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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.


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.


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.


Du Bois and Hall on Segregated Sociology

This post was contributed by Angela Howell, student in Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies. Angela attended the Birkbeck Social Sciences Week, “For a Sociological Reconstruction: W.E.B. Du Bois, Stuart Hall and Segregated Sociology” on Wednesday, June 17

Du-Bois-and-Hall-blog-webIntroductions to the evening’s event was given by Dr Yasmeen Narayan lecturer in Cultural and Postcolonial Studies, from the Department of Psychosocial Studies for the MA Culture, Diaspora and Ethnicity, Race Forum annual Lecture. Dr Narayan explained that the race forum at Birkbeck is a public space which holds discussions on ‘race’, ‘racism’, class, sexuality, multicultural and postcoloniality and stated that one of the aims of the department in her words is ‘to bring students and academics from different disciplines and institutions together, with others from outside the academy to discuss histories and legacies of empires’. As well as seeking to address how local debates on ‘race’ and ‘racism’ are shaped by the global geopolitics of the 21st Century.

Dr Narayan’s introduction of Professor Les Back

When introducing the guest speaker Professor Les Back, Professor of Sociology at Goldsmith College, University of London, Dr Narayan detailed his written contributions as:

  • ‘The Sociology of Racism’.
  • ‘Popular Culture’.
  • ‘Multicultural’.
  • ‘Music and Sound Studies’.
  • ‘Urban Life’.
  • ‘Social Theory’.
  • ‘Sociological Methods’.

Also giving us insight into the many books written by Professor Back such as:

  • The Art of Listening
  • The Auditory Cultures Reader, with Michael Bull
  • Out of Whiteness, with Ron Ware
  • The Changing Face of Football, with Tim Crab and John Solomos
  • New Ethnicities and Urban Culture
  • Race Politics and Social Change with John Solomos

Dr Narayan offered her gratitude to Professor Back for his consistent work in postcolonial Culture Studies and British Cultural Studies.   Also for his outspokenness not only on historical moments such as in days following the murder of Mark Duggan, the war on Gaza, and the silent code that governs academic life. She also took time to thank the coordinators of the event.

Professor Back Speaks

Opening with his connection with Birkbeck, Professor Back informed the audience that his first position in academia was at Birkbeck, for that he is still extremely grateful.

Moving on to the presentation itself, Professor Back began by stating that he always felt the need to check his privilege as a ‘white professor’ when speaking about ‘race’ and ‘racism’, with the narrowing of the sociological imagination. Which he felt has a radicalised dimension with new forms of academic writing being colonialized by white semantics norms in universities. Which he felt was a storm brewing with a limit point about to be reached.

Professor Back then referred back to Dr Narayan on her writing about black feminism scholars such as herself and racialized expectations of each. Citing ‘Why Is My Curriculum So White’ by Nathan Richards, which documents the underrepresentation of people of colour inside universities.

In revisiting the tradition of important writers, Professor Back offered a possibility to rethink history and its tradition, in particular by looking to Du Bois as an illustration and the connection with Stuart Hall. Here he explained his interest in Du Bois and Hall, as both being developed critics within the limits of sociology. Also stating that both men argued that slavery, empire and racism were integral to understanding the US and UK social formation. Both were open to articulation of gender and sexuality and both operated in a wider mode of writing and telling about society.

Discussion on W.E.B. Du Bois

Du Bois was born on the 23rd February 1868, and died on 27th August 1963 – which happened to be the eve of the first civil march on Washington. He has had an incredible influence on what is now American sociology. Writing close to 2000 biologically texts, Du Bois’ work spanned an incredible range of genres, which included novels, social history, poetry, pamphlets and newspaper articles.

Du Bois would speak about the problems he thought were most pressing to society. He graduated in History from Harvard 1890 and also studied at the University of Birmingham from 1892-4. Receiving a Doctorate from Harvard in 1896, making him the first black person to do so. His Harvard commencement speech was on the topic of slavery using the figure of Jefferson Davies the President of the Confederate States. The Nation Magazine reporting on his speech stated that Du Bois spoke with ‘absolute good taste, great moderation and almost contemptuous fairness’.

