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The English city of Sunderland voted overwhelmingly last summer to leave the European Union. That vote put thousands of jobs at risk at Nissan, Sunderland's biggest private employer. So why would people vote against their economic self-interest? Well, NPR's Frank Langfitt found the answer lies in part with opposition to immigration and a perceived threat to white identity.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: The Humbledon and Plains Farm Working Men's Club offers pool, darts and cheap beer to a local blue collar community. On Election Day, it also serves as a polling station. About 200 people voted here in last year's election. Turnout for June's Brexit referendum was nearly 40 percent higher, which caught the attention of Les Scott. He's a former city mayor who monitored the polls that day.
LES SCOTT: My lasting memory of this polling station was them coming in and saying virtually every time, what do we do? So we were obviously experiencing people who'd never ever voted in their life.
LANGFITT: Scott also noticed patriotic symbols like the British flag, which some white nationalists have co-opted in the past.
SCOTT: The national symbols of the Union Jack, which are reasonably common in this area, were being very proudly displayed. We knew then that something was different about this election.
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LANGFITT: One recent evening, a couple dozen white-haired women descend on the club for country line dancing. They two-step and spin across the worn parquet floor past a stage draped in American and confederate flags. Tommy Wardropper's sitting in the bar chatting with friends. Wardropper, who works as a plumber, backed Brexit. The reason? To keep foreigners out.
TOMMY WARDROPPER: We don't want more of them coming in - Muslims, immigrants. Closing our borders would be better for our country.
LANGFITT: Have you guys been following the election in the United States?
WARDROPPER: I love Trump.
LANGFITT: Why do you love Trump?
WARDROPPER: 'Cause he's going to get rid of all the alien Muslims.
LANGFITT: Wardropper wears a soccer jersey featuring a red cross on a white background. It's the St. George's Cross, the English flag. Wardropper's proud of his English heritage, but he says in multicultural Britain, cherished symbols like this are increasingly under attack.
WARDROPPER: We can't even put George Cross flags in our bedroom windows now.
LANGFITT: Wardropper says he's not even allowed to put the flag in his window. That's not true. Driving to the club, we passed two English flags outside homes. Wardropper counters.
WARDROPPER: Well, you can, but it upsets the Muslims.
LANGFITT: Dan Evans, one of Wardropper's drinking buddies, also voted for Brexit. He's tired of the United Kingdom having to follow EU law. And he also says Muslims get special treatment on construction sites because of their faith. Evans spent two years building a paint factory inside the Nissan facility. And so I asked him, how important is Nissan to this economy do you think?
DAN EVANS: Oh, massive. It employs about - over 7,000 people.
LANGFITT: When you voted to leave, were you worried at all that Nissan might pull out?
EVANS: No, because at the time I was working there and I was building some multimillion-pound factory. And if they were going to leave, they wouldn't have carried on building this factory...
LANGFITT: Evans gambled that Nissan was so heavily invested in Sunderland, it wouldn't shut its doors. After the vote, Nissan threatened to halt further investment here, forcing the U.K. to promise to protect it from any costs imposed by Brexit. Unlike most patrons of the club, Nigel Lee voted to stay in the European Union. The plain-spoken 72-year-old is nursing a whiskey and lemonade near the bar. Lee says the way he sees it, support for Brexit in this community was driven by one thing above all.
NIGEL LEE: And I think the main reason people voted was racism.
LANGFITT: For instance, Lee says some people here resent that a nearby Muslim community keeps to itself.
LEE: And everybody says they live separate lives, well, if they're going to get beat up they're going to - the Irish done it, the Jews done it. They all live in separate enclaves.
LANGFITT: If you're struggling with Lee's accent, what he's saying is that Muslims cluster together because they're worried about their safety. And the minorities, including Irish and Jews, have often settled in ethnic enclaves. What's clear in this community is that many here are determined to keep it white, and were willing to risk Sunderland's economy to do so.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Sunderland.
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