Britain as the spoils of empire

Race, nation and migration – the blog series reframing thinking on movement and racism.

By Nadine El-Enany.

My parents travelled from Egypt to Britain in 1977, moving from London to Exeter, a city in the South West of England, in 1978. For my parents, Exeter was a place they felt fortunate to have found, an idyll far from the noisy, crowded streets of Cairo. They made Exeter their home. Yet 40 years later, when my father retired, a neighbour asked him when he would be going back to Egypt.  Still, my parents are the lucky ones. They came to Britain on an aeroplane, study visas in hand. They did not have to travel by boat, or in the back of a lorry risking their lives.

‘Bordering Britain’ is not only the centuries long legal and political process that my recent book traces: it is also a mindset. Hanging over my parents will always be the assumption that their life in Britain is contingent and temporary. Immigration law teaches white British citizens that Britain and everything within it is rightfully theirs. ‘Others’ are here as guests. I challenge this by showing how British immigration and nationality law is an extension of British colonialism. I argue that Britain’s borders, articulated and policed via immigration laws, maintain the global racial order established by colonialism, whereby colonised peoples are dispossessed of land and resources. Britain is not only bordered, but also racially and colonially ordered, through the operation of immigration control.

Britain would not be the wealthy, plentiful place that it is without its colonial history. Colonialism and slavery were key to its industrialisation and the growth of its capitalist economy (see Draper 2008; Inikori 2002; Williams 1944). Wealth derived from British slave-ownership has helped to enrich and sustain elite institutions, individuals and families and has sewn inequality deep into the fabric of British society (see Dorling and Tomlinson 2019). Britain’s healthcare system, welfare state, transportation infrastructure, cultural and educational institutions, though battered and unequally accessible, are nevertheless colonially derived.

As colonial populations fought the British from their territories, British lawmakers fast abandoned the myth of imperial unity and equality and moved to introduce controls targeted at racialised colonial subjects and Commonwealth citizens. Through the concept of patriality the 1971 Immigration Act had made whiteness intrinsic to British identity. Only patrials, those born in Britain or with a parent born in Britain, had a right of entry and stay in Britain. In 1971 a person born in Britain was most likely (98%) to be white (see Owen 1995). The 1981 Act continued this process of racial exclusion by constructing British citizenship on the foundation of patriality, tying citizenship to the right of entry and abode (Karatani 2002:185). A territorially distinct Britain and a concept of citizenship that made Britishness commensurate with whiteness made it clear that Britain, the landmass and everything within it, belongs to Britons, conceived intrinsically as white. The 1981 Act was an act of appropriation, a final seizure of the wealth and infrastructure secured through centuries of colonial conquest.

Understanding Britain as a contemporary colonial space serves to partially collapse the distinction between settler and non-settler colonial contexts. While it is now an accepted argument in critical scholarship that settler colonialism is ongoing and structural (for example, Coulthard 2014), the same critique has not been applied to non-settler forms of colonialism, which are considered to have ended. Yet, the border drawn around the spoils of British colonial conquest via immigration and nationality law amounts to colonial theft. Due to mainstream understandings of property as being fixed and immovable in space and time, theft via the passing of immigration controls can be difficult to conceptualise (see Cooper 2013; Keenan 2015). Colonial dispossession not only determined the contemporary distribution of material wealth, but also radically altered subjectivity in the sense of what people desire, consider themselves as entitled to and understand themselves to be (Fanon 1986). Theft of intangibles such as economic growth, life chances, psyches and futures occur in all colonial contexts, settler or otherwise.

The effect of the 1981 Act along with changes to immigration law was to put the wealth of Britain, gained via colonial conquest, out of reach for the vast majority of people racialised through colonial processes. Immigration law not only serves as the means of obstruction of movement – it is also the means through which legal status is granted. Regimes of legal status recognition whereby British authorities determine entitlement to citizenship, settlement and refugee status serve to legitimise the claim that colonial wealth belongs behind Britain’s borders, only to be accessed with permission.

Similar to the way in which indigenous people in Canada and Australia must submit to the rules and evidentiary standards of those colonial legal systems in order to be recognised as having enforceable rights to land (for example, Mabo and Others vs Queensland 1992), those with ancestral, geographical and personal histories of British colonialism who wish to access stolen colonial wealth and resources in Britain must submit to the rules and evidentiary standards of British immigration law. In this way the vast majority of racialised people are prevented from accessing Britain and its wealth in part through the operation of internal and external borders, produced and enforced through law.

The traditional acceptance of legal categories as defined in international and domestic law in and outside academia has the effect of concealing law’s role in producing racialised subjects and racial violence. It further impedes an understanding of law as racial violence. Addressing the historical contingency and artificiality of legal categories, the violence in their production and ongoing material effects allows us to understand how Britain remains colonially and racially configured. It also helps to mitigate against a liberal politics of recognition and opens the way for the development of emancipatory and reparative discourses and strategies for migrant solidarity and racial justice.

Legal status does not alter the way in which racialised people are cast in white spaces as undeserving guests, outsiders or intruders – as here today but always potentially gone tomorrow. Immigration law is, after all, the prop used to teach white British citizens that what Britain plundered from its colonies is theirs and theirs alone. Understanding that immigration law is an extension of colonialism enables us to question Britain’s claim to being a legitimately bordered, sovereign nation-state. If we, as critical scholars and activists, can imbibe a counter-pedagogy to that of immigration law and bordering, one which rejects the violence of legal categorisation and paves the way for a more empowering, redistributive and radical politics of racial justice, we can begin to work our way towards new strategies for organising collectively in the service of anti-racism and migrant solidarity. We should not wait for the law to rule on our entitlement to colonial spoils. A Britain understood as the spoils of empire already belongs to us.

Nadine El-Enany is Reader in Law at Birkbeck School of Law and Co-Director of the Centre for Research on Race and Law. She researches migration and refugee law and one of her current research projects focuses on questions of race and justice in death in custody cases. (B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire (2020) is available from Manchester University Press.

A longer version of this blog post was originally published by Manchester University Press on 6th November 2019.

Race and the making of migration regimes

Race, nation and migration – the blog series reframing thinking on movement and racism.

