When and Why the UK Gets Loud About Its Racism

After the Brexit vote, there was a 42 percent increase in hate crimes – and sadly, spikes like that are nothing new.

It was a couple of days before Shafiqul Islam even opened the envelope. Nothing important comes in the post these days, and what looked like a standard letter, perhaps a bank statement or a telephone bill, had been set aside to be dealt with along with the rest of the Bindi restaurant's correspondence on a quiet Sunday evening. In the office of the Indian restaurant he has owned and run in Newcastle upon Tyne for 15 years, Islam ripped open the envelope. Inside was a copy of the restaurant's own menu. Confused, he unfolded the leaflet and found the message scrawled inside. "MUSLIMS ARE FILTH!" it read.

Something changed in Britain after the referendum. Since the vote on our membership of the EU was held on the 23rd of June, the country has witnessed what has seemed at times like an outpouring of hate. There have been anonymous letters sent in Tunbridge Wells, inviting recipients to "Fuck off back to Poland." A German woman had dog shit thrown at her front door and was told by her neighbours she's no longer welcome here. A British Asian mother, walking her son to school in Greater Manchester, was physically assaulted by a man who asked her: "I voted for you to leave so what are you doing here?"

While it would be tempting to describe these as isolated incidents, the evidence is more than anecdotal. More than 3,000 hate crimes were reported to the police in the week before and after the referendum, a 42 percent increase on the same period a year before. Mark Hamilton, head of the National Police Chiefs' Council, described the rise as "probably the worst spike" on record. He was in little doubt that the referendum was the reason. "Some people took that as a licence to behave in a racist or other discriminatory way," he told the Guardian. "We can not divorce the country's reaction to the referendum and the increase in hate crime reporting."

It is tempting to think of Britain as a tolerant society. In January this year, the singer Sam Smith attracted ridicule after posting on Twitter about his shock at witnessing a friend being racially abused in London. His comments may have been naive, but they reflect a much more widely held view that, while of course racism exists, the days of openly expressed racist attitudes and xenophobic behaviour have largely been left behind. However, in the wake of the hate now being expressed on our streets, that view looks startlingly naive. Once you scratch through the veneer of political correctness, have attitudes to race in the UK really changed at all?

In the days after the referendum, several campaigns emerged on social media to highlight the scale of the backlash being seen against immigrants. As awareness of these campaigns snowballed, the individuals behind them were inundated with reports of racist and xenophobic abuse taking place across the UK.

Priska Komaromi was one of the people behind the PostRefRacism Twitter account. She told me she believes the rhetoric used during the referendum campaign – and the subsequent victory for Leave – paved the way for the abuse. "People felt emboldened and felt their racist views were now what more than half of the country also felt," she said. Natasha Blank, who helped launch the Worrying Signs group, which collected reports of abuse on Facebook, agreed: "I don't think racism is a new concept by any means. However, people that are so inclined now think that half of the country agrees with them."

Analysis of the incidents gathered by these campaigns seems to back up this assertion. Komaromi worked with Worrying Signs, the iStreetWatch campaign and the Institute of Race Relations to produce a report examining the rise of racist and xenophobic behaviour in the wake of the referendum. Her analysis of 636 individual reports of hate crime found that in 51 percent of cases the perpetrators referred specifically to the referendum in their abuse. In one typical incident, a middle-aged white man entered a bar the day after the vote was held and told a young British Asian woman: "We've voted to leave Europe today but we should have voted to kick all you lot out. You'll never be real British."

The incident was typical in another way. The report also looked at the ethnicity of those targeted. It found that people of non-European black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds made up the largest group of victims. While there is no suggestion that anything but a small minority of those who voted to leave have gone on to perpetrate abuse, it also seemed that some voters believed the referendum result had sent a message – that it was a protest against any kind of immigration. It was a view characterised by the Brexit voter who was photographed in Essex wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan: "Yes! We won! Now send them back."

I contact Caroline Donnelly after searching Facebook for posts about Brexit and immigration. Her public feed is a mix of news articles about Brexit, immigration and anti-Islamic memes. I send her a message asking if we can chat about her views on what should happen to immigrants after the referendum vote. She promptly sends me a polite reply. "I'd be happy to speak to you," she said. "It's an issue that I am very concerned about."

