- Black is a Country: Building Solidarity Across Borders
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BIRMINGHAM, England—Racism transcends the boundaries of the nation-state, and so the fight for freedom and equality must also be global.
Too often when we try to understand anti-Black racism, our analyses are limited to our own country’s borders. The late sociologist Herminio Martins dubbed this tendency to frame our thinking within the nation-state “methodological nationalism.” In thinking about racism, the nation-state is frequently considered a real, tangible unit of study for racial formation and inequalities. In reality, the nation-state [End Page 15] is no more solid a concept than race; they’re social constructions rooted in myth and produced by powerful ideologies.
Undergirding Western capitalism is a global system of racism: The genocide of natives in the Americas, transatlantic enslavement of Africans, and colonial and neo-colonial domination were all transnational oppressions. Despite these international origins of systemic racism, civil rights analysis and politics remain inscribed within a country’s borders. As Malcolm X argued in 1964, “Whenever you are in a civil rights struggle, whether you know it or not, you are confining yourself to the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam”—or, I’d add, whichever nation in which you reside.
In the U.K., methodological nationalism has obscured the importance of more global approaches to fighting racism. Taking an intra-state strategy has allowed the government to focus on promoting diversity while avoiding addressing structural inequalities caused by racism.
The desire to build an anti-racist coalition within the U.K. has meant there is pressure to avoid disunity among minority groups. This focus on cross-racial solidarity, however, has taken energy away from calls to build a Black rights movement across state borders.
It is too simplistic to argue that because you do not have white skin in the U.K. you have identical struggles with racism. White supremacy, which is at the heart of racism, creates hierarchies and exclusions that vary for different groups. Black Britons have more common experiences with Black Americans than Britons of South Asian descent. This is true for most areas of social life, but it’s most obvious in the area of criminal justice.
In England and Wales, there are far fewer people incarcerated than in the U.S., but Black people are even more overrepresented in the prison population. In 2013–14, Black individuals made up 12.6 percent of the prison population, while comprising only 3.3 percent of the general population. The over-policing of Black communities has been a constant feature of life in the U.K. The latest figures show that Black people are up to 17.5 times more likely to be stopped and searched than White Britons. The figures for the “stop and accounts,” where there is no search but you have to explain what you are doing, were so disproportionate that, in 2011, half of the worst offending police forces announced they would stop collecting data on ethnicity altogether. In 2007, Baroness Patricia Scotland, then minister of state for the criminal justice system and law reform, warned that three-quarters of young Black men in the country would soon be in the police DNA database.
On the issue that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S.—deaths at the hands of the police—there is a similar pattern of overrepresentation in the United Kingdom. Police deaths are rare here in comparison to the U.S., largely because British forces do not routinely carry firearms. Since 2009, there have been 238 deaths involving the police that were investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission and therefore considered suspicious. Black people accounted for 9.6 percent of these deaths, almost three times more than their representation in the general population. This pattern continues for homicides, where the Black population accounted for 11 percent of murder victims between 2011–12 and 2012–13. Further connecting [End Page 16] the experiences to African Americans, Black people accounted for 36 percent of homicides by firearm, a staggering figure 10 times higher than would be expected.
Despite these similarities...