Post by Eddie Bruce-Jones, Senior Lecturer in Law at Birkbeck School of Law, University of London.  Eddie also serves as Assistant Dean for Recruitment and Retention and Director of the LLM Qualifying Law Degree.  His research examines human rights theory, legal and political activism around race and migration, and comparative law. In this post Eddie writes about his first book, Race in the Shadow of Law, which examines the intellectual and legal-political work that Black-led anti-racism activism has done in trying to identify and combat institutional and structural racism in Germany. This study suggests that similar lines of reasoning can and should be raised across Europe.

In today’s Europe, a complicated set of historical and contemporary social currents, shapes social attitudes towards migrants and people of colour.  Intertwined with the language of universal humanism, there is the presumption that some people do not belong in or to Europe and, thus, do not qualify for the level of social or legal entitlements as those with ’proper’ claims to belonging.  If passports provide a type of legitimacy in the gate-keeping of European belonging, whiteness provides authentication.  This may seem an obvious generalisation, but it bears closer scrutiny because too often in Europe, discussing the racialization of difference is met with disbelief.  Race for many on the Left and the Right, is considered to be US relic, misapplied in the European context. 

My new book, Race in the Shadow of Law focuses on a single, specific European context, the German context, to highlight the usefulness of thinking about the hegemony of whiteness without blending out the specific local ways in which race is operationalised.  It explores social attitudes towards race, legal protections against racism, and particular ways that the state and, more specifically, policing practices reproduce societal racism. The book homes in on the responses of activists and writers from the Black community in Germany to reveal how the law is understood, constructed, engaged and critiqued from within the context of anti-racism work.

An important death-in-police-custody case is explored in two of the book’s central chapters.  In 2005, a Sierra Leonean man named Oury Jalloh, who was in the asylum system with temporary leave-to-remain status, burned to death in a police cell in the small city of Dessau.  The circumstances of his death remain unclear, more than a decade later, but not for a lack of trying to establish them. Jalloh’s friends and family in Dessau and beyond organised a legal team to represent their interests alongside the main prosecution and commissioned an independent autopsy. They would also go on to provide the motor behind years of litigation, through multiple appeals, alongside a strong public campaign to keep the spotlight on Jalloh’s death.  The burst of responses to his death by activists served a social educational function, which continues to be instructive in the German context—one that points out the deficiencies in the legal process in recognising institutional racism, and the correctives that can be attempted by non-legal means.  Jalloh’s case is one of several high-profile policing-related deaths of people of colour in Germany that has served as a significant anchoring point for political activism and social debate at the junction of racism, migration status and policing. 

The research for this book did not begin as an academic project, but as an activist intervention on the Jalloh case.  In 2008, I took on the voluntary role as a trial observer for the case of his death. The case occupies the central role in the book, illustrating the connections between race, law and activism in death-in-custody cases.  This is one explanation for why this book exists. 

Another begins earlier. When I was a university student in the United States in 2001, having traded my chemistry major for Afro-American Studies and Anthropology, I came upon Farbe bekennen (Showing Our Colours), a book on German history and politics written by Afro-German women with an emphasis on racism, sexism and the intersection of race, gender and nation.  I wrote my senior thesis on Afro-German literature, and it was clear to me that contemporary literature in its conventional sense shared a political space and social significance with songs and essays. I was impressed, for example, by the clarity with which Sisters Keepers, a music group composed of women of colour, depicted in their music video ‘Liebe und Verstand’ (‘Love and Understanding’) systematic racial police profiling in German society, echoing the 1995 song ‘Fremd im einegen Land’ (‘Stranger in One’s Own Country’) by Advanced Chemistry.  Commentary on race, racism and policing (and by extension, law more generally) by the Black community in Germany is not new, and activism on this front has taken many forms, including artistic and academic forms.  So in some ways, my involvement in this project has had a longer trajectory than the length of the Jalloh case, and the academic questions I ask about institutional racism cannot be disentangled from activist and literary ones.

This book is written with a focus on Black perspectives and experiences.  It is not self-explanatory why this approach was taken, so it is worth setting out why I did so in a few lines.  First, racism is not encountered or experienced in the same way by different groups or, indeed, different people within groups.  While this study does not intend to provide a fully comprehensive analysis of how racism works, it does attempt to give a detailed cross-section of how race, law and, policing intersect and how activists focusing on anti-Black racism negotiate this intersection.  This analysis had been generally missing in the literature.  Second, the book aims to link the intellectual and political anti-racism work of Black people in Germany with the questions of law to underscore the social and, indeed, legal utility of such work, even if it has not previously been understood as legal, per se.  Third, as I identify in the book as vitally important to this particular movement—my approach aims to commit the stories and experiences raised by Black people in Germany to institutional memory, within the discipline of law and within writings on policing, race and migration.  While the modest aims of this approach allow for only a very specific cross-section of European anti-racism work, it is necessary to pay close attention to the nuance of the variety of contexts across European countries in order to gain a deep understanding of racism in Europe. This nuance can be best achieved through interdisciplinary work, rather than an exclusive or unyielding commitment to the questions posed within a given discipline. In other words, looking forward, this is but one of many interdisciplinary studies that should comprise academic work on racism and activism in Europe. 

Note:  Race in the Shadow of Law was published in December 2016 by Routledge.  The book offers a critical legal analysis of European responses to institutional racism. It draws connections between contemporary legal knowledge practices and colonial systems of thought, arguing that many people of colour experience the law as a part of a racial problem, rather than a solution, to racial injustice. Based on a critical legal ethnography of anti-racism work in Europe, and with an emphasis on the German context, the book positions Black and anti-racist perspectives at the centre, rather than the margins, of critically thinking through the intersection of race and law. Combining this ethnography with comparative legal analysis, discourse analysis and critical race theory, the book develops a critical discussion of the European legal frameworks aimed at regulating racism, and particularly institutional racism, in policy and policing. In linking this critique to the transformative potential of social movements, however, it goes on to examine the strategic and creative possibility of disrupting conventional modes of engaging, and resisting, law.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Bruce-Jones, E. (2017) Race in the Shadow of Law: State Violence in Contemporary Europe. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/01/race-shadow-law (Accessed [date]).