The UK’s exit from the European Union has created national anxiety. Social media is awash with stories of racism, and many people of colour and Eastern Europeans have come face to face with the stark and ugly reality of overt racism – some for the first time. Only two days after the Referendum result, a Black British friend was attacked by six White men citing Enoch Powell’s River’s of Blood speech. Sadly, this is not an isolated event. Consider the Muslim schoolgirl, cornered by a group of people, who told her, “Get out, we voted Leave,” or the Eastern Europeans allegedly prevented from using the London Underground, with shouts of “Go back to your country!”, or the placard urging the country to ‘Start repatriation’. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
To pinpoint the exact origins of this racism is not that easy. Concerns about immigration – and, in particular, Muslim immigrants – have been simmering beneath the surface for some years. According to the British Social Attitudes survey (2016), almost 50 per cent of the population believe immigration has a negative impact on the British economy. The EU referendum result appears to have emboldened racists, by leading them to believe that the majority agree with their rhetoric. The results seem to have legitimised public expressions of hate. For this, the political elite must take some responsibility after stoking a divisive referendum campaign that demonised immigrants by its embellishments and scare tactics.
So what might lie behind this rising tide of racism? The reasons are many and complex. They also include the refusal of many, including the Church, to have conversations about race in the public square. As a result, opinions on how people feel and think about ‘difference’ have been reserved for conversations over a glass of wine in the privacy of the home. What the referendum campaign and its result have done is to open up Pandora’s box. It has encouraged honesty. The Leave result has given permission to the British public to speak and say what has been simmering in the recesses of their minds. It has galvanised negative voices into action. The racist abuse that friends, colleagues and even my family members are experiencing post-Referendum are, in my opinion, symptomatic of a British society that has repressed much of its angry opinions about minority groups. This has now been pushed to the surface by the Referendum outcome.
I find it amazing that we went to sleep on Thursday (at least most of us), and awoke in a country imploring Black, Asian, Eastern Europeans and refugees to return home. For those of us with long memories, these experiences take us right back to the days of Enoch Powell and his Rivers of Blood speech. Since last Friday, there has been a 60% spike in race-related incidents. This surely cannot be the fault of the Referendum result alone. I don’t think it is. ‘We are here, because we have always been here.’ The Referendum result has helped to catapult and articulate the feelings and thoughts of many into public spaces. It has confirmed that ‘Great Britain’ is not as tolerant as it thinks it is; racist graffiti, slurs and race-related violence remain a daily reality for people like me. This must surely be a wake-up call to Baptists Together. Racism is not a thing of the past; it is an insidious reality. Even in Christian spaces, racism only sleeps and snores. It never dies.
Now that the genie is out of the bottle, Baptists Together should participate in appropriate levels of introspection required to get beyond a rudimentary understanding of what it means to be a multicultural, radically hospitable Church. For Martin Luther King – one of our finest theologians of all time, inclusivity, well-being and right to liberty, justice and equality constitute radical hospitality – the hallmarks of a genuine multicultural community. The words of the writer of Leviticus highlight the importance of unconditional embrace and radical inclusivity. He writes: ‘The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself for you were aliens in the land of Egypt’ (Leviticus 19:34).
Now that the target has changed from ‘immigrants’ as a faceless cohort to ‘immigrants’ as individuals – whether it is a Black British female celebrity being told to ‘Return home, you …’ in front of her children by a police officer, or an American college lecturer on a Manchester tram being told to ‘Go back to Africa’ – the challenge for our churches is to listen to these heartbreaking stories, embrace the wounded, love the alien (foreigner) as ourselves, and build radically hospitable congregations that identify racism as a sin.
Surely this must be the way forward for both Church and society, having now admitted who we really are!