Race and the Undeserving Poor

I’ve just published a book with Agenda, called Race and the Undeserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit.

There’s a debate on the book at DisorderofThings, including an intro and a response by me. They are really excellent critical engagements with the book. The forum was organized by Lisa Tilley.

Cape Coast Castle

All the stone on the castle is painted white in the Cape Coast sun. When you re-emerge from the dungeon, even after only 5 minutes down there, the world will blind you. The dungeon is composed of three or so chambers. The large one –around 7 by 15 metres – is meant to hold a hundred men, easily. There are two slits high in the wall where a tiny amount of light drips through. And if you stand still enough, you’ll feel the faintest of breeze.

When it rains outside, the water spraying through the slits washes the faeces, urine and vomit down two drains chiselled into the stone floor. Otherwise, the kidnapped sit and lie in and amongst their filth. The floor is black, not stone grey. The black has been chemically tested. We are standing on the centuries old sedimentation of excrement that has irrevocably stained the stone. The middle passage begins in the rock of the continent, not on the waves of the Atlantic.

A subterranean passage leads from the dungeon to emerge just before the door-of-no-return. Thereafter that kidnapped will be deposited on the surf, by the waiting boats. After 1833 the dungeon entrance to the passage is bricked-up on orders of the governor. The passage behind remains. Abolition as a plastering over of horror; self-congratulations for good souls. A thin veil.


Immediately above the dungeon entrance stands the chapel. The floor of the chapel is the roof of the dungeon. Christians above chant praises to the white god as the captives below are condemned to his hell. When the congregation mumble their prayers, when they listen to the pastor, when they sing their psalms, do they discern the moans, cries, discussion, argument, chants, songs under their heels? Or does it all merge into the sound of breaking waves, a natural scape?

It can’t be so easy.

To the European sensibility nothing of much note can differentiate the captives from the peoples who surround the castle. Who trade food and provisions. Whose authorities meet with those of the castle. Who are servants in the castle. Who fish besides the castle. Who load the stumbling, blinded enslaved into small boats by the rocks. Those in the dungeon are not minority. Nor uncanny, nor phantasmagorical. They are quotidian – the majority.

What is the level of self-deception that is required to render a human being into a dumb animal? What is the psychic investment that you must make to hate those things who should not be talking like humans? You must deny to yourself even the most basic instinctive empathy, despite the evidence in front of your eyes. You must damn them to non-human hell. You must build a chapel on top of their heads to seal the investment. The beast is never buried. Theirs is a living sickness, an acquired taste that you must learn to enjoy.

20170325_122323 xxThe governor’s spacious living quarters are positioned above the chapel. Catching the best of the breeze, a panorama of blue, ending with the lookout hill. Can he smell the dung? Is incense lit regularly? What can he hear? Is it high enough?

Opposite the dungeon in a corner lies a door that leads immediately to another door that leads immediately to another door beyond which is a medium sized cell. There is no window, not even a slat. With just one door shut, the space is already sweltering. When all three doors lock, the tomb becomes a vacuum. The most rebellious of the enslaved are deposited here. The three doors shut and are not opened until two days later to release the corpse.

As you stand in the cell, attention is directed to the patterns on the floor. They are carved by the condemned. I see circles. Almost perfect circles. They must be carved with the iron of the shackles. The more I look, the more there are. I am standing on them. I don’t want to stand on them.  I feel the intimacy of the prison as an antechamber. Are they portals to the ancestors?  Or are they the Adinkrahene, the symbol of chieftancy and leadership? There is a commonly accepted story that only the strongest – the most rebellious – survived the Atlantic passage. I wonder if this is actually the case.

There is another chamber, quite far away from the chapel, at the end of the castle, just by the door of no return. It is where the women captives are stacked. When you condemn an animal to hell there must be some fleeting  recognition of its humanity. Is it better to not be recognized at all? Not even hell blesses the women. Albeit a special, cramped cell for those who refuse to be raped by the governor. There are no drainage channels cut into the stone floor of the women’s hold. Unlike the men, their faeces, urine and vomit mixes on the floor… and mixes… with menses too. No respite come the rain. Slavery was never supposed to reproduce the enslaved.