By Radhika Mongia.

Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State (2018) is an investigation into the history of state control over migration. At the heart of the book are two main questions: first, what histories can we chart of the increasing and incremental state control over migration that culminate, by the early decades of the twentieth century, in a state monopoly over migration? Second, what can these histories tell us about state formation, inter-state relations, state sovereignty and modern subject constitution? The book considers colonial Indian migration from about 1834, when Britain abolished slavery in its plantation colonies, up to about 1914, when, with the onset of World War I, the world confronted a new geopolitical reality. In less than a century, we see profound transformations in the logics, rationales, institutions and legal forms of state control over mobility.

My book shows that racial thinking was absolutely central to these logics and rationales. Traversing a diverse array of British colonial formations, including India, Britain, Mauritius, the Caribbean, Canada and South Africa, it examines the relational processes, across these varied sites, that produced a state monopoly over migration. This monopoly, accompanied by the ‘nationalisation’ of migration, is an integral part of a fundamental shift in the twentieth century from a world composed of empire-states to a world composed of nation-states.

To appreciate the kinds of shifts that occurred between approximately 1834 and 1914 we should note three important facets of the nineteenth-century system of Indian indenture, provoked by the abolition of slavery: first, that to meet the labour demands of the plantocracy state intervention to regulate Indian indenture was directed at facilitating, not prohibiting, the movement. Second, state intervention regulating indenture was authorised as a limited and temporary exception to the then-prevalent principle of free movement. Instituted to guard against charges of a second slave trade, this exception was justified by a racialised and paternalistic desire to ‘protect’ the Indians and the formerly enslaved Africans. Moreover, even as Indian migration to the plantation economies was regulated, other, far larger, streams of Indian migration occurred outside the ambit of state control. In other words, through most of the nineteenth century, the state oversaw and controlled Indian migration only in the exceptional case of the erstwhile slave colonies. Third, that this change, despite its exceptional status, nonetheless expanded the purview of state authority, or sovereignty, in terms of mobility. It thus constituted a remaking of the terms and limits of sovereign authority.

Each of these three facets would become points of contention in the twentieth century with regard to controlling Indian and, more broadly, Asian migration to white-settler colonies within and beyond the British empire – ranging from Canada, South Africa and Australia to Argentina and the United States. First, the overwhelming concern now was with restricting rather than facilitating migration, requiring a thorough revamping, indeed abandonment, of the principle of free movement. Second, in the new circumstances, the earlier rationale of protection justifying intervention was unavailable; new discourses of protection needed to be mobilised. And third, a completely new understanding of sovereignty, conceived in specifically racialised-national terms, emerged. This understanding would generate a decisive shift in the logics of migration control, from state regulation of migration in exceptional cases (like indenture) to state regulation in all cases. This shift yielded our current verity, of a (national) state monopoly over migration as an unquestioned element of state sovereignty.

Indian Migration and Empire shows that myriad varieties of racial thinking saturated and structured the making of migration regimes. For instance, the nineteenth-century transformations to the limits and purview of state sovereignty, impelled by the movement of indentured labour to the slave plantation colonies, were overtly subtended by notions of race understood in the temporal, developmentalist register of ‘stages of civilisation’. By contrast, in the early twentieth century, the ascendance of notions of liberal equality and of rights-bearing subjects would make a civilisational understanding of race less available and migration law would reflect and provoke new forms of racial thinking. Thus, we see in migration law and practice transmogrifications that displace race thinking to fashion novel understandings of liberal equality, through the conduits of culture, religion and nationality.

Racial discrimination in immigration was implemented through a host of mechanisms such as the imposition of a ‘head tax’; the prescription of education/literacy tests; specifications regarding identity documents; precise regulations regarding the trajectory of voyages; and ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ of compromises between states on imposing restrictions on emigration. The mechanisms deployed were occasioned by context-specific social, political and economic conditions that spoke to and utilized differing – sometimes conflicting – legal logics and justifications. Often, certain mechanisms, such as the education/literacy tests would, as Marilyn Lake has shown, circulate and be adopted and adapted at a range of disparate sites, from the US to South Africa to Australia.

But perhaps the most enduring technology of racial exclusion to emerge in this period – which was subsequently thoroughly standardized and globalized – was the modern passport. In analysing the decade-long debate over Indian migration to Canada in the early twentieth century (Chapter 4), I show how the seemingly neutral category of ‘nationality’ came to operate as a proxy for race and how this relation was enduringly encapsulated in the development of the modern passport. The emergence of the modern passport, as it took shape to resolve the conundrum of how to prohibit the migration of Indians to Canada, without naming race, would result in a profound remaking of state sovereignty and the inter-state system in specifically national terms. Such reconfigurations would apply an enormous pressure on the framework of empire and on the globe-spanning category of ‘British subject’, contributing to their fissuring, fragmentation and eventual dissolution. These reconfigurations would also dispense entirely with the principle of free movement and bring all migration under state control.

Nowadays, it is taken as an incontrovertible fact that a defining element of the modern (nation) state is the authority to control migration. A historical investigation reveals that this is a very recent aspect of the state and of state sovereignty; it also reveals that the regulation of colonial migrations played a critical part in bringing about the transformations that yielded this outcome. In other words, the book seeks to denaturalise the current dominant view that controlling migration, particularly by restricting entry, is an uncontested and immemorial aspect of the state. Instead, it details the myriad complex processes through which migration, race, nation and state have come to be so tightly intertwined.

Radhika Mongia is Associate Professor of Sociology at York University, Toronto. Her current research concerns recent changes in Indian citizenship law. Radhika’s book, Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State (2018) is available from Duke University Press.

Intimate state encounters: Brexit, European Roma and contested home-lands

Race, nation and migration – the blog series reframing thinking on movement and racism.

By Rachel Humphris.

Brexit and the UK’s relationship with the European Union foregrounds questions of identity, nationhood and who is included or excluded. For those identified as ‘Roma’ these are perennial questions as purported ‘European citizenship’ made little difference to their position as Europe’s enduring ‘internal Other’, who have never and cannot ‘belong’ (Sardelić 2019). Roma are always positioned ‘in’ but never ‘of’ Europe. Often overlooked in histories of modern Europe, Roma have been enslaved, forcibly settled and sterilised, suffered state kidnap, and targeted during the Holocaust. Their current experiences continue to reveal the force of stigmatization and racialisation embedded in society, law and governance.

