Umut Erel, Karim Murji and Zaki Nahaboo offer three ways of looking at racism and migration

Donald Trump’s portrayal of Mexican migrants as criminals and Nigel Farage’s endorsement of a Brexit campaign poster, arguably reminiscent of 1930s Nazi propaganda, suggests that nothing has changed since the early 20th century in the way that race and immigration are linked. Calls for restricting immigration, underpinned by the racially charged motif of ‘taking back control’, secured the victories of Donald Trump and the Brexit campaign. Virulent anti-immigrant campaigns continue to be waged against those classed as other to ‘native’ white populations across Europe. After all, a US-Mexico border wall and an end to EU freedom of movement to Britain not only affect the explicitly intended targets. Right wing populism has intensified hostility towards all those who are racialized, whether they hold a secure citizenship or not. This means that we need to think beyond racism and migration in terms of the spatial movement of people. Rather, viewing migration through a ‘racialization’ lens indicates that it is an effect of how individuals are hierarchically distributed; one can forever be an immigrant of the nth generation, despite holding national citizenship from birth. Yet differences in citizenship status also make the relation between race and migration more complex: for example recent refugees from conflict in the Middle East have very different formal rights from EU citizens, regardless of their ethnicity.

The complex relations between race and migration suggest the need for a more careful analysis. Looking more closely at the ways race and migration are connected in scholarly research as well as policy shows that there are several different ways that the relationship is imagined. Here we offer three frames which can help to better understand different, at times overlapping, and contradictory ways in which a race-migration nexus is constructed in public, political, academic and everyday debates. These frames are not mutually exclusive. The purpose of delineating them is to facilitate a clearer understanding of how relationships between race and migration are made to work, and their political stakes.

Nexus 1: Continuities of racism across time

As suggested already, one of the main ways of understanding the relationship between race and migration is by emphasising the continuities of experience between those who migrated then and now. This stresses continuity between recent political debates and ones from the 1950s onwards to advance the view that racism is still an important aspect of contemporary migration discourses, even if the groups targeted and some of the issues have altered. It also suggests that the status of racially subjugated citizens, from the former colonies but long settled in Europe, can be compared to the position of newer groups even though they have a different citizenship status.

During the early post-war years, European and New Commonwealth migrant workers were recruited to fill gaps in Britain’s labour market. Unlike arrivals from the New Commonwealth, European migrants’ conditional immigration status marked them as Other. Despite this, their categorization as white rendered them desirable immigrants in the eyes of government and employers. It was only from the 1960s onwards that increasingly stringent immigration controls were introduced to regulate the arrival of New Commonwealth citizens. The ‘multi-racial family’ of the Commonwealth became reconceived as a ‘domestic’ problem of ‘multi-racial’ Britain (See Webster 2005). A stratification of immigrants prevailed between white and non-white, and also within these categories.

A key theme in such research is how post-war racialization continues to to be produced through contemporary migration regimes. It highlights the continuity of racially selective migration policies, such as how migration legislation of the post-war period restricted the entry of Black commonwealth citizens, while largely continuing to allow white migration through the Patriality Act (1968). A parallel here is how the current British points-based system indirectly favours EU ‘(European, White, Christian) entrants’. Such an approach draws attention to the institutional racism of EU migration policy in creating or reinforcing classed and racialized occupational pathways for new migrants. Migrants from outside the EU for instance, get disproportionally channelled into lower paid jobs. Those with EU citizenship can be subjected to similar, if not more severe forms of marginalization. The example of Roma holding European citizenship illustrates the racialization of EU citizens and its contradictory articulation in migration policy. Despite many holding formal rights to intra-EU mobility, Roma were targeted for deportation from EU member states. Their racialization has led them to experiences of de facto immigration control unlike other EU migrants.

