Trump and Brexit Are Symptoms of the Same Failure to Reckon With Racism

Trump and Brexit Are Symptoms of the Same Failure to Reckon With Racism

Trump and Brexit Are Symptoms of the Same Failure to Reckon With Racism

The US and UK remain in denial about race, immigration, and their place in the world.


When I left the United States for the United Kingdom in 2015, with Black Lives Matter at its height and my book on child victims of gun violence recently completed, some assumed that it was the racism that had pushed me away. But, as I would point out, if it was aggressive policing and racial disadvantage I was seeking to avoid, I would not be heading back to London.

When the UK voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, many Brits then asked if I regretted leaving the States for the xenophobia and isolationism of Brexit Britain. But if it was xenophobia and isolationism I wanted to run away from, I’d point out, I wouldn’t be running toward America.

When the United States elected Donald Trump five months later, American friends told me I was lucky I had left. However bad things were in Britain, they assured me, they couldn’t get any worse than this. Meanwhile, some British doomsayers insisted they had it worse: “Trump will be gone in four years, but Brexit takes us out of the European Union forever.”

The argument about which country is, at present, the most dysfunctional is of course futile, since the answer would render neither any less dysfunctional. Britain set itself an unnecessary question, only then to deliver the wrong answer. Those who led us out of the European Union had no more plans for what leaving would mean than a dog chasing a car has to drive it. Not only do we not know what we want; we have no idea how to get it, even if we did. At a meeting in Davos, Switzerland, in January, British Prime Minister Theresa May kept pushing German Chancellor Angela Merkel: “Make me an offer.” To which Merkel replied, “But you’re leaving—we don’t have to make you an offer. Come on, what do you want?” And May would only repeat, “Make me an offer.”

America, meanwhile, has chosen a brazen bigot and misogynist as the embodiment of its national aspirations. Erratic, egomaniacal, and an embarrassment, he lurches, increasingly isolated, from crisis to crisis. On any given day, any number of things that might normally qualify as a headline scandal—a porn-star spanking, policy U-turns, impetuous tweets—are relegated down the page to make way for even more outrageous transgressions. To dismiss Trump as simply a buffoon would be to disregard the very real consequences of his actions—lives lost, relationships destroyed, treaties broken—and the power he holds. Owing more to the traditions of demagoguery than democracy, he launches wars on all fronts—trade, military, and legal—to bolster his own standing.

That said, I have never been particularly invested in championing either country. Born in Britain to Barbadian parents, and having lived for 12 years in America, where both my kids were born, my allegiances have always been less linear and more complex. Standing less in the tradition of Alexis de Tocqueville and more in that of the other great chronicler of American civilization, the Trinidadian socialist C.L.R. James, my outlook owes less to the transatlantic than to the Black Atlantic—that triangle of trade, commerce, culture, and migration (both forced and voluntary) between Europe, the Americas, and Africa that made so many of us who we are.

As such, the dire situation that both countries now find themselves in seems like the obvious, though by no means the inevitable, conclusion of their denial about race, immigration, and their place in the world. Since the Suez crisis, there has been a push, from anti-racists in particular along with more advanced sections of the left, for Britain to reckon with its post-imperial status, multiracial realities, and need for migrant labor. This was always necessary, but it could never compete with the electoral expediency of playing possum at the first whiff of cheap populism, xenophobia, and jingoism. Challenging bigotry, we were told, would cost us whatever election we were fighting. But sooner or later, these debts come due. Brexit was, in no small part, a consequence of the refusal to engage with the issues of race, migration, and loss of empire.

Since the civil-rights victories of the late 1960s in the United States, there has been a push, from anti-racists in particular along with more advanced sections of the left, for America to reckon with the legacy of its racism. But beyond lip service, when it came to policy and politics, there was less money and fewer votes to be had in taking a clear stand against racism than in claiming you were better equipped to manage its systemic consequences, whether they were in the prisons, schools, or unemployment lines. Trump is, in no small part, a product of that neglect. His desire to “Make America Great Again” shares the same racial melancholic longing of those who seek to put the “Great” back into Great Britain.

Shuttling between the two countries over the last three years, these developments have appeared not aberrant, but consistent, with what has long been evident in both places. As a black Briton and an anti-racist activist, the issues that produced these situations have always been urgent, which is why I never sought to privilege the idea of living with the racism in one country over the other.

On both sides of the Atlantic, we argued that, whatever short-term benefits there might be in pandering to racism rather than challenging it, over the long term, ignoring racism and imperialism would prove devastating for the entire left and liberal cause. Mainstream left parties interested in the next election thought we were crying wolf. Lampooning our warnings as “identity politics”—which seems to mean anything you like so long as you don’t like it—they dismissed these claims as the marginal views of marginalized people. But the thing people forget about Aesop’s fable is that, at the end of the day, there really was a wolf. This is the wolf that is prowling through our polities and mauling our political cultures. I never had the luxury of thinking I could escape it. Sadly, this might be what it takes for others to understand why.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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