When politicians deploy racist messaging in their campaigns, they exploit the politics of unfinished conflict. Jennifer Curtis (University of Edinburgh) has spent years researching two communities with troubled histories – west Belfast and Springfield, Missouri. She reflects on how communities can try to acknowledge and process past atrocities.
Pandemics have a way of displacing all other preoccupations. Although the implementation of Brexit has receded from public attention as COVID-19 wreaks human and economic devastation across the globe, the racist messaging of both the 2016 referendum and Trump’s campaign will have ramifications for both Britain and the US.
Both the Leave and Trump campaigns asserted a specific, ethnicised sovereignty against outsiders. Both campaigns relied heavily on online advertising, using social media – possibly illegally – to target voters with xenophobic and racist messages. Hate crimes rose in both England and Wales and the US during and after the elections.
My long-term ethnographic engagements in Belfast, Northern Ireland and the Ozarkian city of Springfield, Missouri reveal another salient comparison: that racist and xenophobic campaign messages exploited the politics of unfinished conflict, of race and nation, in both countries. Such exploitation creates huge risks for democracy. Both state and nation become more vulnerable to foreign disinformation campaigns, to the debasement of political processes and norms, to the reproduction of structural racialised inequalities, and, chillingly, to the intensification of violence. Long histories of racial and ethnic violence shape personal experiences and political action in both Northern Ireland and Missouri. These politics of unfinished conflict saturate contemporary politics, defining subjectivities in which race, class, gender, and religion intersect in complicated ways. When partisans exploit these politics, the risks of renewed violence increase, and systemic inequalities rooted in these conflicts are reproduced.
In the present global health emergency, racialised structural inequalities are even more apparent than usual, although the 2016 campaigns are a distant memory for many. In the UK, the Covid-19 death rate for BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) communities is “more than twice that of whites.” In the US, with people of colour over-represented in essential jobs, mass incarceration, and migrant detention, and with racial inequalities in access to healthcare, black Americans are also disproportionately dying from the virus. Similarly, the UK and US administrations of Johnson and Trump have responded far less effectively to the pandemic than other industrialised nations. Although some observers note that the UK public has responded to the pandemic with a greater sense of unity than the US, the disparities between Northern Ireland’s and Ireland’s pandemic responses once more underscore that the Irish border remains a stubborn problem for post-Brexit arrangements. The politics of unfinished conflict sustain these disparities, and continue to shape US and UK politics, institutions and electorates.
Seeing past the new and the now
“This is a symbolic burial of the past and proclamation for the future,” the mayor of
Springfield, Missouri declared at a 2013 event commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of
the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. His words were designed as
a strong rhetorical flourish, yet landed in a tone of mild platitude.
In August 2013, cities and towns across the United States marked the fiftieth anniversary
of the 1963 march. In Springfield, about 1,500 citizens gathered in the city square
following a march. The mood had been genial, even festive, as elderly civil
rights activists mingled with young black students from the state university, city officials,
and LGBT rights advocates.
In a corner, four elderly members of a local black fraternal order, wearing fezzes and sashes, waited at a microphone to speak about local experiences of the civil rights movement and bury a time capsule at the site where three innocent African American men were lynched in 1906.
This was the past the mayor hoped to bury. But as one of the lodge members began to
speak, static drowned out his voice, and the sound system was abruptly cut. The lights
shifted back to the bandstand.
Although some people around me were confused by the change, most seemed unfazed. As one participant noted, many younger participants had no idea what history the mayor meant to bury. With the fraternal order’s statement unread, that history remained unspoken. Whatever the reasons for this series of events (technical difficulties were the official explanation), African American citizens were marginalised in a program ostensibly designed to honour their history.
In April 1906, 6,000 Springfield residents witnessed the torture and murder of three black men. A mob that included police officers abducted Horace Duncan, Fred Coker, and Will Allen from the city jail. The men were tortured for hours. Perpetrators then hanged the men from a tower topped by a ten-foot replica of the goddess Liberty and set their bodies on fire. The lynching followed the pattern of thousands of others in the country: an accusation of sexual transgression, a vigilante action, and a public spectacle of violence. After the murders, the mob descended on the city’s predominantly black neighborhoods. Missouri’s governor sent the National Guard to stop them and restore order, but many African Americans fled, abandoning homes and property.