I came to a partial understanding of these experiences through spending 14 months living in Luton, UK, with ‘Romanian Roma’ families (a bureaucratic category used by frontline workers) with the aim of exploring migration, statecraft, race and urban marginalisation. Luton has suffered the brunt of ‘austerity localism’, post-welfare reforms, rising xenophobia, and the dehumanizing ‘hostile environment’ created to make living in the UK so difficult that migrants ‘self-deport’.

I observed the gendered and racialized effects of the hostile environment as migrant households were the subject of ubiquitous value judgements, targeted surveillance and an imposed racialized exceptionalism tending toward differential treatment premised on mythical assumptions (Stewart 2012). For example, mothers were judged on the food they ate, whether their front garden was tidy, the other people in the house (particularly men) who were not part of the ‘nuclear family’ and the disorienting rhythms of the domestic space, which did not map onto prevailing norms of domesticity, intimacy and intensive mothering. While these mothers have a particular experience, these processes are based in deep histories of surveillance and disciplining of the racialized and classed urban poor (Picker 2017).

However, I was also acutely aware that the frontline workers conducting home visits were themselves caught in the entanglements of a retreating welfare state and securitised migration apparatus. Casting aside the usual binary of social care/social control, these observations made me attend to the manifestations of ambivalence and uncertainty for migrant mothers and frontline workers. I shifted my emphasis from ‘state acts’ to ‘state encounters’ to open up the processual and relational quality of how states are made in practice and to account for emplaced and embodied positions of all social actors.

So while frontline workers determine the fate of new migrant families (potentially causing their deportation or state kidnap) they are themselves often racialized mothers, subject to migration control and invested in proving themselves as ‘good citizens’ resonating with Cohen’s (1999) notion of ‘advanced marginalisation’. They must negotiate their way through a complex, constantly shifting and messy terrain of migration policies, border policing and surveillance. They must reconcile these duties with their professional commitment to an ethics of care, often taking on work well beyond their formal role and the hours that they are paid (through processes of New Public Management they are employed in short-term, target driven, precarious contracts at the lowest end of the local state). They carry with them enormous and contradictory burdens, responsibilities and anxieties with the fate of new migrant families and their futures at times in their sole hands.

These intimate state encounters are one instance where decisions about who belongs and who deserves discretionary extra support rests on the strange and unsettling mingling of established categories. These citizenship decisions emerge at the intersection of public and private, formal and informal, political and personal. Drawing inspiration from Mbembe’s observations of colonial governance (2001: 28), this research showed that governing political belonging through the home space does more than confuse the public and private: it depends on and reproduces that confused space to ensure the continual reproduction of marginalisation based on raced, classed and gendered hierarchies.

As critical race, gender and queer scholars have long pointed out, the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is most fundamentally drawn in the intimate sphere. From British imperialism to the present day, racialized relations have come to be shaped and governed through intimacy (McClintock 1995; Stoler 1995). My work has tried to draw a line from these debates to the role of the family and the domestic in the contemporary UK state and how they relate to conceptions of nationhood, identity and belonging today.

The stories of new migrant mothers and those tasked to govern them are not often heard. Legal migration statuses are proliferating and becoming more precarious. Brexit seems unlikely to reverse the trend. Austerity is still biting hard and likely to continue in the current context of a stagnating economy and casualties of COVID-19. The privatisation of services is carrying on apace creating complex relationships in frontline provision.

Marginalised families, like the Roma in Luton, are more likely than ever to fall through the gaps or become subject to bordering, sometimes from those who have the best of intentions but work in a harsh and broken system. In this context, the most mundane everyday actions in the home become crucial for how families can secure a safe status in the home-land. This research raises fundamental questions about the types of homes – and the type of home-land – we want and what we need to change to achieve them.

Rachel Humphris is a Lecturer in Sociology and Politics at Queen Mary University of London. She is a political ethnographer whose research and teaching focuses on immigration and citizenship, urban governance, gender and race.

Home-Land: Romanian Roma, Domestic Spaces and the State (2019) is available from Bristol University Press.

Racism and the UK’s immigration system

Race, nation and migration – the blog series reframing thinking on movement and racism.

By Maya Goodfellow.

‘Hard Brexit,’ Labour’s Andy Burnham warned a few months after the EU referendum result in 2016, would ‘turn Britain into a place it has never been: divided, hostile, narrow-minded.’ This is a theme that has persisted since the initial aftermath of the referendum; some of the people most vocally opposed to Brexit seem to assume that this country will become or is becoming a hostile and racist place for migrants. This erases a whole history of racist and racialising thinking on immigration. My book, Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats (2020, Verso) seeks to challenge this thinking, partly by showing how race and racism have long impacted and been produced by policy.

The UK’s hostile environment did not start with Brexit nor did it begin with the sets of policies introduced through the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts. Saying this does not mean arguing that there are no distinct, significant impacts of these more recent and punitive forms of ‘immigration control’. People are being denied access to healthcare, housing and work, their data being shared between different government departments if they cannot show they have the ‘right’ documentation to be in the UK. Even in the middle of a global pandemic, the hostile environment has largely continued.  

But to imply that these policies were fundamental ruptures that made once ‘liberal’ and welcoming Britain into a place it had never been before is to ignore recent history. Britain has long been a hostile environment for migrants and people racialised as a threat.

Though it is rarely engaged with or properly understood in the public domain,  there is much work examining the UK’s immigration histories. From the racist policies of the Sixties and Seventies, which were concerned with restricting the ability of people of colour from former colonies and colonies to come to this country, through to the way people were treated when they arrived. Racism and immigration policy are inseparable in so many ways.

But too often it is assumed that this relationship is mostly a relic of the past, or only discernible in deeply damaging but seemingly rare cases like the Windrush scandal. This is partly to do with how race and racism are understood: as largely isolated to individual acts, where racist sentiment is overtly expressed. In this telling, it is divorced from the material and the structural realities.