Just five metres away, and we are outside. The verso to the door of no return has been renamed the door of return. Looking back we are looking forward. The erasure of one word can reveal a whole cosmos. The enslaved are never dehumanised. Individuals, families, groups,  suffer the worst of dehumanisation. But the practice of humanity is woven into every community of fate. Neither is this purely a new world fabric. Africa bears witness from the beginning. Every retrieval is a creation.

Racism, multiculturalism and Brexit

I take it as a given (by polls) that the most influential reason why people voted  Brexit was not to restore British sovereignty in the abstract but more precisely to “take it back” in order to stop more of “them” coming over. I also take it as understood that  this statement does not infer that all who voted for Brexit  are racists. Structural racism does not make of every individual a racist but implicates every individual, variously, in the reproduction and/or contestation of racial structures.

I’m sorry I hard to start with Political Theory 101 and Political Reality 101 but I’m afraid that’s the quality of some of the responses to Brexit so far.

Glad that’s over with.

Because I want to move away from an analysis that puts the white English voter at stage-centre and key interlocutor of the Brexit drama. I haven’t got anything that’s too formulated; just some thoughts about the other kinds of relationalities in Britain’s postimperial and multicultural polity that are implicated in the referendum.

Let me give you two examples. They emerge from the fact that, while 73% of Black peoples voted to Remain – the HIGHEST % of any demographic parsed so far, some Black people voted Brexit and it doesn’t make them any less black for doing so.

I have heard solid and compelling anecdotes of Black people voting Brexit because, in their experience, white employers were preferring white (Eastern) Europeans to Black people. In other words, they felt that EU migration was eroding the tentative gains made against structural (and often anti-Black) racism in the UK.

I’ve also heard a number of people of African heritage in the UK talk about the opportunity that Brexit might give to a renewal of links with the Commonwealth. We might dismiss these ideas as post-traumatic-imperial-melancholy. But some of the arguments I have heard reference the UK’s effective abandoning of the Commonwealth with the European Communities Acct of 1972. And now they see an opportunity to focus back on the Commonwealth, especially regarding reparations for slavery, the ills of colonial rule, and the inequitable settlements at independence. Some even talk of a renewal of pan-Africanism through renewed commonwealth links.

In other words, these responses are parsing Brexit in some way shape and form through a postcolonial (global) justice framework.

Yesterday all this got me thinking back to one of the things that really shook me when I was living in Aotearoa New Zealand. It was this: government and society seemed intent on painting over the historical challenge of “biculturalism” with a gloss of “multiculturalism”. Let me explain.

The “bicultural” challenge is code for “reparations regarding settler colonialism”. More specifically, biculturalism emerges from a movement by Māori people to get their “partners” to honour the Treaty of Waitangi that was signed in 1840. Article 2 of that Treaty assures that Māori shall retain control over Māori things – including land, language, culture, etc. Through intensified Māori and Pasifika activism and struggles in the 70s and early 80s the bicultural model was to some extent “constitutionalised” in the Waitangi Tribunal process, which ultimately sought to repair – fiscally and otherwise – successive breaches to the Treaty by settler governments.

Yet, at the same time that this bicultural “settlement” was being crafted  in the mid 80s, NZ took a neoliberal turn (termed “Rogernomics”  after Finance Minister Roger Douglass of the 4th Labour government). Consequent to this “opening up” of the economy, different peoples started to move to and settle in Aotearoa NZ. Like many global population flows of the 1990s onwards, these peoples did NOT all travel the well-worn colonial/imperial routes.

Previously, those old routes facilitated the increasing arrival of Pasifika peoples post-war, for example. In fact, in the late 1960s and early 1970s many Māori and Pasifika activists were calling THIS movement “multicultural”. There lies a hidden conceptual history of a very different mobilization of the concept “multiculturalism” that does not place the white man as the foundational cosmopolitan.

But anyway, the 1990s saw the arrivals of peoples from especially China but also India, other South East Asian departure points, and, of course, small refugee populations. All this gave rise to a “new” kind of “multiculturalism”, buoyed by a paternalistic refugee industry, restaurants serving “kiwi hot” (not hot at all) South East Asian cuisine, internet cafes, flat whites and long blacks.