More than 20 lynchings of African Americans took place in southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas between 1894 and 1909 (Harper 2010). Similar waves of mass racist violence engulfed the state, and then the nation, in the subsequent decade.
White supremacist violence lives on in Springfield, Missouri. The Southern Poverty Law Center monitors 22 active hate, patriot and militia groups in the area; the region is also a hub for the US National Socialist Movement (Nazis). In 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering black teen Trayvon Martin in Florida, the local Ku Klux Klan leafleted neighborhoods in Springfield, offering neighborhood watch services. The following year a white supremacist named Frazier Glenn Miller travelled north from his adopted home in the Ozarks to Kansas City, where he murdered three people at a Jewish community center and a Jewish retirement home.
A year after the 2013 ceremony, events in Ferguson dragged public attention back to Missouri’s, and by extension America’s, politics of race. In August 2014, Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and the Movement for Black Lives (MBL) gathered momentum. After Brown’s death, African American students at the state university in Springfield organised a demonstration. Thirty-odd young people silently carried “Black Lives Matter” signs past a tailgate party before the homecoming football game. Tailgaters heckled students with racial expletives, threats, and calls to “Go back to St Louis.” Several of the students were sanguine about the hecklers, noting that such epithets were directed at them on a daily basis. Protests like this one, and the Black Lives Matter movement generally, connect past and present violence. But what are we to make of the white “tailgaters” who shouted racist abuse at the students? The fact that these white citizens were comfortable publicly shouting racist abuse speaks more to the enduring legacies of Missouri’s history than class anxieties – or a Trump candidacy that had yet to materialise.
Lessons learned in Northern Ireland
In Northern Ireland, many of my research participants voted to remain in the EU in the hope of preserving a hard-won peace. Residents of Northern Ireland are familiar with the dysfunctional politics produced by ethnic conflict. During 14 years of fieldwork and research in Belfast, I observed both violent clashes and debates about past violence (Curtis 2014).
Experiences of violence and participation in paramilitarism were not evenly distributed across the population. My fieldsites in nationalist and loyalist west Belfast were located at a geographic epicentre of violence. With three different blocs at war – republican paramilitaries, loyalist paramilitaries, and state security forces – many were caught in the crossfire. One woman rhetorically asked me, “Who am I the victim of?…I was burned out of my home by Protestants….My brother-in-law was shot dead by the British Army, and my best friend, who was in the police, was shot by the IRA”.
Insularity, racism, sectarianism, support for violence – it is true that over many years I heard such sentiments uttered by Belfast research participants. Yet ultimately, those sentiments did not translate into overwhelmingly anti-EU attitudes. Certainly, the ethno-political logic of the region’s politics — and the Good Friday Agreement — have led parties like the DUP to embrace Brexit as a further demonstration of their union with Britain. Nevertheless, many Belfast residents experienced heart-rending losses and traumatic injuries, yet connected their experiences of a less awful world after the GFA to institutions like the EU. That does not mean bitterness and recrimination are over, or that the people of Northern Ireland have achieved consensus about the past or shared aspirations for the future. But it does mean that despite the flaws of the GFA, people have begun to make progress toward building a more inclusive future. Unfortunately, there are increasing indications that imminent departure from the EU is reanimating the conflict —and paramilitary groups are planning returns to violence.
They haven’t gone away, you know
The strategy of using racist rhetoric for electoral gain is old, but these strategies are dangerous to democracy. When parties openly embrace such discursive strategies, incitement and returns to violence follow. Administrative violence in both the US and UK has expanded through immigration policies, such as migrant family separation in the US and deportations of the Windrush Generation in the UK.
Dysfunctional politics are also intensified when parties, campaigns, and elite actors exploit the politics of unfinished conflict. When parties openly embrace racist ideologies, these ideologies inevitably shape policy itself, as is now plain in the Missouri legislature, where the Republican party holds a legislative supermajority. Rhetorical dog-whistles to the Republican base are now literally legislative proposals. For example, House Bill No. 1794, a fetal personhood bill, was designated the “All Lives Matter Act,” as a sideways barb toward the Movement for Black Lives. In 2017, revisions to the Missouri Human Rights Act made discrimination claims much more difficult to pursue, and the state NAACP president was silenced during his legislative testimony when the committee chair cut off his microphone.
