Deporting ‘Black Britons’: Beyond and Against Contribution

Image: Sharon McCutcheon

Tuesday 6th November, 2018

By Luke de Noronha

An anonymous piece in the Guardian recently offered a different, and in my view salutary, contribution to the public conversation on the ‘Windrush scandal’. The author describes the death of her brother David and her attempts to find her oldest brother, Ronald, who was homeless, to tell him about it. It provides an intimate portrait of family: the love, the responsibility, and the discord, all in the context of social and literal distance.

It was not only the beautiful writing which caught my attention, but its analysis:

There is a narrative of the Windrush generation that emphasises their success, their compassion, their tenacity and capacity to give. Even in the face of ugly hatred and baseless contempt, they wrote novels, joined the armed forces, became bus conductors and tube drivers, delivered babies, taught children, wiped arses in hospitals, served food, entered the civil service, went to university and even joined the police force. Those narratives of success are true, but promoting only these narratives means we occlude the stories of those who slipped through the cracks, denying the experiences of the victims and the culpability of institutions.

The ‘Windrush generation’ belong because they helped to build this country’. This narrative doesn’t work for David and Ronald, the children of Windrush migrants, whose lives were distorted and cut short by British racism. Neither does it work for more recent arrivals from the Caribbean.

‘Windrush migrants’ are palatable because they arrived safely ‘back then’. The outrage about their treatment did not include any suggestion that we should encourage more people to migrate from the Caribbean today. Indeed, for people who arrived after 1973, demonstrating belonging is often difficult. Post-Windrush migrants are not deserving.

The consensus on the ‘Windrush scandal’ reflected a very limited kind of liberal outrage. This was evident in the exclusion of those with criminal records from the cohort of the wrongfully deported. Even if you moved to the UK before 1973, and spent four decades here, and had children, lived your life, and never left, a criminal record nullifies all of that. If you committed a ‘serious crime’ (read crime), then you forfeit all claims to belonging. Criminals do not belong.

Narratives on immigration and crime are so warped that everyone seems to agree with Melanie Philips: ‘foreign criminals’ are ‘manifest undesirables’. It was this earlier consensus on ‘foreign criminals’ that motivated my own PhD research, before Brexit and the ‘Windrush Scandal’, back in 2014.

Four years later, having spent a total of seven months in Jamaica ‘hanging out’ with deported persons, and having met their friends and family members who remain in the UK, I am working on a book called Deporting ‘Black Britons’: Portraits of Deportation to Jamaica, which I hope will also provide a salutary intervention into debates about racism and immigration control.

The book orbits around the life stories of four men who moved to the UK as children, and spent at least half their lives in Britain before being deported. They left behind parents, siblings, partners, and friends, and their deportations were and are lived as a kind of banishment. Their deportations were routine, unexceptional, and ordinary – and the book tries to make the extraordinary violence of deportation visible. Some of this is about humanising and ‘bearing witness’, but Deporting ‘Black Britons’ also tries to theorise racism and immigration control from the perspective of these four life stories.

The study is motivated by the conviction that anti-racists should be fundamentally opposed to all immigration controls, and that defending ‘bad migrants’ is an important way into a radical anti-racist, pro-migrant politics. This is especially important today, because Britain is increasingly multi-status, by which I mean that more of the resident population are excluded from formal membership, and that everyday/everywhere borders render the rights of these non-citizens increasingly temporary, precarious and unstable.

Through ethnographic inquiry, I am trying to reach a radical critique of borders and their role, often unremarked, in the production of racial meanings and exclusions. Through portraiture, I hope to tell some painful stories about men like David and Ronald, men who will never be seen as deserving, contributing or productive, but who have stories as rich and human as anyone else’s. As the anonymous author ends her short piece:

“[David] is one of the many children of Windrush who were broken by the system. While his name will not be listed in the defiant roll call of “successes” who triumphed in the face of adversity, he will be remembered by the people who loved him, and to whom he was never invisible”.

In writing Deporting ‘Black Britons’, I want to share some stories about people who have been rendered disposable by criminalisation and immigration control. The deported men I met in Jamaica were also, in a way, the children of Windrush. We cannot situate their biographies without understanding the Windrush, and the history of postwar migration for which it stands as a marker, just as we cannot understand the Windrush without understanding slavery, colonialism and their ongoing afterlives.

With this in mind, why should people from the Caribbean be defined by their contribution? Why should anyone? In the fight for anti-racist and outernational futures it is crucial that we move beyond arguments about contribution, and towards a restless critique of borders and their role in ordering a world of unequal (im)mobilities and wasted lives. Deporting ‘Black Britons’ is my small contribution of (and toward) a different order.

Luke is a researcher and writer working on deportation, racism and immigration control. He recently completed his PhD in anthropology at the University of Oxford (COMPAS) and has been teaching at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is the Sociological Review Fellow for 2018/19.

There is a public hearing of Luke's Deportation Discs on 15th-16th November 2018 at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL.

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