Also in the same year Du Bois would work on his historic book ‘The Philadelphia Negro’ published in 1899. This study by Du Bois was met with acclaim and a fare amount of disquiet from white reviewers. It detailed the experience of African Americans at the end of the 19th Century, showing how their lives were structured by ‘racism’. In essence, providing a blueprint for what American Urban Sociology would become.

When moving to the University of Atlanta, Du Bois undertook sociological research spanning more than 18 years, including the writing of two autobiographies. Du Bois we are told wanted to broaden the study, sharpen the tools of investigation and perfect the method of work, to give a scientific fact rather than a vague mass of so called ‘Negro problems. Du Bois hoped to make the laws of social living clearer, surer and more definite. Feeling that world wanted to learn the truth and felt the world would support his effort. Professor Back gave us an insight to his commitment to social science.

Professor Back goes on to relay to audience the story of Sam Hose, which would make Du Bois realise the height of white supremacy at the time and bring him to a turning point. Sam Hose was accused of killing a white farmer his employer and attacking his wife, without trial. Sam Hose would be lynched and his knuckles placed on public display.

This event would change Du Bois’ thinking on the limits of politics of this type of research, including his writing of the realities of black lives, leading to the publication of ‘The Souls of Black Folk’. Published in 1903, multi-voiced quality and situated across a variety of genres combining history, fiction, sociology and autobiography. When reflecting on the death of his son, Du Bois expressed a feeling of gladness. Noting that his son had been spared the life constrained by the vales of colour and the legacy of the Jim Crow racial caste system.

Discussion on Stuart Hall

Hall was born on 25th December 1929, and died on the 10th February 2014. A tribute by Professor Henry Louis Gates Jnr stated that Hall was ‘the Du Bois of Britain’. Although belonging to different historical moments they both had the ability to discuss ‘race’ in a compelling way, often noting its ambiguous relationship with sociological tradition.

Hall left his homeland of Jamaica and came to Britain in 1951 on a Rhodes Scholarship to attend Merton College, Oxford. Although not completing his Doctorate, he stayed to make his life in Britain; here we are informed that Hall never completely felt at home.

Professor of Sociology at the Open University until his retirement in 2002, and recognised as a culture figure, Hall made sociology TV programmes on the nature of British culture. Which is captured particularly well in ‘The Stuart Hall Project’ documentary screened during Social Sciences Week. Hall, we were told, never considered himself as a Sociologist.

Writing the essay ‘Letters for New Left’, Hall first had a dialogue with Stewart Wright Mills (the letter was found later by Maggie Tate). Professor Back relays to us the contents of the interview with Stuart Hall in which they discussed the issues of ‘race’ and ‘racism’ in the contexts of Britain and the United States. During the interview, Hall discussion focused on ‘racism’, skin colour, how they mattered and who are classed as ‘others’? The discussion led to the roots of ‘racism’, equal opportunities and legal defences of people’s rights, in which Hall stated ‘that Britain will never again be a humongous monoculture society’.

Professor Back discussed the tools and resources that would be required to embrace the change. At the end of the conversation Hall discussed ‘bending the twig’, stating that the ‘twig’ needed to bent in the direction of understanding the full outcome of the new phrase, ‘difference’.


Professor Back ended the lecture by stating that both Hall and Du Bois offered an opportunity to expand a sense of sociology – politically and aesthetically – with Du Bois writing a way of doing sociology differently, and Hall’s approach being directly opposed to what passes as sociology today.

Professor Back made his feelings clear that Hall today would not be hired by a American Sociology Department. Here noting the narrowing that he began with and citing the work of Patricia Hall Collins dealing with slavery, as Hall’s difference mentioned in his interview. In conclusion Professor Back left us with the fact that sociological segregation weakens the field.

The floor was then opened to the audience for questions.

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A quiet anniversary? Reviewing the Race Relations Act 1965

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer for Birkbeck, University of London

Race-Relations-Act-webIt has been 50 years since the initial Race Relations Act was introduced in the UK. But despite progress being made in the fight against race-related discrimination since the 1965 Act came into play, many argue there is still a long road ahead before true race equality is reached.

A fascinating evening of discussion and debate around the Race Relation Acts of 1965, ’68 and ’76 as well as more recent legislation in 2003 and 2010 was held at Birkbeck’s Malet Street Building on Tuesday, June 19 as part of Social Sciences Week.