When we speak on the phone the next day, Donnelly tells me she is 50 years old and lives in Cumbernauld, near Glasgow. Immigration, she says, is not a big issue in her area. But she is concerned about the impact of immigration on public services across Britain, on the NHS, schools and housing, and what she describes as "the Muslim problem".

"There are too many people in Britain now, and parts of England are like living in the Middle East," she says. I ask what she thinks about the recent attacks on immigrants. "I don't think it's right for people to go out and take matters into their own hands."

In Donnelly's view, the vote to leave was a verdict on immigration. "Straight away I want to see the borders shut," she says. "They are saying, 'If we can get a view on the single market...' I'm sorry, that's not what we voted for. We voted out, we want the borders completely shut. Once that's done, obviously mass deportations of people who are causing crime, people who have committed gang rapes. People who are decent, hard-working can stay. Fine. But I would like to see mass deportations and not just within the EU but outside the EU as well. We need to get a grip and listen to what people are saying."

I ask her who she thinks would be affected by mass deportations. "There is a massive problem with grooming gangs and – let's call a spade a spade – the majority of it is Muslims," she says. "There's hundreds of thousands of them involved in that." I interrupt to make sure I've understood correctly – hundreds of thousands? "I've read a lot about it," she says. "Obviously that's only my opinion, I'm not 100 percent sure. But what we're seeing now is just the tip of the iceberg. Yes, I do believe the problem is a lot bigger than what they are making out."

We chat for a while longer before I thank her for her time. "I haven't got swastikas hanging on my wall," she reassures me, laughing, as I say goodbye. The next day, she posts an update on Facebook about our conversation: "I'm looking forward to seeing if he publishes my comments as concerns for the UK or if he will have me down as a 'far right nazi' lol. Time will tell." A few hours later, she posts another update: "NO SUCH THING AS A BRITISH MUSLIM. JUST MUSLIM FILTH."

Our views on race and immigration are not formed in a vacuum. In 2012, current prime minister and then home secretary Theresa May outlined her aim to create "a really hostile environment for illegal immigration". A year later, the Home Office deployed six advertising vans displaying a message aimed at illegal immigrants: "Go home or face arrest." Liz Feteke, director of the Institute of Race Relations, said recently: "If a 'hostile environment' is embedded politically, it can't be a surprise that it takes root culturally." In her report, Priska Komoromi found that around a quarter of the incidents reported to the three social media campaigns involved abuse using the words "go home" or "leave".

Carl Miller is research director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos and recently conducted an analysis of Twitter updates sent over the referendum period. He found that discussion of immigration on the platform peaked around the date of the vote. So did the number of xenophobic attitudes being expressed. Between the 19th of June and the 1st of July, Miller found 16,151 tweets containing terms linked to xenophobia or anti-immigrant attitudes. The highest concentration of these updates occurred on the referendum date itself.

As highlighted by the PostRefRacism campaign, Twitter was also used by victims of abuse to share their experiences. Between the 25th and 29th of June, Miller found 2,413 reports of hate crime on the platform. "In general, our research is suggesting that whether it's xenophobic or Islamophobic, [hate crimes] are highly event specific," he said. "You see this huge explosion linked to specific events, whether it's Brexit or terrorist attacks. It explodes very sharply and quickly and usually declines in the days or weeks afterwards."

Police figures suggest the rise in reported hate crimes after the referendum is starting to decline. In practice, it's difficult to know what this means. It's widely assumed that the true number of incidents is much higher than those which are reported. It has been suggested that the rise seen in recent weeks may be partly attributed to more victims coming forward, a result of the spotlight now being shone on the issue. If the number of incidents is falling, who knows when it may rise again? The conditions which can spark an outpouring of hate emerge suddenly. Attitudes take much longer to change.

For Shafiqul Islam, owner of The Bindi restaurant in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the message scrawled on his menu was not the first time he had experienced racism. "This happened to me years ago once before, but since the EU referendum that's when it started again," he told me. It's more frequent this time. Staff at his restaurant have been receiving abusive and nuisance phone calls. Two weeks after the referendum, when visiting Newcastle city centre with his family, four men shouted racial abuse, calling them "pakis".

"I'm not even Pakistani, do you get me?" he said. "We're all born in this country. How can they say we don't belong?"

@mark_wilding / @MartaParszeniew

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