But what I distinctly remember is how many white New Zealanders – primarily from settler stock – preferred multiculturalism as a lifestyle over biculturalism as a responsibility. And from a political-economy perspective, because these new arrivants brought capital and skills (not just labour), multiculturalism promised far more easy access to and positioning within the global economy than biculturalism ever could. None of this, of course, has stopped a casual and occasionally not-so casual racism towards these new peoples.

Still, just how much Government structures have differentiated multiculturalism from biculturalism (read colonial legacies) can be gleaned by the fact that there is Te Puni Kōkiri (effectively, Ministry of Māori Affairs),  Ministry for Pacific Peoples, and then an Office of Ethnic Communities (for all other non-whites), part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Anyway, I remember one elder Māori activist tell me, bluntly, and with great concern, that Chinese were going to outbreed Māori. In fact, I think the % of Chinese living in NZ is now as great if not slightly greater than the indigenous population (around 15% – unless things have changed drastically).Racist you might say?

Perhaps. Or we could take the line that racism can only be an exercise of power, and indigenous people – similar to Black peoples in the West – do not hold that kind of structural power to make a structural difference on another group of people. Then this would count as xenophobia, or prejudice?

Again, perhaps. But I don’t think this was the intention. Really, this elder was conveying to me a deeper concern: how can you have a harmonious multicultural society that has been placed precariously upon a foundation that is out of skew because its colonial wrongs have never been righted? The ethical dilemma being communicated to me was actually this: how can Māori ensure the well-being of all those who live in their lands (their duty as tangata whenua) if they are not able to be meaningful partners – at least! – in the governance of those lands?

I want to return to Brexit UK. And think along similar lines, even though it is a very different context.

The struggles from the 60s onwards by “minority” peoples in the UK to a) address racism and racialized inequalities IN the place where they now live and b) confront postcolonial legacies in the points of departure  of their parents/grandparents: neither of these inter-linked struggles have been adequately resolved or sufficiently addressed. They are not history. These wrongs are living. And for some “minority” groups more than others.

Nonetheless, our multicultural make up is now composed significantly through migrations that are NOT from the old British imperial and commonwealth circuits. Some of these routes are from outside of Europe, but many – and increasingly half – are from inside the EU.

In  the last week the media has been awash with reports of quotidian and/or organized racism or xenophobia against Polish peoples, Jewish peoples, Muslim peoples, South Asian peoples, and Black and African peoples etc. In short, what we have right at this moment in time is a mini conflagration of racism and xenophobia. It was always there, of course, but it has now seen the light of day in an intensely political fashion.

How could a white English person tell a Pole and a Black person to fuck off back home, at the same time? Well, I would argue, that’s because of the one constant. English nationalism is necessarily postimperial and necessarily has a racialized – white – dimension to it.

In empire, Englishness assured that white people could differentiate themselves from the “darker” peoples of the colonies and dominions. They had to do this because by the late 19th century all were subjects to the British crown same way. So the racial-colonial division became articulated as English and/versus British. The Commonwealth always had and has its racial divisions codified as old and new members. And the “Anglosphere” still finds it hard to include within its reach the biggest national demographic of English speakers – India. Then there’s “expats” versus “migrants”.. etc etc.

Of course, when those who considered themselves British came to live in England – well that proximity was problem enough, and to all “classes”. But then when children grew up in England as, ostensibly “English”: all hell broke loose. Only in 1985 did the British government categorically disavow the eugenicist claim that the poor schooling of African-Caribbean children was due to the fact that they were educationally sub-normal.

So against this history it becomes clear just how seminal English nationalism is to the situation we are presently in. Even against other ostensibly white people, even “working-class” white people, it’s still the (post)imperially-crafted nature of English whiteness that is doing the talking, spitting, hitting.

That’s why I am convinced that ANY agitation to return public services and even meaningful jobs to areas hardest-hit by neoliberalism WILL fail if it does not unquestionably oppose racism and xenophobia. More, even: both agitation and opposition have to be intractably and organically connected. To my mind, English nationalism is the key faultline – from a cultural, political-economic and ideological point of view. Anyway you cut it.

But enough of the white English. What, now, of those Black peoples who I mentioned at the beginning? People who can’t so easily take succour in English nationalism, even if they and their parents were born in England?