Run by the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism in collaboration with JCORE, the event brought together top thinkers in the field of race relations to review the historical context of the Acts, to explore the current landscape, and to consider the implications for the future.

Following introductory speeches by Professor David Feldman and Dr Edie Friedman, presentations were led by Dr Camilla Schofield from University of East Anglia, Dr Anastasia Vakulenko from the University of Birmingham and Dr Omar Khan of the Runnymede Trust.

“A quiet anniversary”

Dr Camilla Schofield spoke about the history of race relations, and the Race Relations Act, focusing in particular on the initial 1965 and 1968 Acts.

The 1965 Act, she explained, represented in many ways a radical break from the passivity of the UK legal system, but she noted that many anti-racist groups and activists felt the Act was not strong enough to challenge racial discrimination in a meaningful way.

For instance, of the 327 complaints made to the Race Relations Board between 1966 and 1968, 238 cases were considered to be outside its jurisdiction. As such, the Act was considered by many as a process of pacification, rather than criminal sanction.

While the 1968 Act extended the law to recognise private discrimination in employment, housing, credit and insurance, still it – like its predecessor – was not considered powerful enough, and was certainly not heralded as a triumph of the Left. This in part, Schofield explained, is perhaps why the 50th is such “a quiet anniversary”.

However, she made a case for reinvigorating interest in the Acts, and highlighted the importance of not considering them as outright failures. There is room, she said, “to tell their history from the bottom up”, by focusing on the experiences of the volunteers and officials who have been involved in the enforcement of the Acts, such as members of local conciliation committees. This would not be “a radical history”, she said, “but one of everyday lives”.

Muslims and Jews: “A fragmented picture”

Looking further on than the ’65 and ’68 Acts, Dr Anastasia Vakulenko discussed the historical perspective of the Race Relations Act with regards to Muslim and Jewish communities.

While the third iteration – the 1976 Act – was superseded by the Equality Act of 2010, Dr Vakulenko explained that many Muslims and Jews still feel they could be protected better under the law.

In the beginning of this journey, five decades ago, these groups were not at the top of the agenda, she explained. Their complexities in terms of self-identification, which run across cultural and religious boundaries, meant in many cases it was not easy to bring any discrimination cases to tribunal.

Fitting themselves to discrimination law was very difficult. Until 2003 for example, Jews could only make a case for discrimination on grounds of race, not religion. However, Dr Vakulenko noted, they were at least able to benefit from the Race Relations Act at a time when religious discrimination wasn’t recognised in law. Muslims, on the other hand, could only benefit indirectly, when the act of discrimination impacted on the individual on grounds of race e.g. if he or she was Muslim and Asian.

Through the latter half of her presentation, Dr Vakulenko cited recent cases which highlight the ongoing complexities in UK race relations and the responses of the legal system, such as that of 15-year-old Shabina Begum’s unsuccessful High Court battle to wear an ankle-length jibab gown in school; and the 2009 Jewish Free School case in which the school was ruled as guilty of having discriminated against a pupil who was not considered by the orthodox religious authorities to be authentically Jewish.

Looking at the current landscape, Dr Vakulenko said she saw a fragmented picture, in which Jewish and Muslim communities often see themselves as the most aggrieved minorities: with Muslims having to challenge discriminatory perceptions of being “radical extremists”; while Jews are tackling the image that, en masse, they are supporters of an “apartheid state”.

The challenge, then, is for these two communities to avoid falling into partisan political traps so that they may find a common ground and a stronger allied voice against discrimination.

“Do we need more legislation?”

Bringing the presentations to a close, Dr Omar Khan discussed the state of play for racial equality in the 21st Century.

Speaking from his position within the UK’s leading independent race equality thinktank, he explained why he believes it is misguided to think that we live in a “post racial society”. Rather, he finds there are considerable challenges to surmount before race equality can be reached:

  • The challenge of analysis – a difficult task when we consider that the nature of ethnic equalities always vary
  • The challenge of mobilisation/activism – given the relatively small population of each ethnic community, there is still a major need to bring them together in a sustainable way
  • The challenge of policy – without robust data collection, we can’t know the effectiveness of government policies on race equality.

