Black Lives Matter – whatever their nationality

By Bridget Anderson.

On 19th June 2020 the European Parliament voted to declare ‘Black Lives Matter’. The same European Parliament that last October voted AGAINST supporting more search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean; the same European Parliament that has voted through Economic Partnership Agreements that have ruined Black small-scale producers through exposing them to multinational corporation competition, reduced market access to European member states and taken away tariff revenue to poor states. Black Lives Matter – so long as they are not lived in Niger or Libya or pushing at the borders of Europe.

Rassemblement Aquarius – SOS Mediterranean, Paris 2018 (image: Jeanne Menjoulet on Flickr)

Even when they are lived on the territory of European member states Black Lives are easily discarded. Luke de Noronha (2018) has detailed the devastating impact of the deportation of long-term British residents to Jamaica, people who came to the UK when they were children, who have built lives and communities that have simply been disregarded. Recent evidence from Detention Action has found that immigration detention is systemically racist – 90% of Australian nationals were released after spending less than 28 days in immigration detention, compared with 60% of Nigerian nationals. Black Lives do not seem to matter either when they are requesting family reunion or fighting deportation.

In the past 30 years migration studies has drifted apart from race and ethnic studies. Until the late 1980s anti-deportation campaigns were usually explicitly grounded in anti-racist activism but migration activism too has drifted apart from anti-racism. It is vital that we re-connect them if we are to affect systemic change. There are scholars, activists and scholar activists who have been developing work that explores the relation between migration and ‘race’ (Lentin and Karakayali 2016; Bhattacharya 2018; Yuval Davis et al. 2019; and work by Statewatch and work showcased by the Institute of Race Relations, for example). But so far little attention has been paid to the role of ‘nationality’. Nationality can be read as both a legal status, consonant with citizenship, AND as signifying belonging to the nation of the nation-state. Furthermore, national membership is traced through ancestry and nationality is sutured to race (Sharma 2020).

This ambivalence is not simply happenstance. Radhika Mongia writes, ‘A blurring of the vocabularies of nationality and race is a founding strategy of the modern nation-state that makes it impossible to inquire into the modern state without attending to its creation in a global context of colonialism and racism’ (Mongia 2018, 113). For many years, historians have been encouraging migration scholars to take a long view of human movement, and thereby de-exceptionalise migration, which today is wrongly imagined as disturbing a previous national homogeneity. ‘Societies’ have not long been ‘national’ and they have certainly not been homogenous.

Mongia goes a step further to illustrate how the labelling of certain movements as migration precipitated the emergence of nationality as a territorial attachment. Thus, controlling migration is central to state development and rule and racism is not an unfortunate characteristic of immigration enforcement, but is absolutely baked into immigration controls and enforcement.

In her new book (B)ordering Britain (Manchester University Press 2020) Nadine El-Enany powerfully argues ‘Immigration law teaches white British people that Britain and everything within it is rightfully theirs. “Others” are here as their guests.’ There are very practical ways in which this intersection between ‘race’ and nationality is manifest in immigration frameworks. For example, under the Equality Act discrimination is unlawful. Yet it is not unlawful for immigration officials to discriminate on the basis of race when ‘race’ can be construed as nationality or ethnic origins. The Act permits direct discrimination on the basis of nationality when this is required by law, Ministerial Conditions or Ministerial Arrangements, and nationality can make certain people ineligible for certain services and benefits. Nationality is a magic wand that renders ‘discrimination’ (which covers a multitude of sins, including racial subjugation) not simply acceptable but legally enforceable.

And it is not only immigration officials who are so required. The ‘hostile environment’ has rolled out responsibility to enforce immigration checks to a wide range of ordinary people – employers, registrars, health providers, educationalists and landlords may all be legally required to check immigration status. The general population is increasingly drawn into immigration enforcement: poorly trained and anxious to err on the side of the law, these deputized actors often ‘directly reinforce symbolic and moral distinctions of otherness and illegality’ (Walsh 2014, 247). In many states those charged with imposing immigration checks typically rely on race and/or ethnicity as a marker of national difference.

In the UK this is precisely what happened in the Windrush scandal. The fact that people were Black was read as meaning they were migrants and potentially ‘illegal’, and therefore their status was subject to heightened scrutiny. But it is crucial that we recognise that this is not simply individuals carrying out the even-handed law in a racist manner. In time honoured colonial fashion, the letter of the law may be, to use David Theo Goldberg’s (2002) terminology, ‘raceless’ but its practice is ‘raceful’, and it is nationality that enables this sleight of hand.

Take the right-to-rent checks that are imposed as part of the hostile environment and have resulted in landlords being significantly less likely to rent to people who they think might be ‘foreign’ on the basis of colour, name or accent. In 2019 the High Court found that the requirement for right-to-rent checks ‘does not merely provide the occasion or opportunity for private landlords to discriminate but causes them to do so where otherwise they would not’ (para 105).

The Home Office appealed this decision and won. Lord Justice Hickinbottom did not dispute that ‘some landlords do discriminate against potential tenants who do not have British passports and those who do not have ethnically-British attributes, but the nature and level of discrimination must be kept in perspective’ (para 79, my emphases). However, ‘Whilst I do not suggest that this is a point of any great force although the evidence is that, in respect of potential tenants who do not have a British passport, landlords effectively use ethnic proxies for nationality, the primary ground of discrimination is nationality not race’ (para 148, iii). Whatever its force in the judgement (which will be appealed at the Supreme Court), politically the elision of nationality and race, and the requirement to exclude, is of tremendous force.

Our own students experience the racism of the hostile environment when they are looking for accommodation in Bristol, and this is only one of multiple institutional and bureaucratic difficulties that international students must manage alone as Tier 4 visa holders. There is no guidance on the highly complex visa conditions that they must negotiate, and little institutional appreciation that they are constrained in particular ways – they can only suspend studies for 60 days or they will infringe visa conditions; they are only allowed to work a certain, but variable number of hours per week; postdoctoral applications must be submitted before visas expire, and so on. For this reason, MMB’s working group on international students is calling for a designated International Student Advocate, with knowledge of immigration law, who can help students negotiate institutionalised racism and lobby for change.

As I write, the European Parliament has announced that they will be debating racism next week. I suspect that they will not be talking about migration. Of course, both migration and race are highly complex, and we can’t reduce them to each other. Rather, both reflect each other’s complexity –hierarchies of whiteness, the relationship between race and property, and between state, society and nation. However, let’s not forget the bottom line: until Black Lives Matter irrespective of nationality and immigration status, Black lives will continue to be disposable.

Bridget Anderson is Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship at the University of Bristol and Director of Migration Mobilities Bristol.

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