How the Brexit vote empowered xenophobes and racists

Social media users and news sources have reported a spate of racist and xenophobic incidents in the UK in the days immediately following the EU referendum result. These include anti-Polish graffiti, people being told ‘go back to your country’ in the street and on public transport, and damage to shops, restaurants, mosques and other Muslim targets. Hate crimes reported to the police have apparently increased by 57%.

Some commentators have referred to two processes to explain this upsurge in racist and xenophobic attacks: empowerment and legitimization. Our research has shown that collective psychological empowerment is based on shared social identity. When people believe that others have the same identity as them, this increases their expectation that they will be supported in taking action consistent with that ingroup identity. Thus the greater the size of the ingroup, the greater the sense of support. The greater the match between self and ingroup identity, and the greater the perception of ingroup unity, the more ingroup members feel: that they act and speak for the ingroup; that they will be backed up and applauded if they take ingroup-consistent actions; and that others will join in with them if they take such actions. By the same logic, they will also believe that fellow ingroup members are also taking similar actions.

Most of the published research demonstrating this empowerment process has been carried out on collective action and protest. However, we can use the same framework to understand the sudden upsurge in racist and xenophobic incidents in the UK post-referendum.

First there is the content of the shared identity of the racist/xenophobe – who the ‘we’ is. In this case, the identity is ‘British’ (or perhaps ‘English’), which will be narrowly defined (e.g., ‘white’) and which will include opposition to ‘foreigners’ and perhaps also perceive the ingroup as a ‘victim’ of these ‘foreigners’.

One of the effects of the Brexit vote was to convey ‘what other people think’. There was a widely-held understanding that a vote for Brexit was a vote against foreigners (‘taking our country back’ in relation to both ‘foreign’ rule and migrants). Second, then, where the racist/xenophobe shares this perception of the vote for Brexit, s/he will perceive a match between own identity and the position of the ‘majority’. In short, s/he now believes that ‘everyone else’ (white British) is as racist as s/he is.

Third, the racist/xenophobe’s belief that the ‘majority’ now share identity with self means that ingroup boundaries have now become extended: the ingroup of racist/xenophobes is now perceived to be larger than before the referendum. Moreover, there may also be a false consensus effect, or illusion of homogeneity, because the binary ‘for-against Brexit/foreigners’ simplifies the possible range of opinions. This would enhance the sense of unity for the racist/xenophobe, within the ‘white British’ majority ingroup category.

Next, therefore, this larger and homogeneous (united) ingroup means greater expectations of ingroup support for action consistent with that identity. Finally, then, greater expectations of ingroup support means that action to express identity and its values are now more likely. Since that identity is defined in terms of hostility to ‘foreigners’, more hostile action against ‘foreigners’ is the result.

The notion of legitimization suggests that people changed their understanding of what counts as appropriate conduct. But in the present case, it is not clear that some people have changed towards now thinking that racist and xenophobic attacks are ok (noting also that there were of course racist incidents before the referendum). What seems more likely, perhaps, is that racist and xenophobic people have changed towards thinking that other people now think that racist and xenophobic attacks are ok. They have changed in their understandings of what other people see as normative or acceptable. In other words, again, they feel they have permission – support, even – to act in these ways.

In social psychology, collective empowerment (or, more often, group efficacy) and legitimacy have usually been conceptualized as separate and distinct dimensions. But, in political terms, they can be causally related. For example, a movement’s ability to organize and be effective is one of the ways that it gains political credibility.[1] The understanding that power and legitimacy are linked is also behind the anti-fascist strategy of preventing fascists from organizing and public speaking – because when an organization appears able to put its beliefs into practice it increases the extent to which it is seen as a legitimate political force.

So what is the solution? The research on collective empowerment suggests that those actions that realize the shared identity for participants are particularly rewarding. This point and the analysis above therefore suggests a number of points at which the cycle of empowerment of racist and xenophobes can be broken.

First, disabuse them of the illusion that their views are widely shared. Challenging them will undermine their belief that others now regard racism and xenophobia as legitimate. Indeed, doing nothing in response to hate crimes could be seen as endorsing them, or implying that such actions are now acceptable.

Second, prevent them mobilizing support by acting against particularly their coordinated activity.

Third, prevent their actions from having a tangible impact – prevent them from turning their subjective identity into objective reality – by negating and cancelling out their effects with both words and actions.

And fourth, actively disempower them by asserting collective identities antagonistic to theirs. For example, well-organized and -attended groups and activities based on international class solidarity help to defeat racism and xenophobia on the streets by making such solidarity more realistic than the racist vision.

This blogpost was produced collectively with the Crowds & Identities research group: Sanj Choudhury, Sara Vestergren, Patricio Saavedra, Evangelos Ntontis, Anne Templeton, and Khalifah Alfadhli. 


[1] In line with this idea, a recent (unpublished) study we carried out on Chileans’ perceptions of the student movement found that the more that people saw the group as having high efficacy the more likely they were to see collective action by the movement as legitimate.

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