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.