Race and the Undeserving Poor: Response

This is my response to the commentaries graciously provided by Sara Salem, Naeem Inayatullah, Luke De Noronha, Rick Saull, and Lisa Tilley, who also organized the forum.

Sara’s contribution geographically extended my focus on British empire to an engagement with Dutch empire. I found it especially telling that her thoughts on the white-middle-class as the postcolonial container of the national subject implicated white degeneracy in the preservation of empire. My friend, artist Denise LeDeatte, wrote in her art-piece African Violet that the Achilles heel of white supremacy has always been white poverty. I find this observation even more telling after reading Sara’s exacting intervention. I wonder if it’s possible to develop a critique of white poverty that speaks across the diversity of European empires and their postcolonial legacies.

Naeem directed our attention towards the relationship (or not) between hierarchies of race and hierarchies of meritocracy. Naeem and David Blaney’s work on postcolonial political economy has been extremely important to me. What I am always struck by is their commitment to take the claims and logics of late eighteenth century moral philosophy deadly seriously in the formation of political economy critique. This commitment underwrites Naeem’s comments on my book. I think he is implicitly asking: where does it leave us, intellectually and politically, if it is indeed the case that race so exhaustively frames the most influential modern calculus of ethical concern? I provide a partial answer below.

Luke applied the deserving/undeserving distinction to mobility and settlement. I find his intervention arresting. Chapter four of my book focuses on post-war commonwealth migration and the problem, as e.g. Enoch Powell saw it, of settlement. Luke reminds us that the status of being “settled” is always dependent upon others having the status of “immigrant”. The history of settlement is never settled; deserving/undeserving distinctions are continually made through immigrant/settled dyads as much as – or, in intersection with – Black/white divides. Luke’s comments demonstrate the need to develop more capacious understandings of the ways in which sedimented demographics now (always did) structure the distinction between deserving and undeserving poor.

Rick drew attention to genealogies and trajectories of working class resistance against empire and racism. His critique focuses upon the need to account for the contradictions of working class agency when addressing the relationship between neoliberalism and far right forces. I’ll engage in more detail with Rick’s challenge below; but right now, I will just say that, to my mind, the urgency of his critique necessarily grates against the task of accumulating historical evidence, which is a core aim of my book. I can defend the reasons for writing the book as I did, but I can’t deny that his commentary is right to argue that the place in which my argument finishes injects an uncertainty into political action.

Lisa’s contribution is a beautifully understated yet profound critique of white feminism’s complicity in empire. I say understated because the level of her argument requires no grand protagonists to clarify the stakes at play. It is the “ordinary”, the “working class” woman who must – for right or wrong – comply or rebel against the preservation of imperial rule and its attendant racisms.  I think that, when it comes to intellectual work, it is this pitch of register and argument that will tilt the balance in the coming years rather than the high abstract, grand figure-style writing that comes more comfortably to the political economist’s pen. I do wonder where my book falls on this continuum.

All of these commentaries stand on their own as edifying contributions. All raise further questions about the contemporary articulation of race, class, gender and nation – at least as it pertains to Britain/Europe.  But I want to respond to three particular provocations.

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Race and the Undeserving Poor

I didn’t plan to write this book. After the Black Pacific, my next book was going to be on Ethiopianism and the gestation of a political tradition of anti-colonial anti-fascism during the inter-war period. June 23rd 2016 interrupted all that, and I wrote Race and the Undeserving Poor instead.

I don’t usually focus my narrations primarily on political domination. Those who have read a bit of my work might know that I am more invested in stories of creatively surviving besides, despite and over and against political domination. But I was deeply disturbed when right-wing demagogues used the return of the “deserving white working class” to push forward a deregulation agenda. I was almost as disturbed by the weaknesses in much (but not all) leftist argumentation, which compromised a clear and comprehensive confrontation of such demagoguery. I felt I had to contribute to a sharpening those critical tools – for myself as much as anyone else.

Not that sufficient tools and narratives haven’t already been crafted by prior generations of intellectuals and activists, especially in Britain and its imperial and postcolonial hinterlands. For example, it is impossible to talk about race and populism without recalling Stuart Hall. And it is – or rather should be – impossible to talk about class-and/as-race without talking about the intellectual activists who took over the Institute of Race Relations in the early 1970s. To be honest, part of the purpose in writing Race and the Undeserving Poor was to bring these existing traditions up-to-date for our current Brexit conjuncture. I started with a blog or two and over the course of a year it turned into the book, which I finished in December 2017.