All over Europe culturalist and racialist politics of integration serve to legitimate increasingly stringent immigration controls on third country nationals: formal tests for citizenship were practiced in nineteen EU countries in 2010. The racialized drive for integration is also directed at established ethnic minority groups, particularly through the way citizenship education is increasingly framed as a matter of national security. The nexus of a largely unchanging racism can give the impression that the racialization of ethnic minority nationals and recent migrants is based on the same constructions of difference from a ‘host’ society.

While the ‘Continuities of Racism’ nexus is valuable for capturing the endurance of racialization diachronically and across its shifting social referents, it obscures how racialization operates differently depending on citizenship status. The next nexus attempts to redress this issue.

Nexus 2: Changing or differential racialization

In 2013 the UK Home Office launched a campaign in which vans in some parts of the country carried a message telling ‘illegal’ immigrants to ‘Go Home’. The message was intended for undocumented migrants, but it was swiftly perceived as a ‘repatriation’ agenda for all racialized nationals. The Go Home campaign exemplifies the continuing slippage between racialised nationals and recent arrivals from overseas. However, the message of the campaign, and its plural signification, also indicates that a variety of subjects come under the heading ‘immigrant’ who elude a common racialization. Differential Racialization makes visible the ways immigrants and settled communities emerge as uniquely racialised subjects through distinct, yet intersecting, hierarchies of legal status, gender, culture, class and social space, facilitating politically discontinuous subject positions.

Differentialist racism can be applied to all those made to fall within a particular label of immigrant (e.g. Muslim). It emerges in tandem with a culturalist racism that subdivides and ranks those deemed to be integrated subjects (e.g. ‘good’ Muslims, wealthy immigrants etc.) in contradistinction to those cast beyond the pale (e.g. ‘bad’ Muslims, poor immigrants etc.). Of course, judgements of who is ‘integrated’ are temporary and conditional: ‘good’ migrants always risk being treated as a threatening ‘them’. The key feature of this nexus is how it makes visible the multiple and co-existing stratifications that emerge through racialization, as opposed to a singular in-group/out-group continuum upon which all migrants (and settled communities) are mapped.

For example, Islamophobia is expressed primarily through fear of an ‘enemy within’. In contrast, ‘xeno-racism’ is said to predominantly focus upon East European EU citizens’ economic migration. Unlike the figure of the Muslim, who becomes framed as a threat to liberal values or social cohesion, the figure of the East European migrant is primarily framed as a parasite, undermining economic prosperity. As migrants are differentially racialized, depending on legal status and social esteem, incommensurable effects of racialization ensue through the intersections of power relations and hierarchies. With regard to Sweden, research suggests that gender and class positioning are generative of two discourses. In the ‘exploitative racism’ discourse for example, there can be support from elite groups for migrant domestic workers’ right to reside. Such support can exist alongside an ‘exclusionary racism’ discourse aimed at deporting impoverished migrants. Studying migrant subject positions through the intersections of race, class, gender and citizenship status has been a prominent approach for revealing the heterogeneous ways migrants experience domination.

As well as intersectionality, this approach also illuminates how the racialization of space shapes the positioning of migrants. For instance, as asylum seekers are represented as urban bodies, juxtaposed to quiet village life, an urban/rural cleavage emerges as a proxy for racialization. It is expressed through a ‘NIMBY-ism’ (‘Not-in-my-backyard’), enacted in residents’ campaigns against city plans that facilitate asylum seeker entry. This spatial positioning of racialized and migrant groups is class differentiated and dynamic, since the centripetal force of global cities like London for low wage employment is matched by a centrifugal expulsion and displacement of migrants from affluent areas.

Racialized British citizens can also participate in the racializing of new migrants. A recent study of black and minority ethnic people’s views on migration highlights such ambivalence At the same time black and minority ethnic people can also feel stigmatized and threatened by current anti-immigration rhetoric, even if they are British born or British citizens. Many who identify as British have personal or familial experiences of migration and, while sharing views on immigration with the broader British public, tend to have an overall more positive assessment of the impact of immigration (See Khan and Weekes-Bernard 2015).