I think this position resonates with that of the Māori elder I was talking about. It’s something to do with the sedementations of migrations and movements upon a base that was always skewed, wonky, uneven, fractured. Here’s how I visualise it: multiculturalism, placed on top of postcolonial racism, and then, in a granular way, falling partly into that base, while nonetheless keeping a somewhat defined stratum.

How to address this challenge? Ideally, I would say this: First we need to attend to the long-standing and deeply-entrenched colonial wrongs that continue to visit racialized inequality and discrimination upon “minority” peoples in the UK (some more than others). And second, after that is resolved, we could deal with the xenophobia that emanates from an English nationalism even towards EU migrants. For hopefully, by that point, English nationalism would be neutered and could no longer be either a lived identification or an instrument to be wielded by elites as they seek to divide and rule.

But that’s just abstract thinking. We live in a racially sedimented society (global formation, even), which, being unevenly laid, makes the layers intractably blurred: they can’t be neatly separated out in any kind of strategic or political sense.

So, thinking about this kaladescope of racism and xenophobia, of postcoloniality and multiculturalism, I want to take those Black peoples who voted for – or sympathised with – Brexit seriously. Even though I voted for Remain, no apologies!

What does that mean? Not too sure. I would like to know what you think. But I could say, at least, that for me it means cleaving to some small, albeit important principles, as we go forward from here.

  1. Every locality – whether regional, town, city, or intra-city – will have its specific ecology of this sedimentation that I am talking about. The political economy of the UK is complex when you get down to the level. There can be no abstract model to fit everywhere. Everywhere, the articualtion of colonial wrongs with multicultural xenophobias will be of a particular history and mix, and must be engaged with in light of those balances of forces.
  2. The point is, though,  that everywhere  they DO articulate. That means that we must push for the redressing of living colonial wrongs as we push against the demonization of non-EU (but not traditionally commonwealth) and EU migrants.
  3. That means that we should take care to keep our moral and political sensibilities fluid, while retaining fundamental pinciples. If a Black youth voted exit because she witnessed East Europeans were taking her jobs, we should not presume that she hates East Europeans. Perhaps she voted against white racist employees? In any case, the conversation has to begin from a recognition of the intersectionalities of race and xenophobia, colonial wrongs and multicultural prejudices. Nor a willful exclusion of either. Everything, all at once, necessarily in fluid hierarchies, but always in relation.
  4. Hence the terrain of struggle is not narrowly national, even though the intensity of the fall-out from Brexit is – at least at the moment. To be intersectional in the sense I am talking about here means that our arguments and actions, even if they take place mostly in the UK, have to be informed by a horizon that includes not just the UK and EU but also the Commonwealth (especially the brown and black commonwealth and under-wealth) and those places and peoples scarred by fifteen years of fallout of the war on terror fought by the UK and the EU, amongst others.



Struggling to Remember Slavery

23rd August is the UNESCO sanctioned International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and of its AbolitionImportantly, UNESCO begin their description of the event thus:

The night of 22 to 23 August 1791, in Santo Domingo (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic) saw the beginning of the uprising that would play a crucial role in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.

Abolition is usually remembered in terms of William Wilberforce, e.g., the “slaves” are freed by the sons of the slave master culture. But kudos to UNESCO for these first few lines because they bring to light a titanic struggle to remember abolition in terms of self-abolition authored by the enslaved.  For example, funding seems to be always readily available for a film on William Wilberforce. Yet despite some help from Hugo Chavez, Danny Glover has found it much harder to fund his film on Toussaint L’Ouverture.

I was in the audience at a Sussex University graduation when Richard Attenborough, conferring an honorary PhD on Dr Mamphela Ramphele, acknowledged the latter’s criticism of his film Cry Freedom. Ramphele, a founding Black Consciousness activist and friend of Steve Biko, had, back in the day, introduced white journalist Donald Woods (star of  Cry Freedom) to Biko.  Ramphele was a consultant to Attenborough during the shooting of Cry Freedom and  was adamant that a film on anti-apartheid should position the struggling oppressed as the main protagonists. Attenborough conceded that he did not believe a film would sell among Western audiences that had an African as the central hero. But how did he know that? Perhaps Attenborough did not have enough faith in the message he was narrating. In any case, just as the story of enslavement so often becomes a story of Wilberforce thinking about abolition,  so Attenborough’s film became a story of Donald Woods thinking about Biko.