With this narrow understanding of racism as a jumping off point, the role of race in immigration policy and rhetoric is also obscured in how the debate is constructed. It is thought that anti-immigration attitudes rose during the New Labour years because the government ‘let too many people in’ without the consent of the public. Here, dislike of immigration tends to be thought of as a natural reaction to too many people of a ‘certain kind’ coming into the country. When particular groups of migrants arrive, the argument goes, they bring with them ‘cultural change’, which threatens a fabled and supposedly stable, unified British culture. This, then, produces racism and xenophobia. It is thought that to have a ‘cohesive’ society there needs to be more focus on common values and traditions, rather than social and economic emancipation. The only way to address this is to reduce immigration, in particular by reducing the number of racialised people entering the country.

This relies on a specific form of racialised thinking, which in the Eighties was dubbed the ‘new racism’. In the years preceding, ideas about ‘culture’ had really come to the forefront of the immigration debate (though it certainly wasn’t a new concept and has older roots). We can see it is about race by understanding that it is based on the thinking that particular ‘traditions’ are based on biological or ancestral difference. So too, such thinking goes, is the desire to defend those very traditions against so-called outsiders. Such an understanding and production of difference is often at the heart of conceptualisations of race.

If you look a little closer at the New Labour years, you find one of many problems with how the ‘culture’ argument is understood. As well as being deeply racialised, it is not as if anti-immigration politics flourished all on its own: it was cultivated by the Conservatives, the British National Party and eventually the UK Independence Party. New Labour were reproducing this thinking too. Almost from the get go they were anti-asylum, perpetuating stereotypes and implementing restrictive legislation. This was largely on the basis that some people were pretending to be seeking asylum and came to the UK because of so-called ‘pull factors’.

New Labour never significantly challenged the racialised thinking that some groups were a threat to the UK. Instead, they reproduced it in their own specific way: those who were Muslim or thought to be Muslim, for instance. It is against this backdrop that New Labour became increasingly critical of immigration more broadly. So the ‘cultural’ arguments against immigration are both deeply racialised and historically and politically produced; they are not some natural inevitability.

There is no rosy liberal past, then, where processes of racialisation were insignificant or rejected. Understanding this is key not only to making sense of the ways race is produced and operates in policy now but to forging a new, better world together.

Maya Goodfellow is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute. Her research looks at the relationship between capitalism, racism and immigration. 

Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats (2020) is available from Verso with a 40% discount. 

The permanent ‘crisis’ of the borders of ‘Europe’

Race, nation and migration – the blog series reframing thinking on movement and racism.

By Nicholas De Genova

The borders of Europe seem to be the site of a protracted crisis. The fires that devastated the scandalously overcrowded Moria detention camp on 9 September 2020 on the Greek island of Lesvos, which summarily displaced upwards of 13,000 migrants and refugees including small children, who were then left abandoned to sleep on roadsides, signal only one of the most dramatic recent flashpoints of an endemically dismal predicament of misery and despair. Notably, whatever the precise circumstances that caused them, the fires arose in a context of draconian yet woefully insufficient sanitary measures associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. On a global scale, the pandemic has thus exposed the inherent contradictions of state power and its (in)capacities to manage the public health emergency. The recourse to curfews, mass quarantines, and more or less severe forms of social ‘shutdown’ or ‘lockdown’ has likewise served to legitimate and bolster a predictably insular governmentality of ‘national’ or ‘European’ quarantine, manifest above all in border closures that only exacerbate the public health crisis by rendering the health and wellbeing of some categories of non-citizens’ bodies expendable, and thereby relegating some human lives to a debased status of disposability.

Since its very implementation in 2015, the EU’s ‘hotspot’ mechanism for migrant and refugee reception and detention has been a very prominent instance of the indefinite coercive immobilization of human mobility. The hotspots’ premier function in practice has been the preemptive rejection and containment of migrants and refugees at the borders, whereby the EU-ropean border regime operationalizes a more or less permanent state of exception. In this respect, therefore, the borders of Europe are not merely the site of an ostensible ‘crisis’ that intrudes upon ‘Europe’ from outside, bringing to its doorstep all the proverbial bad news of the world as embodied in a motley crew of ‘unwanted’ (illegalized) migrants and refugees. No. Instead, the borders of Europe are a means for producing and sustaining a permanent sociopolitical condition of ‘crisis’ that mediates the rejection, illegalization and prospective expulsion of the great majority of migrants and refugees who arrive.

From their very inception, the hotspots by which EU-rope sought to manage the mass influx of migrants and refugees in 2015 were deployed to lend credence to the spectacle of a purported ‘crisis’ that appeared to command  ‘emergency’ measures. Yet, even that ‘refugee crisis,’ which was speedily re-branded as the by-now infamous ‘migrant crisis,’ had itself been preceded by one maritime disaster after another, year after year, as overcrowded and unseaworthy boats carrying migrant and refugee border-crossers capsized or were otherwise shipwrecked in the Mediterranean. Indeed, for more than two decades, the persistent fortification of the borders of Europe has made the crossing more perilous and ever more potentially lethal.

The vast majority of migrants and refugees seeking to remake their lives in ‘Europe’ arrive from places formerly colonized by European powers (or in any case, places otherwise deeply implicated in centuries of European imperial projects). Likewise, the vast majority of ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’ who perish as a consequence of the policing of the borders of ‘Europe’ are people who come to be racialized as non-white and ‘non-European’. When the EU-ropean border regime systematically generates and predictably cultivates the conditions of possibility for the mass death of Black and Brown people, what else can it mean, then, other than that the borders of ‘Europe’ are an apparatus for the postcolonial reconfiguration of a global regime of white supremacy? The borders of Europe thus emerge a premier site for staging the unfinished business and open-ended struggles of our shared postcolonial condition.

