This is a guest post by Sarah Keenan, who is a Lecturer in Law at Birkbeck, University of London. Keenan is the author of Subversive Property: Law and the Production of Spaces of Belonging, as well as numerous articles in the fields of property law, critical race theory, gender and sexuality, migration, and the politics of Indigenous Australia.
Two summers ago, the British government announced that it would pass laws requiring landlords to evict tenants who do not hold valid visas. As part of her efforts to convince poor African migrants that ‘our streets are not paved with gold‘, then Home Secretary Theresa May planned to make it a criminal offence for landlords to rent to irregular migrants. This plan, which has since been implemented by the Immigration Act 2016, was part of May’s professed intention of intensifying the ‘hostile environment‘ for irregular migrants that her government had begun creating with the Immigration Act 2014. As the Church of England put it, the so-called ‘right to rent’ requirement creates a border in every street.
How do we understand such borders, which are at once invisible and real, intermittent and permanent; borders that operate by attaching to individual subjects wherever they go rather than bounding off a defined physical area; borders that are internal to the nation that has already been entered. In particular, how do we understand internal borders in Britain, a political entity that as Kojo Koram has argued, ‘has never really existed as a nation, it has only really functioned as an empire‘; an empire which once sought to extend its borders to encompass as much of the world as possible? As the empire crumbled, patterns of migration shifted from white British subjects moving out to colonise the world, to brown and black British subjects moving from resource-depleted home countries to the island motherland, seeking work and a better life. The British state responded to this arrival of non-white subjects with increasingly restrictive immigration laws which have the maintenance of white supremacy at their core. Immigration law has then combined with other areas of law to increasingly and literally restrict the physical space in which non-white subjects are able to safely exist on this island. Examining the hostile environment produced by the internal borders of the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts helps us to make sense of the means through which law produces racist landscapes in which material spatial boundaries exist for particular subjects and not others. Beginning with a brief discussion of how legal geography, critical race theory and critical disability studies assist in understanding the relationship between law, space and the human subject, I put forward the concept of ‘taking space with you’ as a way to understand the racist British landscape in which we live today.
Even commentators sympathetic to the aims of Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO) have been at pains to point out that the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes on the facade of Oriel College is not the most significant element of the campaign’s platform. Amia Srinivasan observes that ‘Neither the Cape Town nor the Oxford campaign has ever been just about statues.’ Amit Chaudhuri laments that ‘it would be…sad if Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford became identified with the statue in Oriel College alone’ because its ambition beyond the removal of the statue, namely that of decolonising education, is more significant. David Olusoga worries that by building their manifestos around calls for the taking down of statues, the more complex and worthy ideas around decolonisation raised by these campaigns have been ‘distorted into a simple right-wrong, yes-no statue debate’. I don’t disagree (much) with these views and indeed, if you want a right-wrong, yes-no answer, this essay will disappoint. But they beg the question of what statues mean and why we keep putting them up if they are so easily relegated to an epiphenomenal register of political discourse.
It’s worth remembering that RMFO itself has never downplayed the significance of the statue in the way that some of those writing in solidarity with it have done. It describes its mission as that of decolonising ‘the institutional structures and physical space in Oxford and beyond’ (emphasis mine) and lists as its first aim the intention to tackle ‘the plague of colonial iconography (in the form of statues, plaques and paintings) that seeks to whitewash and distort history’. In addition, it aims to reform the Eurocentric curricula to which university students continue to be subject and to address the under-representation and lack of welfare provision for black and minority ethnic staff and students at Oxford. One way to think about the place of the statue in this debate is to see it as a means to an end: as Srinivasan rightly notes, ‘complaints of structural racism and calls for curriculum reform don’t draw public attention like the toppling of a statue, and the RMF leaders know this.’ But while clarifying that its campaign is indeed ‘about more than a statue’, RMFO nonetheless insists that
statues and symbols matter; they are a means through which communities express their values. The normalised glorification of a man who for so many is a symbol of their historical oppression is a tacit admission that – as it stands – Oxford does not consider their history to be important. This is incompatible with a community that posits itself as progressive, enlightened and intellectually honest.
Without wanting to suggest that the success of RMFO should be judged by whether the statue falls or endures (it shouldn’t), I want to think with RMFO about what the expressive function of statues entails. Writing in a very different context, Judith Butler has famously worried that the relegation of injustices to the realm of the ‘merely cultural’ effectively downgrades the urgency with which they demand redress. For ‘merely cultural’ read ‘merely symbolic’, and the risk of disappearance of the demand for iconographic decolonisation (exactly what Oriel College might wish for) becomes obvious: if RMFO is about more than ‘just’ a statue and if we all agree that the statue is ‘merely symbolic’, then we might as well get beyond, behind, and beneath the symbol to address its putative ‘real’ while leaving the symbol itself intact. Meanwhile the possibility that the ‘merely symbolic’ has material consequences remains unexplored.