Remembering slavery days in terms of creative survival, struggle, and self-liberation is itself a struggle against the cultural and institutional apparatus of colonial amnesia. In fact, this remembrance reveals an encoded message that to the masters of slavery culture must be left un-cyphered because it is DREDD. The message threatens to unravel all paternalism, supremacism and un-accountable “humanitarianism”: remember that  the oppressed have carried forth the torch of humanity despite the best opposition of the “civilized”; remember that the enslaved fundamentally liberated and are liberating themselves.

Without a vision the people will perishWhenever I have taught the Haitian Revolution to university students, there has always been a broad swell of interest, amazement and revelation. This is especially so amongst students with Afrikan heritage, those with various colonial heritages, but also among white-European/Western students. When we start the topic, I catch feelings of disorientation, then a bit of outrage (WHY didn’t we get taught this at school?) and then a sense of over-standing. Because as soon as it is remembered it becomes common sense that, yes, of course(!) those who are down-pressed will press back (in many different ways) and save themselves, sometimes with a little help from true friends. Once students are allowed to consider this, they feel a little bit more at home in their own world and in their own skin.

There are, though, many pitfalls in the struggle over remembrance. Can we remember that great triarchy – Toussaint, Dessalines and Christophe – and at the same time remember the militias who, when the three had worked out an accord with the French in 1802, refused to put down their arms and in fact forced the three to pick up their weapons again? While we marvel at the monumental palace of Sans-Souci, built by Christophe in the interior of Haiti, can we also remember Jean Baptiste Sans-Souci, one of the militia leaders, killed by Christoph, and whose bones lie somewhere in the vicinity of the palace? As we remember Dutty Boukman, the Muslim priest who presided over the Vodou ceremony at Bois Caiman that inaugurated the revolution around the 23rd August 1791, can we also remember Cecile Fatiman, the priestess who warned all present of the sacredness of the blood oath of victory or death (itself a victory over slavery)? Were not men and women forging the struggle in their own capacities and intensities? Can we rise to the challenge of remembering in fullness? Remembrance of this kind is active, not passive. And it is a fundamentally democratic impulse. Colonial amnesia seeks to make the public sphere complicit in genocide. Not the killing of bodies, but the killing of ancestors, stories, and spirits that might enliven the down-pressed of our own era.

Neither are the battle lines that are drawn over this remembrance simply black vs white. Colonial amnesia is a contagious disease. For example, here is what the official Malaysian tourist website says of the culture of Melaka (Malacca), ancient entrepot of South East Asia:

Melakan culture is a tapestry woven over six centuries of diverse ethnic customs, folklore and traditions. The harmonious co-existence of people of different cultures and religions inherited from centuries of multi-racial living has produced the fluid intermingling of the Malays, Chinese, Indians, Babas and Nyonyas, Portuguese, Chitty and the Eurasians. Each ethnic group adds to the pluralistic and ever changing society of the people of Melaka that is itself a group of diverse, friendly and hospitable people.

Here is a 1871 census from the British imperially controlled Straits Settlements (incorporating Melaka):

Europeans and Americans







….etc (at least 21 more categories of people – see below in comments. no one will be forgotten!)

Those Africans – forgotten by Malaysia Tourism Inc. – came mostly from the Indian Ocean slave trade. It was in existence before Europeans arrived, but was then dominated  by the Portuguese and subsequently the Dutch, and continued most probably into the 1860s in one clandestine form or another. The 1891 census mentions Africans too, but now under “other nationalities” – other to whom? Were there Toussaints, Dessalines, Christophes, San-Soucis, Boukmans and Fatimans in Melaka? There were certainly plantations; they operated differently in some ways to those of the Americas, but they were the same in many other ways. What happened to the memories of these struggles by the eastern rivers of Babylon? Who were the friends of the African enslaved (if any)? For there were other enslaved here too. What happened to their stories? Are they truly forgotten or, instead, not spoken? Are their descendants camouflaged… so well that the bodies that bear them don’t even realise? How far have they travelled? With whom? Are they feeling at home in their own world in their own skin? Who will remember?