Nexus 3: Beyond racialization

The third and final nexus distinguishes contemporary experiences of migration as illustrating that race does not matter. The ‘post-racial’ covers a range of views: the assertion that racial hierarchies have been overcome, liberal policies that seek to redress racial inequalities with difference-blind strategies, and lastly perspectives that aspire for a society which is no longer institutionally or privately marked by racial perceptibility. Here, we delineate two perspectives. One argues that contemporary migration regimes make no formal distinctions based on ‘colour’. The other focuses on how new technologies of surveillance, such as biometrics, signal an unprecedented individualization of the migrant that appears to be irreducible to racial categories and hence to racist discrimination.

Arguing that the racialization of migrants is being overcome is well represented in political and media discourses. In The British Dream David Goodhart argues that the problem of migration is not to be found in racial practices but rather the capacity of the local community to provide adequate housing, healthcare and schooling. He also finds that the range of advantage and disadvantage, between and within different ethnic groups, means that no systematic racialization can be discerned. Critics argue that the liberal post-racial turn functions as a euphemism for the racializing of immigrants. For example, viewing society as ‘too diverse’ for social democracy and cohesion has performative effects that legitimate racism towards those categorised as immigrants.

In a connected development, migration is framed as post-racial with regard to new technologies of surveillance which seemingly ‘deracialize’ migration because migrants are individualized on the basis of particular risky profiles. Post-racialists claim that any racial overtones of these technologies are incidental rather than structurally rooted. Unsurprisingly such claims have been challenged. For instance, recent discussions of ‘biometric citizenship’ are illustrative of a growing strand of research in migration studies on how the collection of biometric data bears traces of colonial racialization. However, in so far as biometrics draws attention to new processes of racialization, the data regarding residence, access to social rights and physical characteristics produced becomes encoded in highly individualized terms. Qualitative research on experiences of applying and holding a biometric residence permit has highlighted a more amorphous feeling of being ‘different’ Thus, while containing elements of racialization, it is argued that biometrics mark an individualized construction of migrants in excess of processes of race-making.

The three race-migration nexi we have set out provide a means to make sense of contemporary connections between racialization and migration. Delineating their relationship draws out academic viewpoints and significant questions for anti-racist politics. The ‘Continuities of Racism’ nexus underlines the significance of existing politics of anti-racism and equal opportunities as tools for combatting racism. This perspective builds on and extends Black Britons’ important anti-racist struggles, which were often closely bound up with struggles against racist immigration controls. The ‘differential racism’ nexus suggests that anti-racist struggles need to take into account the overlapping and discrepant inter-relations of colour and culture, drawing attention to how racialization operates through multiple migration pathways and the citizenship and residence rights they are bound up in. The ‘beyond racialization’ nexus is in many ways the most complex. This nexus demands that antiracist politics needs to engage with the intricacies of how migration politics both connects and disconnects from processes of racialization, which is about far more than recent or contemporary migrants themselves.

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Umut Erel is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the Open University. She has widely researched on gender, migration, racism and citizenship. Recent projects have looked at the uses of creative methods in research in the PASAR project , Migrant Mothers Caring for the Future and the Who Are We? Project, she is on Twitter @UErel.

Karim Murji is based in the Graduate School, University of West London. His new book is titled Racism, Policy and Politics (Policy Press, 2017). He is an editor of Current Sociology and is on Twitter @km49.

Zaki Nahaboo is a lecturer in Sociology at Liverpool Hope University. His work focuses on shifting patterns of racism, contemporary European migration, and political subjectivity. He is currently writing a book on the Calais Jungle.

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One thought on “Making sense of connections between racialization and migration

  1. I think the deeper problem (or remedy) is that UK speaks of “Race” as opposed to Black, somewhat erasing the fact that blacks experience a distinct brand of violence. This means that conversations are lost owing to the simply fact they are just not started… hence “Invisible Europeans”


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