Explainer: How a Racist, Anti-Immigrant Campaign Caused ‘Brexit’

A “Vote to leave” campaigner holds a placard on May 25, 2016, in Bolton, England.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
A “Vote to leave” campaigner holds a placard on May 25, 2016, in Bolton, England.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The last 72 hours have been a whirlwind of news in the United States—Supreme Court rulings, the Freddie Gray case and the Democrats’ House of Representatives sit-in for starters. Across the pond, however, there was a vote that not only is horribly instructive for what could happen in America this fall but, worse, could also have a ripple effect on the global economy that could throw the U.S. elections into chaos.

Welcome to the post-Brexit world, America.

1. What is Brexit?

“Brexit” is shorthand for the British referendum vote to leave the European Union. Europe has various layers of leadership and economic alliance, mostly under the umbrella of the EU. The two most powerful members of the EU economically are England and Germany. Last night 51 percent of British voters chose to get out of the union.


2. Why did it happen?

The European Union is seen by many British voters as an outside authority dictating local business, economic decisions and government. Even though every EU nation has representation as a member of the union, EU members have to abide by laws imposed by the larger body (for example, food standards and health care standards).

Further, those who were in favor of leaving the EU argued that the U.K. put more into the union in taxes and resources than the U.K. got out in terms of jobs, commerce and access to markets. This was up for some debate, with many economists arguing that leaving the EU would actually harm U.K. voters far worse than the slow drip of propping up the overall union.

The biggest issue driving the Brexit vote, however, was not sovereignty and was not directly tied to economics. It was about immigration. EU members are required to allow relatively open immigration of citizens from one nation to the next, and this was exacerbated by the Syrian refugee crisis. In the U.K., the openly racist anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party, led by Nigel Farage, turned the Brexit vote into a referendum on keeping black, brown and Muslim people away from the rest of Europe. Using openly racist ads and rhetoric, he managed to push the vote in favor of getting out of the EU.


3. Was anyone surprised?

Pundits in Great Britain are shocked this morning, in part for the same reasons that American pundits are surprised by Donald Trump. They have little or no contact with regular people. Anyone outside of the Beltway in Washington, D.C., or New York City knows full well that there are thousands of ignorant, racist Americans who love Trump’s rhetoric and don’t care about how his policies make no sense or are outright dangerous. Similarly, there are millions of Brits who hate immigrants and fear losing national identity to Europe and who would surely welcome disastrous policy if it returned them to a sense of independence.


The vote was always dipping slightly in favor of leaving the European Union, and then the “remain” vote got a slight bump after British Labour MP Jo Cox, who was in favor of staying in the EU, was killed by a pro-Brexit activist. However, by all accounts the vote was always going to be close and was trending toward leaving the EU. The non-British, minority and Central European immigrants living in England right now are not shocked, since they were taking the brunt of the anti-immigrant rhetoric ever since the Conservative Party took over in 2015.

4. What about U.K. leaders?

This vote has huge consequences for U.K. leadership and the collective identity of the United Kingdom. It is highly likely that the U.K. as we know it will not exist sometime in the near future. Conservative Party leader Prime Minister David Cameron, and opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, will likely lose their leadership positions in the coming months. Cameron has already said that he will step down. Their inability to keep the U.K. in the European Union is a tremendous failure of internal diplomacy, and their own parties are in revolt. If the crisis in leadership is intense enough, it may trigger a new parliamentary election in the U.K. in the next year.


Last year Scotland had a referendum on whether or not to stay within the United Kingdom and just barely decided to remain. However, with the Brexit vote, it is likely that Scotland will again hold a vote on independence because Scottish voters wanted to stay in the EU, while the slim majority of British voters did not. In the meantime, this has tanked the economy, stock markets are shaken and the long-term consequences for this vote will be trickling down in the next several weeks.

5. What about the U.S.?

The first “hot take” is to look at the British Brexit vote—a racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim campaign masquerading as an economic referendum—as a corollary to what is happening in the United States with the Trump campaign. Yes and no. First, the entire minority population of England is less than 15 percent, and over half of those people are located in and around the metropolitan London area. Plus, it was a referendum, a pure popular-majority vote. The United States has over 28 percent nonwhite voters; they make up a larger portion of the voting population than minorities in the U.K. do. Lastly, our electoral college system gives minority-rich states like Florida, Virginia, New York and California much more of a say in our general elections than the parliamentary or referendum system in the U.K. does.


However, the vote is relevant to the U.S. in two key ways. First, Brexit will harm the economy, which means that Trump, who regularly polls better than Hillary Clinton on economic issues, may get a boost. Second, it is instructive that the Brexit vote had relatively low turnout, which ended up favoring the voters who were angrier and more intensely wanted change. That’s a lesson that could be applicable to the U.S. presidential election this fall.

Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.

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