Finally, democracies have become target-rich environments for foreign disinformation campaigns. In both elections, Russian intelligence services mounted massive online disinformation operations. This campaign has not ended.
Yet past atrocities can be recognised and processed, helping communities to end the politics of unfinished conflict and facilitate real policy reforms; these efforts help build a citizenry able to resolve conflicts, redress injustice, and prevent future violence. In Northern Ireland, victims’ groups and advocates have established multiple processes and forums for truth-telling and reconciliation. In the US, the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, unveiled the first national memorial to lynching victims in 2017. Attempts to remove Confederate statues, to commemorate lives lost to lynchings, and other memorialisations are part of a monumental reckoning. The Springfield Community Remembrance Coalition worked with the Equal Justice Initiative to erect a marker in the central square memorialising Horace Duncan, Fred Coker and William Allen.
Sadly, the US and UK coronavirus responses may necessitate more memorials and truth processes. When politicians use racism and xenophobia for electoral advantage, they enable new atrocities and imperil fragile grassroots efforts to liberate politics and society from past conflicts. Nevertheless, in both the UK and the US, there is a new generation of leaders and young people willing to end the silences, and able to, as the sociologist C. Wright Mills’ phrased it, “connect personal troubles and public issues”.
Curtis, Jennifer. 2014. Human Rights as War by Other Means: Peace Politics in Northern Ireland. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Mills, C. Wright. 2000. The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.
Harper, Kimberly. 2010. White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894–1909. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.
The piece, like so many referring to Brexit, takes a one sided stance.
Rather than stating the Leave campaign operated ‘possibly illegally’, it is worth pointing out the legal victories of Aaron Banks and Darren Grimes against such allegations of illegality, and the discrediting of many of Carole Cadwalladrs allegations. It operated no more illegally than the better funded Remain campaign, which benefited from a £9 million funding by the government.
The article claims: ‘Both the Leave and Trump campaigns asserted a specific, ethnicised sovereignty against outsiders’
Yes, racism was raised principally by the ‘Breaking Point’ poster initiative, and is a factor in UK society. But this was a UKIP initiative, and was strongly condemned by the official Vote Leave campaign, including the Tory and Labour MPs involved in that, and many others. Vote Leave co-operated with Labour Leave, Conservatives for Britain and Business for Britain throughout the referendum campaign, not at all with UKIP. Some commentators and Vote Leave themselves believe the poster damaged the campaign.
(It is worth noting that later the Brexit Party throughout its existence never raised ‘ethnicised sovereignty’ or any themes that could be described as racist. Its candidates list contained the most diverse, ethnically and politically, slate of any party, including seasoned anti-racist campaigners – they won the 2019 EU parl elections hands down. Racist UKIP were nowhere. If Brexit was the ‘ethnicised’ racist endeavour many academics like to paint it, why was this?)
‘ Hate crimes rose in both England and Wales and the US during and after the elections.’
It is true that there was a large spike in recorded hate incidents. This was likely to have been a combination of a small minority of people feeling falsely vindicated to articulate reactionary views, and the higher profile of the figs & campaigns to encourage reporting (this is also the view of the police themselves). But since the ref, every randomly sampled, and therefore comparable across time, survey on this or similar suggests that if anything there has been a fall in negativity towards migrants, both EU and non-EU (see for example EU barometer). The Police conduct a randomly sampled crime survey that suggests ‘hate crimes’ themselves (rather than reports of hate crimes) may have fallen since 2016.
I write this because, regardless of one’s political position, there is a cottage industry of articles that base their analysis on a thoroughly one-sided view of the Brexit vote. Amongst the 90 odd percent of academics who voted Remain., there is little out there challenging this. It is really a part of the Brexit culture war that academics should cut through, not reinforce.
Did any of the three respondents actually view the links the author provided to back up her claims?
It seems that two comments were removed by ‘someone’ desperate to censor adverse, critical comments.