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More Groundings

The final piece, and rejoinder, in The Disorder Of Things forum on The Black Pacific.


I have to say, I really didn’t know what to expect from my interlocutors. Perhaps that’s because I have little idea what kind of response to expect from the book and who its readership might be. In any case, these varied and passionate responses are a joy to engage with.

Heloise, you not only provide a lucid introduction to some of the key themes and provocations of my book; you also usefully connect its arguments to broader intellectual and political currents in the world of development, especially regarding indigenous struggles in and over the Americas. Olivia, you provide a striking engagement with the politics of intellectual investment, one that in many ways exceeds the strictures of my book to become a general mediation upon ethics and method. Ajay, you poetically and critically reflect on solidarity building across/besides territory and culture, and in so doing you begin to ask pertinent questions about “groundings” with reference to Turtle Island. Krishna, yours unfolds as a forceful defence of the urgency to focus intellectually upon the materiality of dispossession.

I’m going to engage with your response, Krishna, at some length. But firstly, I want to call attention to and amplify some of the questions that Olivia and Ajay ask.

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The Black Pacific: Thinking Besides the Subaltern

The first in a forum on Robbie’s recently released The Black Pacific: Anti-Colonial Struggles and Oceanic Connections (Bloomsbury, 2015). A number of commentaries will follow in the coming week.


May 1979. A Black theatre troupe from London called Keskidee, along with a RasTafari band called Ras Messengers, land at Auckland airport, Aotearoa New Zealand. They have been invited by activists to undertake a consciousness-raising arts tour of predominantly Māori and Pasifika communities. They are driven almost immediately to the very tip of the North Island. There, at a small hamlet called Te Hāpua, Keskidee and Ras Messengers are greeted by Ngati Kuri, the local people of the land. blk1An elder introduces his guests to the significance of the place where they now stand. Cape Reinga is nearby, where departing souls leap into the waters to find their way back to Hawaiki, the sublime homeland. The elder wants to explain to the visitors that, although they hold an auspicious provenance – the Queen of England lives amongst them in London – Ngāti Kuri live at ‘the spiritual departure place throughout the world’. The elder concludes with the traditional greeting of tātou tātou – ‘everyone being one people’. Rufus Collins, director of Keskidee, then responds on behalf of the visitors:

You talked of your ancestors, how they had taken part in our meeting, and I do agree with you because if it was not for them you would not be here. You talked of our ancestors, taking part and making a meeting some place and somewhere; the ancestors are meeting because we have met. I do agree with you.

But Collins also recalls the association made betweenblk2 the visitors and English royalty, and there he begs to differ: ‘we are here despite the Queen’. Then the Ras Messengers begin the chant that reroutes their provenance from the halls of Buckingham Palace to the highlands of Ethiopia: “Rastafari come from Mount Zion.”

This meeting is emblematic of the story that I tell of The Black Pacific wherein Maori and Pasifika struggles against land dispossession, settler colonialism and racism enfold within them the struggles of African peoples against slavery, (settler) colonialism and racism. Sociologically, historically and geographically speaking, these connections between colonized and postcolonized peoples appear to be extremely thin, almost ephemeral. But those who cultivate these connections know otherwise. How do they know?

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Black Academia 1.1 (update)

Last summer I uploaded a blog post called Black Academia, which outlined the state of staff and students of African heritage (which for the purposes of this blog I term as Black) in UK academia. This is what I concluded:

 Black students are over-represented in general, but especially – and perversely – in less prestigious institutions. They are significantly under-represented when it comes to high attainment and career progression.  Black academics are under-represented in general, and they are acutely under-represented at higher levels of management and leadership. … While academia has opened its doors, it has been unwilling or unable to dismantle the norms, networks, and practices that reproduce white, rich male privilege in the first place.

Just recently I looked at this year’s ECU Equality in higher education report (2014) with data from the 2012/13 academic year. For my previous post I used a lot of data from ECU’s 2013 report (from the 2011/12 academic year). I was curious as to what changes the statistics might reveal, over the course of a year. Obviously only so much can change within one year. But I was curious nonetheless. Here’s what I found.