Offering a new way to frame this argument, Dr Khan asked the question: ‘Do we still need further legislation in Britain, or is it about finding better ways to enforce the legislation that is in place?’

“Racism has not gone away,” Dr Khan told the audience. “It’s time to come together on a common platform in Britain”.

Without better enforcement and a wider, more honest debate on race equality, he added, it could be 50 or even 100 years before we can come close to being a ‘post-race society’.

Off the agenda?

Following the presentations, the speakers gathered together to field questions from the audience. Topics arising included the emergence of UKIP; whether race has fallen off the political and activist agenda; and how the Race Relations and Equalities Acts impact upon schools.

Dr Friedman offered some closing comments, noting that it is important not to forget the Race Relations Acts. Instead, they should be considered important milestones that should be followed up, to make sure that we continue working towards creating a society what we all want to live in.

Agreeing with those thoughts, Professor Feldman added that “what is needed is more enforcement and more mobilisation, as well as more research”.

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Exploring race, racism and international development

This post was contributed by Anna Marry, Communications Manager, London International Development Centre (LIDC) .  

Race, Racism and Development book cover

Race, racism and development book cover

Contesting what is often taken for granted in international development is important, but rare. That’s why I found this book launch for Race, racism and development very refreshing and different.It was also a truly intercollegiate event on a truly interdisciplinary topic.

On 29 January 2013 the London International Development Centre (LIDC), a consortium of the five Bloomsbury Colleges, and Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies organised a book launch  for Race, racism and development: Interrogating history, discourse and practice (Zed Books) by Dr Kalpana Wilson, Visiting Lecturer at Birkbeck and LSE Fellow in Gender Theory, Globalisation and Development. The event was hosted by the Institute of Education (IOE) and chaired by Dr Parvathi Rahman from the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at SOAS, with Firoze Manji, CODESRIA(Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa), as discussant.

Kalpana Wilson’s motif for writing the book was a silence she observed about race in international development discourse, what she called ‘the whiteness of development’ – white experts talking about what should be done. Rather than simply advocating measures to change the personnel of development institutions, Kalpana set out to examine questions of structural racism in development. She was interested in how ideas of race legitimise certain power relations, looking both at history (e.g. the anti-colonial movement in India) and the present, for instance the war on terror. Kalpana’s focus in writing the book was on how ideas get incorporated and transformed in public narratives of race. Recently we can observe what she refers to as the ‘racialisation of hunger’ – poverty and hunger are essentially associated with Asia and Africa, both with respect to material relations and representation.

Gender is important too. Not so long ago ‘Third World’ women were pictured as helpless and needing to be saved. Now that image has changed, they are finally seen as agents, but to the other extreme, as  entrepreneurial, hard-working and altruistic to the point of being superhuman. And yet the idea of political agency is still associated with the global North.

Firoze Manji, in his discussant’s comments, described development as a sophisticated euphemism that Kaplana deconstructs and links to other ‘forbidden’ words like racism and liberalism. There is no such thing as poverty, claimed Manji, only impoverishment, and this is what we call ‘development’ . ‘Development’ is in fact about exploiting the South, with NGOs playing the role of new colonisers. Kalpana also takes apart what Manji referred to as ‘the pornography of development’, portraying the developing world in a pessimistic, exaggerated way that is meant to shock. Manji argued that in a post-colonial, globalised world we are now experiencing a shift in defining who we are and who the ‘other’ is, but it is nevertheless useful to keep the colonial past fresh in our minds.

The lively discussion that followed raised issues about Marxism; the idea of the innocent, unspoilt South that needs to be saved; gender; the deserving and undeserving poor; the racialisation of corruption,; and the need to delegitimise the NGOs.

This event was different in a very refreshing way. It provided an open platform for examining and contesting what is often taken for granted in international development. It allowed radical ideas to be expressed and engaged with. I was talking to a SOAS student of Development Studies over a drink after the presentations, who said: “At SOAS we learn how to be critical of governments and international organisations. But this is new – that NGOs can also be a destructive power in international development.”

Whether that statement is true or not depends on one’s perspective, but one thing is certain – the event revealed a new dimension and a new way of thinking about international development. And that’s always a good thing.