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Transcript: Deporting Black Britons: Portraits of deportation to Jamaica

 

Paul Gilroy:

Hello, I'm Paul Gilroy, Director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the study of Racism and Racialisation at UCL. Our latest Short Takes podcast is provided by Luke de Noronha, author of Deporting Black Britons: Portraits of deportation to Jamaica, an amazing book. Luke's an academic and writer who has taught most recently at the University of Manchester, and it seems to me that this really rich and interesting ethnographic volume is the perfect way for us to kick-off Black History Month.


Luke de Noronha:

Deporting Black Britons: Portraits of deportation to Jamaica, it's a book based on years of research with deported people in Jamaica, as well as with their friends and families who remain in the UK.
 
For anti-racists, migrant rights activists, lawyers, and NGOs working in the UK, very little is known about what happens to people after they are deported. And while there have been some excellent post-deportation ethnographies in the North American context, there remains very little academic work with people deported from the UK. I wanted to think about British racism from the perspective of deported people, and so my approach was to meet people in Jamaica after they had been removed, and to ask them to tell me the story of their lives.

Importantly, my focus is on people who were deported after interacting with the criminal justice system, those who in UK policy are called ‘foreign criminals’ or ‘foreign offenders’. In my view, writing about ‘foreign criminals’ – those archetypal ‘bad migrants’ – requires more radical and interesting forms of critique. To understand the deportation of people with criminal records, we need to move beyond those liberal accounts that emphasise the victimhood and suffering of particular groups of migrants. Indeed, it is by recognising the connections between punitive criminal justice policies and aggressive immigration controls – between cages and walls – that we can develop a more expansive account of state racism.

More specifically, the book focuses on the lives of four individual men – Jason, Ricardo, Chris and Denico – who moved to the UK as children and spent roughly half their lives in the UK before they were deported. After the introduction, the first four chapters present individual, biographical portrait chapters of each of the four men, focusing in particular on how processes of racist criminalisation interact with processes of bordering in what I call multi-status Britain. I hope that these life story portraits capture the fullness and complexity of four people who have been subject to extraordinary forms of racist state violence. Together, the chapters provide a kind of portrait of Britain itself, in all its cruelty and injustice, but also in the quotidian ways in which people live with and across difference.
 
After the four portrait chapters, there is a chapter on how deportation impacts friends and family who remain in the UK. And then the final two chapters of the book are situated in and about Jamaica. Here, I am particularly interested in the relationship between racialisation and the government of mobility: who gets to move and how is part of how race gets made and remade. I go on to argue that citizenship does very similar work in the postcolonial world to that performed by ‘race’ under colonialism, that is, by fixing unequal populations in space and in law. 
 
Deporting Black Britons is an ethnography of deportation, and therefore an ethnography of separation, absence and exile. The book moves between different times and spaces, in the narratives of my interlocutors and in my own unquestioned mobility between the UK and Jamaica. It also moves across scales when analysing the relationship between racism and immigration control, from the very local to the global.
 
I hope this very brief overview of the book provides an invitation to read it, but I want to move away now from summarising the chapters and to engage in a brief discussion of the title of the book, which I think offers one way of thinking about where it sits and what it contributes to our collective understanding and shared struggles.
 
The book is called Deporting Black Britons. So firstly, why deportation? When any state deports people, it affirms the value of citizenship through negation. Those we deport are not us, and their expulsion confirms that we as citizens belong because, unlike them, we cannot be deported. Deportation also echoes that well-worn racist demand, heard on the streets, in classrooms, and at the bus stop, that we should ‘go back to our country’, to where we are really from. Deportation fulfils the dreams of repatriation that have circulated since the docking of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury. Put another way, expulsion, the practices of expulsion and the will to expel, are integral to the political and cultural imaginaries of racist Britain.

In this context, and for anti-racists in particular, looking at who is deported, how and why, offers important insights into how British racism is functioning, now, against whom, and with what effects. To understand racism then, we should focus not only on inequality within the polity, but on the ways in which people are legally and spatially expunged from it.

So, why Black Britons? Within academic and cultural conversations, the phrase 'black Britons' has been used to refer to different generations of black people living in Britain. The story we know and that we tell goes something like this: first came the Windrush generation, although we might acknowledge there have been black people in Britain for much longer. This generation experienced informal colour bars, and intense discrimination at work, in housing and welfare, and yet they remained hard-working, respectable, perhaps even docile. Then there were their children, the first generation born here. This second generation was the rebel generation, who lived in and through Thatcher’s Britain, and they were in revolt against the injustices of structural racism in the only country they had known. After this, the picture becomes less clear. Clearly, the third and fourth generations of black Britons are still violated by structural and institutional racism, but perhaps they are less politically organised. Of course, these generational shorthands are gross oversimplifications, part mythology, but my intervention when calling this book Deporting Black Britons is to say that if we want to understand where we are now, we need to turn to the border.

In other words, the anti-immigrant, racist politics of the last few decades has culminated in the hostile environment, and in the now routine banishment of black Britons, like the people that feature in this book. If we want to assess the situation for young black Britons today, we need to explore how questions over their belonging might be a legal as much as a cultural matter. We need to recognise that migration is not something that happened back then, but an ongoing process in which people continue to move, but they are illegalised and criminalised in different and new ways. Indeed, these struggles over movement and exclusion are precisely what reconfigures the racial and racist character of the British polity, today, as in earlier generations.

While anti-racists rightly rail against second-class citizenship for black and brown citizens, we should also ask who counts as a citizen in the first place? And while we fight against structural racism in schools, workplaces, healthcare and the criminal justice system, we should recognise that borders exclude people from accessing education, work, free healthcare, and fundamental rights in the first place.

What happens to our anti-racist politics when we centre those denied citizenship rights and those made vulnerable to deportation? How can the struggles of people excluded from political membership actively ‘unsettle the space of the political’?

Politicians and social commentators might imply that British society is being assaulted from without, but the outsiders are very much within the gates, and they have been for some time. The primary concern of anti-immigrant voices seems to be that Britain will become ‘unrecognisable’ to itself, and yet our hope must be that they are right – and that Britain’s multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-status realities will afford the country’s young people a different kind of anti-racist ‘common sense’ in the process of Britain’s remaking. This book is one small contribution to that end.