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Reparations conference, 2014, at Queen Mary University of London, organized by Rastafari Movement UK

There are now slightly more Black people working in UK academia; and this, combined with a shrinkage in the total number of staff, has raised the percentage of Black workers from 2.10% (in the last ECU report) to 2.24%. However, in terms of UK-national staff, the percentage is almost exactly the same as last time: 1.75%. Out of the total population of Black staff, both UK-national and non-national and including “mixed” people who identify as such, 41.1% have a “Caribbean” background, and 51.0% have an “African” background, with the remainder categorised as “other” Black. These figures are also almost exactly the same as last time. (As was the case in the last blog I am only including data on the Black category and not including “mixed” where it is not broken down into more specifics).

At 3.3% of the UK population, Black people remain, then, under-represented in staff positions across the university system. In fact, the percentage of white staff has grown. Last time, I calculated that white staff were 84.27% of the working population of academia compared to 86% of the UK population as a whole. Now white staff are 88.6% of the working population in academia. Last time, I calculated that if Black staff were to be represented on the same equitable basis as white staff (who had a differential of .97 between general population and academic work force), then Black staff would have to make up 3.2% of the working population of academia instead of their actual 2.10%. This time round, the differential for white staff is 1.03. Hence, the equitable percentage of Black staff would need to be 3.39% instead of the current 2.24%. 

Black people now constitute 1.2% of UK-national academic professionals: that’s a rise from last time of 0.1%. Which I guess is better than a fall of 0.1%. Continue reading

More Notes for Discerning Travellers

A little while ago I wrote a blog, Notes on Europe and Europeans for the Discerning Traveller. It was a fictional travel guide, but with all points speaking to historical realities.

What is it about a certain “European” sensibility? Not all people who live in European countries have it, of course, but this sensibility seems to define in the main what it means to be essentially “European”). I want to ask: what is it about a sensibility that can never, ever, look at itself, for itself, and in relation to what it does to others?

We all know that the European enlightenment was supposed to be built upon the pillars of self-reflection and accountability in thought and politics. It is funny, then, that the “European” so rarely seemed to be able to hold him/herself to reflexive account especially over European colonial pasts.

It continues.

I swear, if I believed in such a cosmology called “Modernity” I’d be calling the “European” a backward, traditional native ensconced in his/her own culture, taking his/her particulars for mystical universals, and unable to look at him/herself in the mirror to start the process of socialization and “childhood development”.

But I don’t believe. So I’ll just have to call this sensibility by more mundane descriptions, such as un-reflexive, un-accountable, un-relational.

Example (twitter response to my Travel Notes blog): Continue reading

Notes on Europe and Europeans for the Discerning Traveller

Europe has the only classical tradition that is also considered modern.

Europe claimed Greece as its ancestor. But not anymore.

Europe once turned a Black god white.

Once upon a time Europe decided that it was a family of nations. This decision is commemorated as the beginning of international law.

Because indigenous peoples were not mentioned in a very old book, Europeans wondered if these peoples were human.

Some of the Europeans who cleared lands of their indigenous peoples liked to represent themselves as indigenous princesses.

Europeans once thought that if they left Europe they would degenerate. To this day they view their cousins over the seas with suspicion.

European scientists once found a way to break up human beings into a set of quantum parts.

Europe is proud of freeing itself from metaphorical chains.

Europe got rich out of African slavery. Then it freed the slaves.

Europe was so concerned with slavery that it colonized the African continent.

In Europe you can baptises yourself so as to be born again with a humanitarian soul.

Some of Europe’s top philosophers were bigots and racists, even for their own time.

Europeans were so fascinated with primitives that they created a space in the brain called the unconscious.

Europeans say that Unconscious bias is regrettable but that it doesn’t make a person bad.

Europe prefers to narrate its eras of global war as eras of “long peace”.

Europe once had a big war with itself when some Europeans started to practice in Europe what they had been practicing in their colonies.

Algeria was a part of Europe. But Algeria was not part of the pax-Europa.

Anyone can be European so long as you tell Europeans where you come from.

Europeans can only trust women who show their whole face. Exceptions apply.

Europe never said thank you to muslim scholars.

The Mediterranean is currently the deadliest sea crossing in the world

Europeans are experts on Africa, Asia and Oceania.

Europeans prefer to learn about Africa, Asia and Oceania from other Europeans.

Europe is the only cosmopolitan that is allowed to keep its own adjective.

Europe believes that if it wasn’t written down it didn’t happen.

Europeans like to write about themselves.

Only Europeans can know Europe.

Once Europe was narcissitic, but Europeans fixed that by turning the mirror into a window onto the world.