The CI Migration at the summer school on “Race, class and colonialism” in London : a good example of a successful dialog between science and society

On August 3rd and 4th 2022, two members of the French Colla­bo­ra­tive Insti­tute on Migra­tion (CI Migra­tion) attended the summer school on ‘Race, class and colo­nia­lism’, orga­nised by Connected Socio­lo­gies and The Socio­lo­gical Review at BSix College in London. Connected Socio­lo­gies proposes open-access resources to support the trans­for­ma­tion of socio­logy curri­cula in schools and Higher Educa­tion. The initia­tive is funded by The Socio­lo­gical Review, a peer-reviewed academic journal for critical socio­lo­gical thin­king and research in the UK and beyond. The 2‑day event brought toge­ther (PhD) students, profes­sors and acti­vists working on race, class and colo­nia­lism in contem­po­rary Britain. Brin­ging toge­ther different pers­pec­tives from academia and beyond, the summer school illus­trates what a succesful dialogue between social science and society could look like.

What is race ?

  • What makes someone belong to a certain race ? E.g. what characteristics ? 
  • How many races are there ? 
  • Can race change ? 

The session by Amit Singh and Squib Malik, initially desi­gned to start a conver­sa­tion about race in the class­room, built a star­ting point for the discus­sion and follo­wing sessions. We learned that racial cate­go­ries are complex and context specific, they are not logical. Race is a Euro­pean colo­nial construc­tion. There­fore, race and colo­nia­lism are related, since race has been used to exploit land and labour (Mignolo 2011). The neces­sity to expand the colo­nial rule played a crucial role in produ­cing racial categories.

A parti­ci­pant from Brazil gave an example to illus­trate the way race plays out diffe­rently in different contexts : In Brazil she is perceived as white, whereas in Britain she would be conceived as a person of colour. If we want to unders­tand race, racia­li­sa­tion is key. Refer­ring to Frantz Fanon’s famous essay Black skin, white masks (1967), Singh and Malik argued that he became ‘Black’ only when he went to Lyon for the first time. Fanon observed that while being in France he was made respon­sible for his race, his body and his ances­tors : one of the first obser­va­tions of racia­li­za­tion in social sciences.

Settler colo­nia­lism, borders and Migra­tion : Unders­tan­ding the US-Mexican border

The session by Debbie Sama­niego from the Univer­sity of Sussex was diving into the consti­tu­tion of US-Mexican border and its roots in colo­nial history. She showed how nowa­days borders have emerged histo­ri­cally and how the consti­tu­tion of racial cate­go­ries in the US, notably the cate­gory of ‘Latinos’, can be traced back until the period of Mexican-American war in 1846.

Settler colo­nia­lism is defined as the perma­nent occu­pa­tion of land. It is inhe­rently connected to the logic of elimi­na­tion and repla­ce­ment of indi­ge­nous popu­la­tions by settler popu­la­tions. It is a struc­ture rather than an event, since the colo­ni­zers never left. Many coun­tries have been founded based on settler colo­nia­lism, like Canada, the US, Australia and South Africa. Tactics of settler colo­nial expan­sion include the removal and contain­ment of indi­ge­nous popu­la­tion (e.g. the reser­va­tion system in the US), the elimi­na­tion of indi­ge­nous popu­la­tions (Dunbar Ortiz 2014) as well as assi­mi­la­tion stra­te­gies like the US ‘Indian’ boar­ding schools that removed indi­ge­nous chil­dren from their families.

During the Mexican-American war from 1846 to 1848, American forces managed to push Mexican forces to Mexico City. They arranged a treaty that ulti­ma­tely let Mexico to give up their former Northern terri­tory (see image below):

Sama­niego explained that whereas the “All of Mexico move­ment” during this period aimed to expand the slave economy until Mexico city, a majo­rity argued that the inclu­sion of Mexican terri­tory would pose problems, since Mexico had already aboli­shed slavery in 1826 and the incor­po­ra­tion of Mexican people, espe­cially indi­ge­nous and mixed popu­la­tions (mestizos) was contrary to the imagi­na­tion of the US as a white settler country, brin­ging settlers from different Euro­pean coun­tries toge­ther with the aim to homo­ge­nize and iden­tify as American whites. With the Treaty of Guade­loupe Hidalgo, all Mexican people remai­ning in ceded terri­tory must be granted US citi­zen­ship, but this process has been delated by 50 years. The Emer­gence of the US Immi­gra­tion Problem is related to the poli­cing of ‘illegal immi­gra­tion’ in the begin­ning of the 20th century. The US immi­gra­tion Commis­sion esta­bli­shed in 1907 created immi­gra­tion poli­cies based on racist theo­ries. In this context, between 1929 and 1939, 1,8 million American citi­zens of Mexican descend (granted citi­zen­ship by the Treaty of Guade­loupe Hidalgo) have been deported. The US govern­ment ignored the fact that they were citi­zens and tried to cate­go­rize them as ‘Indians’. This was the begin­ning of the use of the racial cate­gory ‘Latino’ that persists up to date. As this example and the expe­rience of racial profi­ling by persons of colour show, citi­zen­ship does not neces­sa­rily protect people.

Trump’s recent attempts to build a wall between Mexico and the US as well Ethnic Studies bans high­light a conti­nuity of the racia­li­za­tion of Latinex popu­la­tions in the United States.