This helps to explain why and how the mere term ‘migration’ serves in the European context as a discursive proxy for the antagonisms of race. Official disavowals of the legitimacy of ‘race’ and sanctimonious repudiations of racism undermine a frank confrontation with the historical and contemporary realities of European colonial and postcolonial racism as an ongoing and unresolved affair. This notorious and increasingly futile European evasiveness around questions of race — even as virtually every public debate over ‘migration’, or ‘refugees’ or ‘integration’ is inevitably saturated with racial significance — thus infuses and perverts the very possibility of an honest reckoning with the questions of what ‘Europe’ is or could be in the future, or who is or can be counted as ‘European’.  This is the complex that I call the ‘European’ Question.

In a book that I edited, The Borders of ‘Europe’: Autonomy of Migration, Tactics of Bordering (Duke University Press, 2017) the contributing authors and I investigate a variety of examples of the bordering tactics of ‘Europe’ as reaction formations to the elementary human exercise of a freedom of movement that is not granted by any authority. In this manner, we emphasize the primacy of human mobility — what we and other critical scholars call the autonomy of migration — as an incorrigible subjective force enacted in practice, prior to all the tactics and technologies for imposing and policing borders. The research engages various moments leading up to and culminating in the so-called ‘crisis’ of 2015-16, but also excavates a variety of episodes that earlier instigated analogous invocations of a ‘crisis’ at Europe’s borders, which have always tended to signify first and foremost a crisis of control.

As the events of last year verify anew, the European border regime cannot cease to be convulsed by ‘crisis’, because it is a reaction formation dedicated to controlling a force that is elemental and incorrigible within any apparatus of state power. The exercise of our freedom of movement — objectively speaking, in defiance of any border, the police, the law and the state, and even at the risk of our very lives — is an assertion of the primacy of our human needs. In this way, these perennial struggles over human mobility that provoke an effectively permanent ‘crisis’ of the border are expressions, in practice, of a desire and a demand for another way of life. And they gesture, however humbly, toward a horizon where another world is possible.

Nicholas De Genova is Professor and Chair of the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Houston. As an anthropologist, geographer and social theorist he studies migration, borders, race, citizenship and labour.

The Borders of ‘Europe’: Autonomy of Migration, Tactics of Bordering is available from Duke University Press.

 

Deporting Black Britons: mobility and race-making in the life stories of criminalised ‘deportees’

Race, nation and migration – the blog series reframing thinking on movement and racism.

By Luke de Noronha.

My recently published book, Deporting Black Britons: Portraits of Deportation to Jamaica (2020, Manchester University Press), traces the life stories of people who have been exiled from their homes in Britain. The four men who feature most prominently in the book all moved to the UK as children, and lived here for half their lives before being deported. Now in Jamaica, where I met them, they struggle to rebuild and to survive. Importantly, they were all deported because of criminal convictions. Clearly, the deportation of criminalised black men raises urgent questions about the relationship between racism and immigration control in contemporary Britain.

In the book, I try to move beyond arguments that say immigration controls are racist because they are enforced in racially discriminatory ways. More than this, the very terrain in which racial difference becomes meaningful is thoroughly structured by immigration restriction and the legal borders of citizenship. In other words, immigration and citizenship policies work to nationalise and racialise the population and its ‘culture’, defining the nation as a ‘community of value’ through the exclusion of what it is not. Bordering practices do not merely reflect racial hierarchies, then, they (re)make them, and this matters when we try to evaluate what ‘race’ has to do with migration. 

To think in complex ways about the relationship between ‘race’ and migration, I have found it useful to think about mobility – or more precisely differential (im)mobilities, following Mimi Sheller. It bears repeating that racial difference is not reducible to skin colour. Skin colour is not the cause of racial difference but one of its markers, and skin colour difference is made meaningful, and weighed down, by the reality of material inequalities between differently racialised people. These material differences are not only about wealth, but also correspond to who can move, how and with what effects. Thought this way, the government of mobility is central to the processes through which racial categories are produced and reconfigured, given life and social meaning in the present. This does not mean that ‘race’ and mobility are directly correlated. It is not as if those who cannot move are necessarily black, or that those who can are necessarily white, but it does mean that racialised social relations are substantially constituted by relations of mobility.

In my conversations with the men in this book, it became clear that the racialisation of black people in Britain is constituted by the policing of mobility. What are incessant stop and searches, and wider police harassment, for example, if not the surveillance and policing of (black) mobility? In the book, this emerges most sharply in relation to Ricardo’s story, who between the ages of 15 and 18 was harassed almost whenever he left the house, arrested countless times and detained in police stations, always without being charged. As a teenager without a criminal record, he had a personal officer visit him at home, every day, to check up on him. And because of his apparent ‘anti-social behaviour’, and his repeated arrests for robbery, his movements and associations were restricted. The terms of his anti-social behaviour order (ASBO) stated that he could not go to certain areas, especially places where he had been arrested, like West Bromwich town centre in the West Midlands. There were also buses he could not take because the route went through areas he was banned from, and the police gave him a printed map with highlighted pen marking the areas he could and could not enter, the streets he could and could not walk down.

In Jamaica, too, what it means to be black, or to be from ‘the ghetto’, or to be a Jamaican citizen in the world are all constituted by relations of mobility. The distinctions between black, brown and white in Jamaica, and between local and tourist, would not hold for long, or in the same ways, if the organisation of mobility shifted, and if different groups were afforded greater or lesser access to mobility. If Jamaica’s economy was governed not to export single commodities or package tourism, but to nurture liveable lives and ecologies on the island, then racialised social hierarchies would be transformed along with relations of mobility. If, somehow, the majority of black Jamaicans were able to move freely around the planet, not to toil as disposable migrant labour but simply to wander and travel, then it is hard to imagine that they would describe racism and historical injustice in quite the same way. What makes slavery so resonant for so many Jamaicans today is material hardship in the context of restricted mobility and global marginality.

These historical resonances and continuities are important. However, to talk about contemporary relations of mobility in terms of ‘sufferation’ and the afterlives of slavery should not imply that nothing has changed. The point is that ‘race’ is both deeply sedimented and historically emergent, both persistent and mercurial, heavy and yet slick. The challenge is therefore to work out how racial distinctions and hierarchies are made and remade. The relevant point here is that if racial distinctions and hierarchies are always constituted by differential (im)mobilities, then contemporary modes of governing mobility offer a window onto historically specific configurations of race and racism.

