From ‘social distancing’ to planetary solidarity

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.

By Nandita Sharma.

Greetings from Hawai’i!

Reading Colin’s blog from the ‘afar’ of Bristol has made me think about distance, and the (dis)connections between physical and social distancing. We are physically far apart, but, I like to think, socially close. This seems to run counter to the ‘social distancing’ we are being enjoined to adopt.

‘Social distancing’ is the most oft-used phrase during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, it could be the motto for how states and ruling classes govern. For those studying the political economy of capitalism, ‘social distancing’ is understood as the effort by rulers to keep the levers of power and much-needed resources out of the reach of most people (Ruth Wilson Gilmore, personal communication, 11 March 2020).

Physical distancing at the bus stop (image: Gavin Clarke on

‘Social distancing,’ then, is not about the physical space between us. All systems of apartheid, after all, are built to ensure the close proximity of the dominators and those they supress. The point of ideological practices such as sexism, racism and nationalism is to keep us politically separated from one another. Going along with the idea that ‘we’ are unconnected to ‘them’ severely weakens our ability to take back our power and resources. That is precisely the point.

Rulers extol us to distance ourselves not only from other people, but also from the rest of life on our shared planet. We are encouraged to use non-humans as we will but to take no responsibility for the harm we do. Indeed, we are taught to deny any awareness of our actions and to deny our connections with other life forms.

This is reflected in the political organisation of our world. We live in a global system of apartheid organised by nation-states, which encourages us to see each nationalised territory in splendid isolation from all others. Yet, if COVID-19 has taught us anything it is that we ignore the world at our peril.

What we can learn from this global pandemic is that the global circulation of capital precipitates the global circulation of deadly pathogens. The penetration of capital into almost all parts of the planet has resulted in the destruction of complex ecosystems, the dispossession of more and more living beings (humans and non-humans), the rise of industrial agriculture and ‘meat farms,’ the cultural capital attached to eating ‘wild’ animals by urban dwellers, and the expanding supply chain of commodities. Each of these have contributed to the breeding and spreading of novel viruses.

Yet, none of this reality is reflected in responses to COVID-19 by either nation-states or capital. Instead, each nation-state touts its border controls as its first ‘line of defense’ (in keeping with the general militarised jingoism of the pandemic). Meanwhile, capital discourages efforts to halt transmission of the disease while pushing for the quick ‘opening up’ of the economy. Nation-states have largely gone along with this by refusing to organise the redistribution of wealth necessary to ensure that people can survive without jobs.

Many imagining themselves as members of the ‘nation’ cheer on such approaches, thereby further fanning the flames of racism/nationalism and deflecting attention away from inept governments and rapacious capitalist markets. Such approaches are on full display in the United States (but not only here).

On 31 January 2020, the same day the novel coronavirus was first declared a public health emergency, Trump issued an executive order blocking the entry of anyone who had been in China in the last 14 days. On 11 March 2020, Trump extended the travel ban to include the 26 EU Schengen states. On 14 March, it was extended further to encompass the UK and Ireland.

In keeping with the structural importance of national citizenship to current regimes of power, these travel bans do not apply to US residents and family members or spouses of US residents or citizens, even though they may very well be the ones carrying and spreading COVID-19. In any case, the first person diagnosed with COVID-19 in the US was announced more than ten days before the very first travel ban. Since then, the number of COVID-19 cases has continued to increase. So too have border control measures.

Supposedly to ‘protect the public health,’ on 20 March 2020 the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health order denying people seeking asylum the protections afforded them under national law and allowing them to be summarily deported. From 21 March 2020 to 30 April 2020, more than 20,000 migrants were expelled, mostly to Mexico. 

Migrants are deported from the US to Mexico, March 2020 (image: Asociacion Pop No’j)

Of this number, 915 were unaccompanied children seeking asylum. A New York Times reporter found that, ‘some young migrants have been deported within hours of setting foot on American soil. Others have been rousted from their beds in the middle of the night in U.S. government shelters [sic] and put on planes out of the country without any notification to their families’ (Dickerson 2020). Disavowing responsibility for the harm they do to others, the US government is largely silent about the spread of COVID-19 in its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) concentration camps or their deporting of people with the virus to nation-states with far less resources than the US. This too is a form of ‘social distancing.’

At the same time, nationalism doesn’t prevent people from demanding that what they need and want from ‘outside’ continues to enter, including personal protective equipment, medicine, food, clothing, entertainment and people recruited to work in sectors deemed ‘essential’ for the well-being of the citizenry. While industries of healthcare, agriculture, meatpacking and more would cease to operate were non-citizen workers not permitted to enter and work in the US, these workers are denied the rights and protections available to the citizenry they serve.

The issue, then, is hardly about movement. Nation-states actively organise the movement of people, other living beings, capital, commodities and more – but only on terms that maintain ‘social distancing.’ That is, only on terms that will keep power and resources out of the reach of most people and only on terms that will ensure our continued separation from one another.

This is not a contradiction, so far as nationalists are concerned. Instead, it is a powerful testimony of the importance of separation to ruling relations.

If ‘social distancing’ is the mantra of those hoarding power and wealth, the response of those seeking liberty from rulers is to break down the walls built to disconnect us from one another. While public health officials and media talk about ‘community spread,’ it is also true that during this global pandemic a tremendous growth of solidarity has taken place.