Race or class ? Race and class ! The inter­t­wi­ning of different categories

Star­ting from ques­tions ‘What is class ? What deter­mines class posi­tions ? Is class a fixed posi­tion ?’, we concluded that there are not only three fixed class cate­go­ries (upper class – middle class – working class) but rather many cate­go­ries in-between. Class is not only about money, but also about symbolic and culture capital. Migra­tion complexi­fies the class ques­tion. As a ‘Black’ academic moving to Britain, you would suddenly be perceived as an unqua­li­fied worker. There is often a mismatch between how you see your­self and how others may see your­self. Empire is crucial to unders­tand class in the British context. Class and race are inter­t­wined ; there­fore, it is impor­tant to adopt an inter­sec­tional pers­pec­tive in our research and acti­vism to unders­tand the over­lap­ping of these different categories.

In Great Britain, there is an increa­sing atten­tion by policy, academia and media for so called ‘Left behind’ white working-class boys and a discourse, even if they would earn more and perform better at school than their coun­ter­parts from Black and PoC commu­ni­ties. Narayan (2019 : 961) points to the fact, that the emer­gence of this term is “linked with the racia­li­za­tion and destruc­tion of class soli­da­rity […] in pursuit of furthe­ring neoli­beral prero­ga­tives of marke­ti­za­tion, dere­gu­la­tion and profit maxi­mi­za­tion”. At the same time the discourse on the ‘white working-class’ served to legi­ti­mize the white majo­rity poli­tical action in the context of Brexit that might other­wise have been regarded as racist (see Bhambra 2017).

Racial capi­ta­lism and climate crisis

The inter­ven­tion of Lisa Tilley from SOAS London pointed to the notions of risk and vulne­ra­bi­lity in climate change. Climate change lite­ra­ture has shown that margi­na­lized commu­ni­ties in urban spaces and espe­cially working-class people from the Global South and people depen­ding on agri­cul­ture suffer the most from climate change effects. In fact, the people who contri­bute less to global emis­sions suffer most. Nether­the­less, the sepa­ra­tion of the Global North and the Global South is not always easy to make, since people of colour from working-class people are often the most vulne­rable, also in the Global North. Class and race are inter­t­wi­ning. Accor­ding to the Jamaican philo­so­pher Charles W. Mills (1997 : 3), racism is “a poli­tical system, a parti­cular power struc­ture of formal or informal rule, socioe­co­nomic privi­lege, and norms for the diffe­ren­tial distri­bu­tion of mate­rial wealth and oppor­tu­ni­ties, bene­fits and burdens, rights and duties”.

Racial capi­ta­lism has its roots in Euro­pean colo­nia­lism and is based on a constant diffe­ren­tia­tion of people. Colo­nia­lism has always been an ecolo­gical and socio­lo­gical project, longing for domi­na­tion. Colo­nial land expro­pria­tion is inherent in colo­nia­lism. For Cedric Robinson ‘racial capi­ta­lism’ is “the tendency of Euro­pean civi­li­za­tion through capi­ta­lism […] not to homo­ge­nize but to diffe­ren­tiate – to exag­ge­rate regional, subcul­tural and dialec­tical diffe­rences into ‘racial’ ones”.

Mono­cul­tures are destroying biodi­ver­sity and solu­tions have some­times created new problems. It is impor­tant to diffe­ren­tiate between produc­tion and consump­tion emis­sions and to break down indi­vi­dual country emis­sions : India’s produc­tions emis­sions are high in compa­rison to its consump­tion emis­sions per person. Mili­ta­ries contri­bute notably to global emis­sions ; there­fore, anti-mili­ta­rism is impor­tant to the climate fight.

Unders­tan­ding global power struc­tures by lear­ning about race, class and colo­nial continuities

We learned a lot about British colo­nial history, for example Indian inden­ture in the British Empire from 1834 to 1920, the Black Power move­ment in Britain, the inter­t­wi­ning of race, class and other struc­tural socio­lo­gical cate­go­ries and possi­bi­li­ties to open up conver­sa­tions about race, colo­nia­lism and class in class­rooms and beyond. Even if the British history has its speci­fi­ci­ties, as well as the French colo­nial history has its own, it is impor­tant to make connec­tions, change and widen our pers­pec­tives to decons­truct and unders­tand global power struc­tures, largely shaped by class and racial cate­go­ries that are related to conti­nui­ties of colonialism.

Text and photos by Laura Pioch, commu­ni­ca­tions officer at CI Migration.

Further readings :

Bhambra, Gurminder K. (2017): Brexit, Trump, and ‘metho­do­lo­gical white­ness’: On the misre­cog­ni­tion of race and class. In : The British journal of socio­logy 68 : 214–232.

Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne (2014): An indi­ge­nous peoples” history of the United States. Vol. 3. Beacon Press.

Fanon, Fanon (1967): Black skin, white masks. Grove press.

Mignolo, Walter D. (2011): Epis­temic diso­be­dience and the deco­lo­nial option : A mani­festo. Trans­mo­der­nity, 1(2): 3–23.

Mills, Charles W. (1997): The Racial Contract. Ithaca, NY : Cornell Univer­sity Press.

Narayan, John (2019): British Black Power : The anti-impe­ria­lism of poli­tical black­ness and the problem of nati­vist socia­lism. In : The Socio­lo­gical Review, 67 (5): 945–967.