As such, it is not simply that the same groups are being immobilised in the same ways and for the same reasons. It remains true that blackness is constituted by particularly violent forms of enforced (im)mobility, but there is also something emergent and new about the contemporary government of mobility. Bordering practices perpetuate colonial inequalities, but they also produce new forms of racial differentiation and injustice – think about the refugee camp, the bordering of the seas and the implementation of enormous biometric databases, for example, and in the UK context think about new policing powers in the context of Covid, and new technologies of identification and surveillance targeting ‘migrants’ and ‘criminals’ (see Stop and Scan, facial recognition, and the Law Enforcement Data Service).

As economic and ecological crises deepen, and increasing numbers of the global poor are deemed surplus to requirements, the demand for bordering everywhere intensifies. In this context, the racist world order gets reconfigured with terrifying consequences, both familiar and novel. For Achille Mbembe, the contemporary border presents a worrying sign of where the world is going, and therefore anti-racism, as the struggle for liveable futures, will increasingly have to contend with bordering practices. This means theorising racism not only in terms of the legacies of European colonialism but also in relation to the present and future of the border.

Luke de Noronha is a Lecturer in Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism and Racialisation, University College London. He is the author of ‘Deporting Black Britons: Portraits of Deportation to Jamaica’, and producer of the podcast Deportation Discs.

Deporting Black Britons is available from Manchester University Press. To receive 30% off, use the discount code ‘Deporting30’ at checkout.

Moving difference: Brazilians in London

Race, nation and migration – the blog series reframing thinking on movement and racism.

By Angelo Martins Junior.

Portuguese version here.

The freedom to move from place to place is a privilege in today’s world, and so ideas about human mobility and human difference are necessarily interwoven. When white people from the global north move around the world they are typically imagined as tourists, gap-year students, business travellers, expatriates and so on, whereas black and brown people from the global south are thought of as ‘migrants’. Their migrancy – the fact that they have moved – is taken to define them, and they are also frequently represented as homogeneous groups. Academics, as well as policymakers, politicians and journalists, often speak of ‘South Asian migrants’ or ‘asylum-seekers’, for example, as though they constitute one, undifferentiated group of people.

Much has been said about how this tendency to homogenise ‘migrants’ connects to racist stereotyping by anti-migrant thinkers (‘They’ are all criminals and rapists, for example). But amongst those who hold a more positive view of migration, it can be associated with more exoticizing stereotypes. In migration scholarship this has sometimes translated into assumptions about ‘migrant communities’ as bound together by a shared experience of movement or common homeland, acting in solidarity to support one another in the country of destination.

(Image: Routledge)

As a Brazilian working and then studying in London, I was struck by the fact that the academic literature that emphasises commonality and solidarity amongst migrants did not speak to my own experience. This observation prompted the research on Brazilians in London on which my book Moving Difference is based. The research involved ethnographic and interview research with men and women who, whilst all being ‘Brazilian migrants in London’, differed in terms of the regions of Brazil they came from, their socio-economic and educational background, and their racialised identities. Their difference moved with them, shaping not only their reasons for migrating and how they navigate different levels of opportunity and constraint to move, but also the ways in which they see and interact with each other in London. However, Britain has its own social and political hierarchies, and in London, my research participants found themselves not only lumped together as ‘Brazilians’ but also lumped in with global south ‘migrants’ in general.

Moving geographically ruptured the racial privilege of many lighter skinned and white middle-class Brazilians, who had never previously felt it possible that they would be perceived as a de-valued inferior Other, as a ‘social problem’. For them, being positioned as a ‘migrant’ implied the possibility of experiencing classed, ‘racial’ and social degradation. Now they had to negotiate their position on two matrices of difference – one ‘here’ in Britain and one ‘there’ in Brazil. While some did reflect critically on these hierarchies and express political solidarity with other migrants, many of my research participants responded by seeking to distance themselves from stigmatised identities ‘here’ and stressing their superior position ‘there’. They were not the real ‘migrants’, they told me, not poor, uneducated, low skilled, ‘illegal’, promiscuous, or criminal like the other Brazilians in London. They did not wish to live amongst the ‘Brazilian community’ in areas of London where real migrants live but rather in areas where there are just ‘beautiful [in other words, white] people speaking English on the street’, where ‘everything is clean and you don’t see rubbish on the floor, or a bunch of ugly, smelly people that make you feel you are in Africa, not in Europe’.

Moving Difference documents the ways in which Brazilians in London negotiate and recreate difference in terms of class, region, gender, ‘race’, ‘culture’ and documental status and examines the connected histories and social imaginaries of ‘race’ and degradation that allow us to make sense of the very visceral racial, classed, gendered and regional disgust expressed by my Brazilian research participants (especially white and lighter skinned middle-class participants) when speaking of their co-nationals and of other migrants and their ‘spaces’. Although their disgust is expressed ‘here’, in London, the feeling has its origins in the colonial presence of Europeans and enslaved Africans ‘there’, in Brazil – a past hat has historically shaped Brazilian projects of ‘race’ and nation as well as continuing to inflect the lives of Brazilians in London today.

After abolition in 1888 Brazil embarked on a whitening project – influenced by eugenic racial assumptions – which incentivised European immigration as way to ‘civilise’ the new nation by ‘improving’ its mixed ‘blood’. This new population of European (and Japanese) migrants was concentrated almost entirely in the south and south-east of Brazil, regions that, since independence, had acquired the central position in the national economy, especially with the production of coffee and, later, industrialisation. At the same time, without access to land or any form of state compensation, an entire class of black and ‘mixed’ people – the formerly enslaved and their descendants – as well as lighter-skinned poor Brazilians (often from the Northeast) have been marginalised both in the configuration of urban space and in the labour market, dealing with daily exclusion, discrimination, degradation and state violence.

Living as ‘sub-citizens’ in the urban poor peripheries and/or slums of the southern cities, they have been used by the middle class and the elite as a cheap, precarious labour force to undertake the most ‘unqualified’ activities – ‘dirty’ and ‘heavy’ activities for men and domestic and sexual labour for women. They are socially imagined as repulsive bodies, blamed by the middle-class and the elite for Brazil’s supposed failure to become fully developed/modern/civilised, and often executed on the streets by the police. As a way to deal with such historical exclusion, Brazilians constantly negotiate racism through hierarchies of colour/hair and class positioning, attempting to distance themselves from any trace of Blackness/poverty that could lead to their identification as a ‘degraded body’.