Funny, but it’s we Brexiteers who were labelled as ‘fascist’, and yet here is the LSE behaving in that fashion.
Jim: I think you make a lot of good points. But while some of the worst accusations against Vote Leave are unfounded, I would not acquit them entirely. For example consider “Both the Leave and Trump campaigns asserted a specific, ethnicised sovereignty against outsiders” which you reject. Isn’t this justified by the Vote Leave “Turkey is joining the EU” poster, see https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/factcheck-boris-johnson-falsely-claims-he-didnt-say-anything-about-turkey-in-the-referendum-campaign ? Apart from being a lie (the most you can say is that Turkey might at some time in the future, if rather a lot of things change, join the EU) it also associates a British passport shown as an open door with 76 million Turkish people. If this is not asserting sovereignty against outsiders, what is it?
But I don’t claim Remain were any more honest. The political world is not divided into gentlemen on one side and pirates on the other.
The Factcheck link was unable to quote Boris lying about Turkey.
He rightly told Marr that it was then government policy to support Turkey’s application to join the EU. The UK’s Embassy in Ankara had a website in 2016 stating this support, although this has since been removed because the UK government cannot interfere with EU processes.
Vote Leave was quite correct in stating that Turkey ‘is’ joining the EU, because until its application gets rejected, it is.
Boris cannot be held responsible for a collective decision taken by Vote Leave. Even Dom didn’t state that Boris specifically supported the claim about Turkey.
And there was not a single mention of the ethnicity of the Turkish nation in the Vote Leave campaign.
Gary, you wrote: “The Factcheck link was unable to quote Boris lying about Turkey.” I didn’t really want to get into that argument, I linked to the article because it shows the original Vote Leave advertisement. But since you raise the point, the Factcheck links to an article in the Daily Express website from April 2016 which quotes Boris Johnson as saying “I am very pro-Turkish but what I certainly can’t imagine is a situation in which 77million of my fellow Turks and those of Turkish origin can come here without any checks at all. That is really mad – that won’t work.”. It also quotes Boris Johnson in a speech to the JCB in 2019 (I assume) saying “Actually, I didn’t say anything about Turkey in the referendum… I didn’t say a thing about Turkey.” Assuming these two quotations are accurate, it seems clear there is a contradiction. I wouldn’t assume it is a lie, I think it possible that in the speech to the JCB Boris Johnson had simply forgotten what was quoted in the Express.
The Vote Leave poster is another matter though. I think it is ridiculous to say that “Turkey is joining the EU” when all you mean is that the accession hasn’t been definitively blocked yet. If someone had formally applied to join a tennis club and the application were to be discussed as the next meeting, you could hardly say ‘”X is joining the golf-club” if the chances were very high that the prospective member would be blackballed.
But as I say I don’t claim Remain were any more honest. Politics is a dirty business and both sides were in it to win it. I agree with about 80% of what Jim Butcher says.
” I didn’t really want to get into that argument..”
And I know why….you couldn’t win it.
I never enter an argument that I cannot win.
“I linked to the article because it shows the original Vote Leave advertisement.”
Which wasn’t a comment by Boris.
The article claimed:
“Both the Leave and Trump campaigns asserted a specific, ethnicised sovereignty against outsiders. Both campaigns relied heavily on online advertising, using social media – possibly illegally – to target voters with xenophobic and racist messages.”
But Leave never referred to the ethnicity of the Turks, ony their numbers.
And whilst Boris did state:
“I am very pro-Turkish but what I certainly can’t imagine is a situation in which 77million of my fellow Turks and those of Turkish origin can come here without any checks at all. That is really mad – that won’t work.”
he did not refer to that situation arising because of Turkey’s membership of the EU. He simply expressed an opinion that such a potential situation would be madness.
” I think it is ridiculous to say that “Turkey is joining the EU” when all you mean is that the accession hasn’t been definitively blocked yet.”
But what mattered to the electorate (especially those who already hated the EU and ere going to vote Leave no matter what) was the fact that if the UK voted Remain, it would likely be for the duration of the existence of the EU. And that included not only the possibility of Turkey ( an Asian country) joining, but many unforeseen memberships totally at odds with anything ‘European’.
