Post by Dominic Aitken, DPhil student in Criminology, University of Oxford. Dominic is researching responses to deaths in prisons and immigration removal centres. This is the first instalment of the themed series on the Border Criminologies September workshop on Race, Migration and Criminal Justice, offering an overview of the event. Subsequent posts summarise the main points from a selection of the presentations. The papers from this workshop will appear in 2017 in a book edited by Mary Bosworth, Alpa Parmar and Yolanda Vázquez and published by Oxford University Press.You can read the storify story of the #RaceMigCJ workshop here

Race is at once a scientifically discredited category and an important social one. Precise definition eludes us, but we know that race is entangled with a range of ideas about group membership, difference and nationhood, often surfacing in discussions about justice and citizenship. It’s no surprise, then, that when it comes to enforcing the law, we ask ourselves who gets criminalized and why some people are said to belong but not others. Both criminal justice and migration control are fertile ground for race construction. Arresting and imprisoning people are already socially permissible ways of ‘othering’ people. Such processes are sharpened by internally inclusive and externally exclusive concepts like race. Our recent Border Criminologies workshop on Race, Migration and Criminal Justice, organized by Alpa Parmar, Mary Bosworth and Yolanda Vázquez, began by inviting us to reflect on why and how race is socially constructed in criminal justice and migration control. Starting from the premise that order and borders are racialized, our discussions focused on conceptualizing race and uncovering how it works.

In everyday speech, ‘racism’ usually refers to prejudiced beliefs of individual people. Racism is about words and deeds, implying malign intent and distorted information. Racist attitudes are, in principle, amenable to rational persuasion, since spurious beliefs can surely be corrected by truthful ones. To call a person or practice ‘racist’ is to say they are wrong, factually and morally. Racist incidents allow a shameful legacy – long since defeated by decolonization, civil rights movements, and anti-discrimination legislation – to rear its ugly head.

To many race scholars, this account is incomplete in several ways. Its conception of race and racism is too narrow and individualistic. Viewing racism as a set of spurious propositions is only part of the story. There certainly is a psychological side to race and racism, as Yolanda Vázquez reminded us, pointing to studies on implicit bias and variable warmth towards different groups. That being said, race scholars broaden and deepen our conception of race and racism, focusing on how race is embedded in all forms of social relations – the economy, law, political institutions – produced and renewed over time.

Viewing race as a pervasive social phenomenon brings everyone into the fold, turning the spotlight on ‘whiteness’ as much as ‘Muslims’ or ‘young black men’. We now see that a white sexagenarian judge is also racialized, just as men are gendered and the wealthy are marked by social class. As Ana Aliverti’s paper on the construction of difference showed, some English Court of Appeal judges are adept at conferring racial status on others, making armchair speculations about the ‘cultural’ origins of domestic violence among foreign-born men, or purporting to know that a particular nationality explains women’s responses as victims. Such thinly substantiated claims imply that domestic violence is alien to a dominant national way of life, despite its existence in all societies. In a similar vein, tropes of Latino machismo and female hyper-vulnerability are often used as justifications for clampdowns on illegal migration between the US and Latin America, as Lirio Gutiérrez Rivera and Gabriella Sanchez suggested. This image is contrasted with a vision of wholesome American family life, as Jennifer Chacón and Tanya Golash-Boza pointed out. A routine association between migration and terrorism, race and threat, was also criticized by Hindpal Singh Bhui when discussing Muslim prisoners in England.     

If race is pervasive within societies, we naturally wonder to what extent it is an international phenomenon. Our workshop reflected this curiosity, with scholars from across the globe. Despite the obvious attractions of such a wide-ranging group, international scholarship brings some problems of its own. On the face of it, we are unlikely to discover a single theory of race linking Serbian politics (Sanja Milivojevic) to Indian Caste (Rimple Mehta) to Australian policing (Louise Boon-Kuo). After all, we cannot expect a scientifically spurious concept to lend itself to clear and consistent analysis. Even the very concept ‘race’ does not always translate easily, as scholars of Latin American reminded us, nor are the historical and institutional forms of race always easy to compare. However, the alienating effects of racialized law enforcement are common to practices as geographically distinct as US Fourth Amendment jurisprudence on unreasonable searches and seizures, and nationality checks of black British men in police custody, as Devon Carbado and Alpa Parmar suggested.

If we cannot pin down exactly what race is in different contexts, we are led to a set of different questions. How does race work? How is it produced, resisted and incorporated? What is its function? Whose interests does it serve? Race is not the product of a single source. Multiple factors interact to contribute to our sense of race. Taking the example of refugee law, Eddie Bruce-Jones’ presentation examined two different but related constructions of refugees, already a racialized group. One legal and narrowly technical construction of refugees focuses on the process of status determination, while a more popular, expansive notion of refugees construes them as numerous and never-ending. The idea of migrants as numbers and flows is also reflected in British border policing, validating a view of migrants as an undifferentiated mass rather than individual people with dignity and rights. As Ben Bowling commented, while the crime control side of criminal justice has been readily adopted in migration control, few of the protective civil liberties and due process traditions have followed. The concentration of law enforcement on particular races and places led some to refer to borders as adhesive, sticking with people wherever they go.     

Many participants noted that law enforcement is a particularly powerful instrument for the illusion of ‘racelessness’, given its publicly declared neutrality and low visibility application. This dual quality of theoretical objectivity and racialized practice helps sanitize the law, disguising how it works and weakening public scrutiny. The facts frequently confound this myth of equality when, for example, more than 90% of US deportations are of Latinos. Although we may think of law and order policies as the outcome of committed nativist activism by groups like the Minuteman Project, deportations and tough immigration policy are bi-partisan affairs, even if one side tends to be more vocal than the other. The zero-sum politics of crime and immigration continues, with devastating effects for minority groups whose lives are reducible to rhetoric. 

However we conceptualize race, we can be sure that it has not disappeared. A running theme of our discussions was race as something coded and disguised, translated into more comfortable idioms like nationality and culture. There is a methodological debate to be had about inferring what people are really saying based on them saying something else, but it seems unlikely to hear a white Brit complain about an influx of Antipodeans or being swamped by Danes. Within this more veiled racial language, racial hierarchies are normalized. Thousands of ethnic minority men and women languish for unknown periods in immigration detention centres where the innocuous concept of ‘diversity’ is celebrated, as Mary Bosworth discussed; posters showing a mass of refugees crossing into Slovenia are used as a reason for Britain to leave the EU; vans are piloted in certain communities to encourage illegal migrants to ‘go home’. Sometimes these are called out as dog-whistle politics because the message went a little too far. Political actors occasionally distance themselves after the fact if it goes wrong, not because the message was abhorrent, but because the medium was a bit blunt. The list goes on and things may yet get a lot worse, so what is to be done? The political agenda is hardly inspiring, but despair doesn’t help anyone. Conceptualizing race and understanding how it works is one important step towards a better politics of migration and criminal justice.

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