Today, Brazil’s colonial and racial histories play an important role both in generating the desire to travel and determining whether and how journeys are undertaken. While many Brazilians believe that moving to London will allow them to achieve the material and cultural ideals of a ‘modern’ Western lifestyle that is impossible to attain in ‘not fully modern’ Brazil, the lighter-skinned descendants of European participants in Brazil’s whitening project enjoy greater freedom of movement in Europe and so find it much easier to realise their ambition to move to London. But once in the UK, they find themselves realigned in the constellation of ideas about race, modernity and human worth in such a way as to stand precariously close to those who are socially imagined as disgusting, degraded, uncivilised. Meanwhile, darker skinned/black and working-class Brazilians who do manage to move to London come to perceive that their physical mobility (previously imagined as a straightforward marker of progress and privilege) also carries the threat of social and racial immobilisation: they might be fixed ‘here’ in ways that they are not rigidly contained ‘there’.

Taking the configuration of the social world as a continuum, made of connections, ambivalences and paradoxes, Moving Difference offers a lens on how the global mobile present is connected to the global legacies of the colonial past. The lives of Brazilians in London shed light on how ‘here’ and ‘there’, ‘present’ and ‘past’, are always entwined – creating and recreating racialised inequalities and difference, including unequal access to the privilege of mobility.

Angelo Martins Junior is a Research Associate in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. He is working on the ERC research project ‘Modern Marronage: the pursuit and practice of freedom in the contemporary world’. 

You can purchase Moving Difference: Brazilians in London through the publisher, Routledge, or through your local, independent bookseller.

National sovereignty and postcolonial racism

Race, nation and migration – the blog series reframing thinking on movement and racism.


By Nandita Sharma.

A focus on migration, mobility and ideas of ‘race’ are crucial aspects of nationalist thought and practice. Indeed, today, racism operates through nationalism. Yet, while racism has been largely delegitimised, nationalism has not. The delegitimisation of racism does not mean that it no longer exists. Quite the contrary: racism continues to deform our lives but is not, for the main part, carried out through laws that categorise people into distinct ‘races’ who are singled out for negative, discriminatory treatment. It is common for most people espousing racist views and actions to run away from the label ‘racist’ and, instead, to insist that they are anything but.

Case in point: early on in his presidency, former-US President Donald Trump, in response to questions posed by ITV host Piers Morgan, argued that, ‘I’m the least racist person anybody is going to meet.’ Trump insisted upon this in reference to his re-tweeting of three videos made by a group called Britain First in November 2017. Britain First, whose name is congruent with Trump’s own slogan of ‘America First’, is a fascist political organisation formed in 2011 by former members of the British National Party. Their motto, ‘Britain First: Taking Our Country Back’, is largely aimed at legitimising the violent targeting Muslims living in the UK, many of whom are British citizens. As the Washington Post reported, ‘in the case of these three videos, the intended message seems to be that “Muslims are dangerous people.” But these videos appeared to be selected at random, offered without context or original sourcing, and are months, if not years, old. They depict people who may or may not be Muslim, inflicting harm on people who also may or may not be Muslim.’ It added, ‘this is what propaganda looks like.’

In Britain First’s and Trump’s own ‘America First’ rhetoric, as well as in all its other manifestations, what grounds racism is nationalism. Nationalism spatialises and territorialises ideas of ‘race’ by transforming the land (and water and air) that provides the basis of people’s ability to live into the territory of a nationally sovereign state. While state practices of territorialising land is an integral part of what states do (even when the territory is not always clearly mapped out), nationalism fuels claims that there exists some sort of natural link between a specified group of people (i.e. The People) and a certain specified place. Consequently, each ‘nation’ imagines that it has its own place on earth.

(Image: Duke University Press)

In Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants (2020), I investigate how the current political order of nation-states institutionalises the notion that each ‘people’ has its own place in the world by limiting access to national citizenship and authorised immigration.

This national regime of governmentality, which I term the Postcolonial New World Order, co-opted radical anti-colonial demands and replaced them with demands for national sovereignty. Calls for ‘national self-determination’, I argue, perverted demands for the return of expropriated land and for the freedom of labour from exploitative class relations. Instead of decolonisation, people got the postcolonial rule of nation-states. Nationally sovereign states have not only continued the work of imperial-states to organise the global accumulation of capital, their policies (both ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’) have led to the enormous expansion of such practices. Since the start of the Postcolonial New World Order, more people and more land (and air and water) have been brought into capitalist social relations than ever before. Hardly an inch of our world has been spared. Under the rule of postcolonialism, disparities between the rich and the poor – and between Rich and Poor Worlds – have intensified.

In the Postcolonial New World Order, the national mechanism of limiting rights and entitlements according to one’s citizenship and immigration status not only organises racism but also legitimises it. We live in a system of global apartheid, one that rarely codifies ‘race’ in the law but relies instead on ideas of the ‘right’ of national sovereigns to determine membership in the national political community. There is very little outcry of this legislated system of discrimination and injustice even though, as economist Branko Milanovic (2015) points out, one’s nationality is the single-most consequential factor in predicting how well and for how long one lives. In this postcolonial world of nation-states, who gets to be a ‘national’ – and who does not – is therefore an important and hotly contested site of political struggle. In this sense, anti-immigration politics is a structural component of the Postcolonial New World Order and it takes many guises.

Today, across the world and across the Left-Right political spectrum, nationalism is hardening. For a growing number of people and polities, it is not enough for one to be a citizen (even as citizenship becomes more difficult to obtain or even to keep); one must also be seen to be a member of the Native people of the nationalised ‘soil’. By mobilising a discourse of autochthony (or native-ness), today’s National-Natives contrast themselves against allochthons (or people from someplace else). Because of their association with mobility, the figure of the Migrant becomes the quintessential non-Native and is portrayed as being ‘out of place’. Mobility is not really the issue as people can be made into Migrants regardless of whether they have ever left the nationalised territory under question. What matters is the racist idea of ‘blood’ (now sanitised through terms like ‘indigeneity’ or ‘ancestorship’ or ‘genealogy’). Across the world of nation-states, disputes over land, water, jobs, voting rights, political office and more are being fought over who is and is not a National-Native.

