Why are Britain’s ethnic minorities fearful after Johnson’s win?
As far right backs PM, BAME communities already worried about lack of will to tackle racism fear further discrimination.
London, United Kingdom – On December 12, the Conservative Party won 365 seats to Labour’s 203, giving Prime Minister Boris Johnson a huge parliamentary majority.
Among those to congratulate the party for its victory were some notorious figures from the United Kingdom‘s extreme right.
Tommy Robinson, the founder of the violent street movement the English Defence League, wrote to his followers on the messaging platform Telegram: “OK, I have just joined the Conservative Party. Good work everyone that went out and voted for the Conservatives today.”
The far-right commentator, Katie Hopkins, who has previously called for a “final solution” for Muslims, went a step further. On Twitter, she addressed former Conservative Party chairwoman Sayeeda Warsi, who has repeatedly called for an investigation into Islamophobia within the party.
Hopkins wrote: “I think you will find it’s OUR party now. Britain has Boris and a blue collar army. Nationalism is back. British people first.”
On Wednesday, the Independent newspaper reported that the far-right Britain First group urged its supporters to back the Conservative Party to boost Johnson’s leadership.
Although some Conservative MPs have distanced themselves from figures such as Robinson and Hopkins, far-right support for the governing party has exacerbated already widespread anxiety among the UK’s black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities about the prospect of increased racism and discrimination.
Johnson has a record of making racist statements in his newspaper columns and speeches that stretch back years – he has described black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, and more recently he referred to Muslim women who wear the “burka”, or full veil, as “letterboxes”.
“This election result means that a lot of us feel terrified – we are very anxious about what is to come,” Shaista Aziz, a journalist, equalities campaigner and Labour councillor, told Al Jazeera.
“Brexit was built on the rhetoric of xenophobia and racism. Now we are seeing a continuation of this toxic mix.”
Since the election, hundreds of people have taken to social media to share stories of casual racism or hate crimes. Since 2013, the number of hate crimes reported to police has more than doubled, with the vast majority related to race.
Yet, Aziz points out that a larger conversation is lacking.
“As always in this country, racism becomes anecdotal. There is no discussion around structural racism, which leads to structural inequality.”
Concerns about racism within the Conservative Party predate the election, and are not limited to Johnson’s personal record.
The Conservative Party was in power during the Windrush scandal, which saw more than 80 British Caribbeans being wrongly arrested, deported or threatened with deportation, and denied legal rights.
We are minorities, but we are British. We need to see Johnson's government making very clear that we are part of this country and we are valued. Many of us don't feel valued and many of us feel fearful.
There has been no significant redress for this catastrophe, from which many families are still recovering.
“This large election majority signals that there will be little accountability,” says Zubaida Haque, deputy director of the Runnymede Trust, an anti-racist organisation. “Particularly if the Conservative Party continues as it has been, without any reflection about alleged racism within the party.”
There have been more than 200 allegations of Islamophobic comments made by party members and councillors.
Meanwhile, a survey by the pollster YouGov in June, carried out for the anti-racism group, HOPE not hate, found that more than half of Conservative Party members believe that Islam is a threat to “the British way of life”.
For several years, Warsi has campaigned to raise awareness of this and to call for better investigative processes.
In late November, after months of ignoring the issue, Johnson apologised for the “hurt and offence” caused by anti-Muslim hatred within the party.
“The problem is, this isn’t specifically about hurt and offence taken,” says Haque.
“The level of Islamophobia signals institutional racism. And the point about institutional racism is that it prevents you from participating in everyday life and participating in the political process. It prevents you from being treated equally.”
This week, the Conservative Party announced an inquiry – but rather than looking specifically at Islamophobia, it will examine the complaints procedures for all forms of discrimination.
The head of the inquiry, Swaran Singh, has previously suggested that Islamophobia is simply a means to silence critics of Islam.
“If if you’re approaching it from this starting position, that racism is contested and institutional racism doesn’t exist, then that doesn’t inspire confidence in an inquiry supposed to root out anti-Muslim racism,” says Haque.
The new government has only been in office for a matter of days and it is not yet clear what its policy priorities will be. But the Conservative manifesto contained several promises that might cause concern to BAME communities in the UK.
The manifesto promised to expand stop and search powers for police. There is limited evidence for its efficacy, and figures released in 2018 showed that black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people.
Another pledge was to tackle “unauthorised” Gypsy and Traveller camps by giving police new powers to arrest and seize the property and vehicles of “trespassers”.
“This is criminalising the Gypsy community in this country – one of the communities that faces the most discrimination,” says Haque.
It was the “hostile environment” policy implemented by Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May that led to the Windrush scandal.
A government-commissioned investigation concluded in June that the Home Office had failed in its legal duty to counter racial discrimination when implementing the policy. Yet there has been no suggestion that the “hostile environment” will be abandoned, or even reformed.
One of Johnson’s key proposals is a restructuring of government, which could include plans to create a department for borders and immigration separate to the Home Office. Some experts have suggested that this could actually lead to an expansion of the “hostile environment”.
During the election campaign, Aziz was canvassing for Labour.
“I spent a lot of time this year travelling up and down the country, and the experiences of minorities are repeated over and over again,” she says. “One woman in Southampton said she couldn’t comprehend how a man was likely to become prime minister given what he said about minorities. She was very scared about the safety of her family.
“We are minorities, but we are British. We need to see Johnson’s government making very clear that we are part of this country and we are valued. Many of us don’t feel valued and many of us feel fearful.”