Law, Race and Brexit Britain

This blog was contributed by Devin Frank, a graduate of the School of Law at Birkbeck. He will soon be returning to the College as a PhD candidate and part-time seminar tutor.

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Credit: Cole Peters 2017.

On 15 May 2017 students and academics gathered for the launch of Birkbeck’s new research initiative, the Centre for Research on Race and Law, focusing on Law, Race and Brexit Britain.

After an introduction to the new Centre by the Acting Dean of the Law School, Dr Stewart Motha, and the co-director of the Centre, Dr Sarah Keenan, five speakers discussed how conceptions of race permeate law, politics and policy — not only in Britain, but across numerous jurisdictions.

At the heart of the discussion was an underlying paradox: conceptions of race and racism manifest through law, while law in itself is often a last defense against racism. Reflecting on my own experience working as a caseworker and paralegal, nowhere is this paradox more apparent than within the immigration systems of the Western world, particularly in the UK, US and Australia. Having endured the horrors of having to read and engage with Home Office refusal letters, it is abundantly clear that racism is not only tolerated within the diameters of immigration decision making, it is actively encouraged. When faced with a letter claiming that an individual’s immigration application is refused based on a legally accepted notion of race, the response of any lawyer is then to plead with the law, often in the form of an appeal or judicial review, to seek a legal remedy to the artificial and racist conception of law that allowed for injustice in the first place.

After Professor Patricia Tuitt, Executive Dean of the Law School, skillfully laid the foundation for considering how race and racism permeates all institutions, including that of law, the next four speakers showed how race matters in political discourse, immigration controls, EU trade policy and Brexit Britain. Tuitt’s opening talk had reminded us that the colonial dogma of race still infects the bureaucratic mechanisms of all aspects of society, including the university – a critique from which Birkbeck and the Law School are by no means immune.

Professor Gurminder Bhambra (University of Warwick) aptly highlighted the need to ‘get history right’ in order for concepts to have useful meanings — something that was an abysmal failure in the Brexit campaign. Bhambra began by examining the Brexit referendum data to debunk the myth that the Leave result was the resounding voice of ‘the left behind’ white working class. Rather, Bhambra showed that the vote to Leave was determined by property owners, pensioners, and well-off white middle class voters.

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The rhetoric of ‘taking back control’ lacks any kind of historical or political reality: Britain is not and never has been a nation, rather it is an imperial polity. British citizenship only came to refer primarily to people living in Britain in 1981, as this citizenship was formerly shared between Britain and its colonies. The British psychosis brought on by a fear of non-white migration goes to highlight the need for research initiatives such as the Centre for Research on Race and Law to further facilitate discussion based on sound research, with dignity and respect.

Following the EU referendum, it became all too common to ignore the underlining causes, divert attention away from blatant racism and xenophobia and pose a simpler question: ‘what about the economy?’. Professor Diamond Ashiagbor (Institute of Advanced Legal Studies) discussed the relationship between economic inequality, race and global trade in the context of ‘Empire 2.0’, encapsulated in Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox’s, plan to negotiate new trade deals with Commonwealth countries in order to compensate for the EU trade that will be lost with Brexit. Ashiagbor argued that leaving the EU against the backdrop of rewriting/forgetting histories of empire, migration and race will exacerbate the internal economic equalities caused by open markets and global trade.

Drawing on ideas stemming from the political economist Karl Polanyi, Ashiagbor argued that markets only work without destroying society if they are constrained, and if social redistribution is facilitated. Pre-Brexit, such constraints and redistribution were put in place by domestic British law and also by EU law. The irony of Brexit racism, Ashiagbor argued, is that much of the labour migration upon which Britain has relied and against which the Leave campaign rallied, has long been fuelled by European plunder of the rest of the world. The sense of ‘the left behind’ voting for Brexit fails to capture the reality that the industrialised working class (both white and non-white) in the UK has long been supported by extraction from colonised states. Only through the plunder of resources and exploitation of labour from the Global South has the UK been able to build its welfare state.

Professor Iyiola Solanke (University of Leeds) sought to address the question: what of the forgotten groups that will be affected by Brexit? In the news and within mainstream discussion many rightly pose the question: ‘what status will EU citizens have in the UK and what status will UK citizens have in Europe?’. While this is a pertinent question, Solanke noted that it fails to address the situation of third country nationals, such as spouses and family members of European citizens in the UK, and so-called ‘Zambrano families’ (those who care for EU/UK citizens). While it seems likely that predominately white men, coming from the United States and earning high incomes working in London’s financial centres will find the legal categories to remain in the UK regardless of the ultimate Brexit deal, the future status of black parents from Nigeria, Ghana and Jamaica currently in the UK caring for their British children is much more ominous.

Finally Dr. Nadine El-Enany, Senior Law Lecturer and Co-Director of Centre for Research on Race and Law spoke about the importance of taking critical race scholarship seriously. With explicitly racist far-right movements on the rise in many parts of the world (including but not limited to the Brexit and Trump victories), El-Enany argued that it is more important than ever for legal academics not only to offer analyses which critique the role of law in upholding racism, but also to be creative about the strategic use of law for immediate survival of the most vulnerable in society. Drawing Mari Matsuda’s work, El-Enany argued that we have much to learn from critical race feminists who have written about the need to be strategic in relation to law in order to survive in a structurally violent world.  El-Enany recounted that during her own PhD studies she was told that race was not a useful analytical concept for scholarship on migration law, and that her intellectual development and psyche were significantly hindered by this falsity for many years. The new research Centre will lead the way, and provide a much needed space, to support the study of the relationship between race and law.

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