Race, Class, and the Pan-African Congress in Manchester 1945

In a recent blog for Disorder of Things I talked about the tensions in much leftist thought when it comes to racial oppression and its relationship to class exploitation. I must admit, I constantly find myself frustrated by two counterveiling tendencies. On the one hand, the progressive and principled solidarity – especially at grassroots level – that predominantely white socialist/Marxist movements  have historically given to anti-colonial, anti-racist struggles and their peoples. On the other hand, a religious belief amongst socialist and Marxist theorists that class exploitation forms the core dynamic of social struggle, and that racial oppression is derivative of this struggle. I constantly find the unreflexive white privilige that is at the heart of this theoretical statement (regardless of whether individual non-white people believe in it) in serious contrast to the political record of many predominantly white socialist movements. I think it is naive at best to imagine that the end of capitalism will be the end of racism. But as Amical Cabral argues, theory is sharpened in struggle.  And those who inherit the struggle in various ways can do much to learn from those who have gone before and have had to do the sharpening.

So in this spirit, I am reproducing an address I found in the archives made by John McNair, General Secretary of the (UK) Independent Labour Party in Manchester 1945 to the Pan-African Congress organized by George Padmore, Peter Milliard and Kwame Nkrumah. 90 delegates from the African continent, the Caribbean and the UK attended, including an elderly WEB Dubois from the USA. Here are NcNair’s greetings:

“Comrades, I want to thank the Chairman and your committee for allowing me to interrupt in your programme. Unfortunately, I am rather in a hurry, but the reason for my hurry is not a personal inconvenience. I have promised to attend a meeting in London tonight in connection with the “Save Europe Now” Campaign, and it is because there are some millions of our white brothers in Europe facing starvation, I know that our black brothers will understand. We extend to our coloured brothers our warmest fraternal greetings. We can do no less. We wish to do more, because we as international socialists will never accept any form of national discrimination. We believe, with Lenin, that no nation is free which oppresses any other nation. We must remember that human liberty is absolutely indivisible. Wherever on the face of the earth, any human being suffers, we suffer with our brothers. Therefore, I want to say that in all your deliberations, you will have behind you the warmest support of our comrades in my particular organization …

In the first place, I would like to express to my comrades and friends that I reject the whole philosophic basis which assumes that we white people can give anything to our black brothers. I object to the whole basis on which this charitable (…) is built.

The debt which we white people owe to the coloured races is a debt which must and shall be paid. But the debt will take the greatest and noblest effort of the white people of the world. I say to my colleagues (coloured), the history of mankind is stained with the crimes perpetrated by white men against black, and I want to say that the English class, with the British Government behind it, is the greatest imperialist class of them all. I wish to say how delighted I was to find that in your letter to the Prime minister, you had included a number of constructive proposals.

[Regarding the West Indies] … as a white man, I look at your problem thus: you are first to win a battle for political independence. You will never win this battle by trusting the hypocrisy of British imperialists. British Imperialism has told you that we have gone to the Colonies in order to spread the light of Christianity and civilization, and in the next breath they say that Trade follows the Flag. The reason we wanted the colonies is because trade follows the flag, and trade for Britain is almost as profitable as war. Terribly profitable! There is the fundamental reason why the Colonies have been oppressed by British capitalism and British Imperialism.

When you have won the battle for political independence, I trust you will go on then towards the greater fight for social independence. This is your problem and I wish you the best of luck .

Before I close, I am going to paraphrase George Padmore. When George was replying to the North African Workers at a Conference in 1937, he told us then that the British colossus of capitalism and imperialism was standing with one foot on the bodies of the white workers and the other foot on the bodies of the black workers, and George said it was the duty of white and black workers to remember they were workers and give that mighty heave which would bring down the colossus and break it.”

The notes also record the following:

“Chairman (Dr. Milliard): The applause which Comrade McNair has received is evidence of the way in which you have received his address..”

Racism, Recession, Riots


A symposium held at Queen Mary, University of London, on March 14th 2012. Featured speakers: Devon Thomas, Stafford Scott, Lee Lawrence, Mark Thompson. Discussion covers historical comparisons of Brixton and Tottenham riots in 80s and August 2011 London riots; institutional racism; police discrimination and brutality; community leadership; economic and social policies; activism; youth violence; arts and poetry