolling past headlines about Polish men being attacked or killed on our streets, or universities trying to stamp out implicit bias with "nameless" applications, until we unpack what makes people recoil against difference. And that means speaking honestly to each other, about why a terrorist attack or a democratic vote would make people attack strangers. "Tolerance" won't cut it anymore.
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