This article appears in the Witness section of the Autumn 2016 issue of the New Humanist, along with other pieces examining the impact of the Brexit vote. Subscribe today.

It started almost immediately. A Polish centre in west London was defaced with racist graffiti; in Cambridgeshire, laminated leaflets were distributed reading “Get out Polish vermin”. Initial police figures showed a sharp spike in hate crimes: an increase of 57 per cent in reported incidents in the four days after the referendum, compared with the same days four weeks earlier. Anecdotal evidence of verbal abuse proliferated. Much of the aggression was targeted at EU nationals, but non-white Britons were also singled out.

What are we to make of this apparent unleashing of racism in post-Brexit Britain? Commentators have argued it should come as no surprise, given the bigotry that scarred the referendum campaign. What started as a vote on the abstract notion of national sovereignty transformed into a vote on immigration, and prominent Leave campaigners did not hesitate to play on people’s concerns. On the morning that Jo Cox MP was murdered, Nigel Farage had unveiled a poster that displayed a long queue of dark-skinned migrants with the caption “BREAKING POINT”. Michael Gove and Boris Johnson perpetuated the fiction that Turkey was imminently joining the EU. Leaflets put through doors suggested that Syria, Egypt and Morocco might soon be up for membership.

Of course, the 17 million people who voted for Britain to leave the EU did not all do so because they are racists. When more than half of a population votes for something, they do so for a range of reasons that vary between regions, socioeconomic groups and individuals. Nor did the Brexit campaign create racism in the UK. While strides forward have been made over the last few decades – not least through the much maligned “political correctness” that made it unacceptable to publicly express racist views – it exists, and has always existed.

What appears to have happened is that people who believe foreigners should “go home”, or that people with a different ethnic heritage are not truly British, feel legitimised by the result. We are not seeing new racists, we are seeing the old racists emboldened and confident in their views. It would be simplistic to blame this entirely on Brexit. The plainly bigoted political and media discourse seen in the run-up to the vote was the culmination of years of degradation in the tone of public debate, and the increasing acceptability of flagrantly racist views. Let us not forget that just last year, our new Prime Minister Theresa May – now feted as the voice of reason and calm – said that immigration makes it “impossible to build a cohesive society” in a speech condemned by the Telegraph as “dangerous and factually wrong”.

Politicians and sections of the press bear a heavy burden. Engaging in gutter rhetoric and retreating into the lazy impulse to blame the other in times of economic hardship, and to reinforce the worst impulses of the populace, creates a climate that facilitates racist sentiments. The surge in hate crimes will hopefully be short lived. The work of making bigotry less acceptable again will take much longer.