We can see this in the politics of Britain First or America First. Britain First is a political party whose ‘principles’ include a commitment: ‘to preserving our British cultural heritage, traditions, customs and values.’ These, they believe are under threat by ‘immigrants’ (many of whom are, in fact, co-British citizens). Britain First views immigration to be the ‘colonisation of our homeland’, which weakens the Christian ‘foundation of our society and culture.’ A large part of Britain First’s activities appears to be ‘mosque invasions’ where, under the banner of ‘no more mosques’, ‘they confront imams and worshippers, insisting they accept copies of army-issue bibles.’

But it is not only on the far-right that we see such politics. The legal and/or social separation of National-Natives and Migrants animates deadly conflicts around the world from what is widely seen as the world’s latest genocide in Myanmar (formerly Burma) to one of the best-studied examples of recent genocides, the 1994 Rwanda genocide. In both nation-states, the violence is instituted by those constituting themselves as National-Natives fighting threats to ‘national society’ by ‘colonising Migrants.’ In less lethal but still highly consequential fashion, the nationalist politics of autochthony is evident in struggles over who is and is not a member of ‘Indigenous Nations’ in Canada and the US.

Yet, however much nationalists proclaim that whoever they see as their members are ‘equal,’ nowhere is this true. Nevertheless, the nationalist myth that, ‘we are all in it together’ remains the cross-class rationale for national sovereignty. Because there needs to be some reason that ‘we’ members of the ‘nation’ remain unequal, nationalisms rely on racism and sexism to mark those who are said to be the cause of all national miseries. Nationalists maintain that ‘we’ would all be well-off were it not for outsiders ruining ‘our nation’. This is what gives constant life to evermore vociferous anti-migrant policies.

Nandita Sharma is an activist scholar and Professor at the Sociology Department at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. She was invited to be a Benjamin Meaker Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Bristol in 2020 but postponed the position due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

You can purchase Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants through the publisher, Duke University Press, or through your local, independent bookseller. In the US, Bookshop is a good alternative to Amazon.

MMB good reads on race, nation and migration

A new blog series reframing thinking on movement and racism.

Introduced by Julia O’Connell Davidson and Bridget Anderson.

Not so long ago, many liberal thinkers in countries of the global north were comfortable narrating the story of liberal societies as a romance in which enlightened heroes gradually overcame the forces of barbarism. It was a tale with an emotionally satisfying ‘happily ever after’ ending. But over the past decade, a series of developments and events have seemingly broken with the ending foretold by this version of the story of liberalism. Rather than reflecting a vision of liberal democracies as having evolved into progressive, prosperous, tolerant, stable, unified and safe nations, news feeds in Europe and North America have increasingly presented a picture of chaos and division: neo-Nazis on the march, thousands of migrants and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean and Aegean, many more in squalid makeshift camps in Europe, children in cages at the US-Mexico border, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, dwindling trust in democratic institutions, the COVID-19 pandemic, the brutal police murder of George Floyd, and the list could go on.

Mural in Roma Sur, Mexico City (image: Alejandro Cartagena on Unsplash).

As a result, many Europeans and North Americans now have a sense that liberal democratic societies are ‘in crisis’. Race and migration figure prominently in political and media debate on this ‘crisis’, but the relationship between the two is contested. Indeed, the idea that popular and political anxieties about migration have anything to do with race is seen as controversial by mainstream thinkers. Those who make the connection are often said to be misrepresenting and seeking to suppress ‘legitimate concerns’ about migration, namely, the kind of concerns that led in 2019 to the European Commission vice president in charge of migration and skilled labour being given the job title ‘protecting our European way of life’. But the relationship is complicated, even for scholars and activists working on questions of migration and mobility who wish to address, rather than sidestep or deny it.

This series of MMB good reads on race, nation and migration features blog posts by the authors of books we believe can contribute to framing our thinking on the relationship between these subjects. It is not a complete or definitive reading list (we hope to add to it over time), but it highlights some works that:

  • theorise the centrality of racialised mobility controls to the current political order of nation states and their ‘people’ (Nandita Sharma, Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants [2020], Radhika Mongia, Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State [2018], Luke de Noronha, Deporting Black Britons: Portraits of Deportation to Jamaica [2020]);
  • explore the intersections of gender and race, and public and private, in the discourses and practices through which ‘citizens’ and ‘Others’ are produced (Rachel Humphris, Home-Land: Romanian Roma, Domestic Spaces and the State [2019], Denise Noble, Decolonizing and Feminizing Freedom: A Caribbean Genealogy [2020]);
  • remind us that histories of colonialism mean that in many cases ‘migrants’ were differently positioned in social hierarchies of class and race before they moved, and their differences move with them (Angelo Martins Junior, Moving Difference: Brazilians in London [2020]);
  • question the idea that there is anything novel about the current ‘crisis’ and associated articulations of racist anti-migrant sentiment and policy (Maya Goodfellow, Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats [2019], Nicholas De Genova, The Borders of ‘Europe’: Autonomy of Migration, Tactics of Bordering [2017], Nadine El-Enany, (B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire [2020]).

Our reading list also includes works that, even though they do not directly engage with migration, we think could help hone analyses of the relationship between race and migration, namely, the theoretical lens on racial liberalism provided by Charles Mills in Black Rights/White Wrongs (2017), and that on race, space, place and belonging offered by Nirmal Puwar in Space Invaders (2004).

We hope you’ll find the blogs, and the books, as illuminating as we do.

Julia O’Connell Davidson is Professor in Social Research in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. She is MMB’s Anti-Racism Strategic Lead and is currently leading the ERC-funded research project ‘Modern Marronage? The Pursuit and Practice of Freedom in the Contemporary World.’


Bridget Anderson is Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol and Director of MMB. She leads the online course Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship: The MMB Online Academy 2021.