” I don’t claim Remain were any more honest.”
I paid a great deal more attention to the Remain Campaign than I did Leave, because I was a potential Leave voter since 1994, when I realised what Maastricht meant.
And no, I didn’t have a clue as to UKIP’s existence until this century.
The Remain Campaign was careful not to discuss how ‘wonderful’ it was that the EU issues Regulations and Directives that member states could do nothing about. All the BS about pooled sovereignty was a smokescreen designed to obscure the fact that the UK ( and Latvia) no longer enjoyed sovereign nation status.
“And that included not only the possibility of Turkey ( an Asian country) joining, but many unforeseen memberships totally at odds with anything ‘European’.” Quite so. If the Leave campaign had talked about the “possibility” of Turkey joining it would have been honest. Saying “Turkey is joining the EU” was dishonest.
“Really?” Yes really. I have in this blog on various occasions alluded to cases where Remain campaigners lied. So if you want to pick a fight with someone on that issue it won’t be with me.
“But Leave never referred to the ethnicity of the Turks, ony their numbers.” I address this separately because here I think you have a point, but only partially. You give the game away rather when you say “And that included not only the possibility of Turkey ( an Asian country) joining, but many unforeseen memberships totally at odds with anything ‘European’.” Geographically Turkey is partly in the continent of Europe, partly in the continent of Asia, the two being divided by the Bosphorus, so is not “totally at odds with anything European”. But that’s not really the point, is it? What does “totally at odds with anything ‘European'” mean to you, if it is not a reference to culture or religion or the ethnic composition of the population of Turkey? And when Boris Johnson or the Leave Campaign chose to focus on 76 or 77 million Turks and “those of Turkish origin” potentially coming to the UK or using the British passport as an open door, then they were implying that there is something about those Turks fundamentally different from, say, Poles or Irish. Why else publish advertisements against 76 million Turks who might possibly at some distant point in the future acquire the right to settle anywhere in the EU, rather than against the 400 million people from Ireland to Romania who already have it?
I referred to ‘Asian’ and ‘European’ because they have different, incompatible cultures, especially where Turkey’s is concerned.
Arguing that Turkey is European just because 3% of its area is in the Balkans is just a s ridiculous in claiming that Australia is European based solely on its culture. Of course, no-one makes that claim, but it is no different to the ‘Turkey is European’ argument.
Turkey is an Asian country with an Asian culture.
“I referred to ‘Asian’ and ‘European’ because they have different, incompatible cultures, especially where Turkey’s is concerned.” Exactly. Your objection is that you think Turkish culture is incompatible with the culture of the EU. Why exactly? Why should it remain true even if, for example, the Turkish government were to abandon its current authoritarian style of leadership and return to a secular democratic government (developing the ideas of Kemal Atatürk) and be willing to open up its markets to free competition in the style of European countries.
“Arguing that Turkey is European just because 3% of its area is in the Balkans is just a s ridiculous in claiming that Australia is European based solely on its culture.” I didn’t argue that Turkey was European but with you when you bundled it together with other countries “totally at odds with anything ‘European’”. Later you said “Turkey is an Asian country with an Asian culture.” It’s much more complicated than that. Read the novels of Orhan Pamuk and you’ll see there is a lot of Turkish culture facing West as well as East. It doesn’t just physically straddle the border between Asia and Europe but culturally as well.
That doesn’t mean I think Turkey should be admitted to the EU now (certainly not) or in fifty years. It’s a complicated issue, as maybe you’ll admit if you read the following article https://www.buzzfeed.com/jimwaterson/boris-johnson-turkey and watch the video it links to.
But to return to the issue at hand, I repeat the question “Why else publish advertisements against 76 million Turks who might possibly at some distant point in the future acquire the right to settle anywhere in the EU, rather than against the 400 million people from Ireland to Romania who already have it?” Are you really so naive as to believe that Vote Leave was not deliberately trying to get a reaction from those people who object to Turkey simply because most of its inhabitants are Muslim and have skin rather darker than usually found among “white” British? I don’t actually believe there to be more racists in Britain than in other similar countries, but racists there are, and Vote Leave wanted to get their vote out.