Here in Hawai’i, where I am ‘sheltered in place’ with my partner, Gaye Chan, there has been a massive uptick in our connections to people, mostly strangers. In keeping with our project, Eating in Public, Gaye has responded to the fear of food shortages at the market by building ‘weed stations’ that demonstrate how to grow and cook the edible, nutritious and tasty weeds all around us. She then erected another Free Store, re-stocked on a seemingly minute-by-minute basis. And, she helped organise the Seamsters Union that, to date, has collectively made more than 3,000 cloth masks to freely distribute to those ignored by rulers. Each day, more people come and go, stop and talk than ever before. Practicing solidarity while adhering to safe practices of physical distancing is the opposite of ‘social distancing’ and it forges a path away from our dominated world. And, I know we are not alone.

Nandita Sharma is an activist scholar and Professor at the Sociology Department at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. She recently published a new book, Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants (Duke University Press, 2020).

Life in lockdown – an asylum seeker’s struggle to survive

My name is Maria*. I am an asylum-seeker single-mother who escaped to the UK because I felt unsafe in my home country.

I arrived in the UK two years ago. It was hard for me because I am a single mother of two kids. Initially, the accommodation and support I received as an asylum-seeker were horrible. I had to share a house with strangers who liked to drink alcohol and smoke. It was depressing and horrible. My living conditions are better now, but my children and I have faced many new difficult challenges. 

My life has been difficult during the lockdown as an asylum seeker and single mother of two. It is so depressing this situation while still waiting for my asylum claim. After waiting for two years, I got a letter from the Home Office three weeks ago saying they will reschedule my appeal date. They do not know yet when the new date will be, but they had to reschedule it because of the coronavirus. 

A picture on Maria’s wall

When I was able to go to college to study English my mind was busy, and I did not have to spend as much time thinking about my problems. I was not depressed when I was studying because my mind was busy. But now in this situation with the coronavirus, and the difficulties with my asylum claim, it has been a horrible time because it is depressing and stressful. 

Financial insecurity 

The UK Government gives me £35 a week to buy food. The Home Office has only considered giving money for food, but refugees and asylum seekers need other things too like hygienic products. My kids are growing up and they need more things. They are eating more, and the prices of food have increased. During the lockdown, my kids do not receive free school meals.

I think the Home Office should give a little bit more money. If they do not want to give more money, they should give asylum seekers permission to work so we can support ourselves. Working would help me keep my mind busy and prevent me from thinking too much about my problems. 


My kids’ school is giving classes online. It is difficult for me and for my children because I do not have a computer or a tablet. I have been helping my children do their homework on my phone. It is difficult because it takes time for the kids to learn, it takes time to explain to them how to do their homework. I have two kids and they are in different classes. So first, I help one of my kids with homework, then we have to wait to start with the other one. It is hard with one phone and it means I need to top up my phone more often because the data goes fast. I used to top up my phone for £10 and now I have to top up at least £20 pounds for two weeks. It is difficult for me and for my kids. I would like to get at least one tablet so one of my children can work with the tablet while the other one can study on my phone. It would be better for me, and for them. 

It is very important for my kids to continue to learn online and do their homework. Their teachers give points if the homework is completed. The teachers said that doing homework and getting these points can help my kids pass to the next level. I believe the school will do a diagnostic assessment in September. If the assessment says my kids are not ready for the next level, so maybe they do not pass, and they stay at the same level. The teachers do not keep in touch with me and my children. They just send an email with the homework assignments and instructions. We need to take pictures of the homework and post it in the online class website. The school knows about my situation. But I do not think they can do anything for me. 

I would like my kids to continue to learn. They need to learn, and they need to study. But I am not going to send them back to school soon because the coronavirus is still going to be here. Kids do not know how to keep distance from each other, they do not understand the restrictions. They will be close when playing together. So I will continue trying to teach my kids at home. 

Social support

Before the lockdown, I could go to the local organisations that help refugees and asylum seekers. I could go to English class; we could talk to different persons at the organisations. They help us learn English. They are like friends to us. Now they are closed. I was also going to church and I met so many nice people there. I had never met people like that in my country, they are so kind, so friendly. There is a lady from church who calls me to ask how I am doing. They do the church online on Sundays and do Bible study online on Wednesdays, so that is good, but I only participate once every two weeks because my internet access is limited. It has been sad because these places are closed. My kids want to go out and they want to learn more but it is so much harder now. 

I don’t know about the future – I have to wait for my asylum process. I do not know what is going to happen, but I just want to keep going especially for my kids because I am mum and dad for them. So I need to continue strong and stand up for them. 

* Maria is a pseudonym.

As told to Jáfia Naftali Câmara, PhD student in Education, University of Bristol. A longer version of this interview was published in openDemocracy on 28 May 2020.

Black Lives Matter – whatever their nationality

By Bridget Anderson.

On 19th June 2020 the European Parliament voted to declare ‘Black Lives Matter’. The same European Parliament that last October voted AGAINST supporting more search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean; the same European Parliament that has voted through Economic Partnership Agreements that have ruined Black small-scale producers through exposing them to multinational corporation competition, reduced market access to European member states and taken away tariff revenue to poor states. Black Lives Matter – so long as they are not lived in Niger or Libya or pushing at the borders of Europe.

Rassemblement Aquarius – SOS Mediterranean, Paris 2018 (image: Jeanne Menjoulet on Flickr)

Even when they are lived on the territory of European member states Black Lives are easily discarded. Luke de Noronha (2018) has detailed the devastating impact of the deportation of long-term British residents to Jamaica, people who came to the UK when they were children, who have built lives and communities that have simply been disregarded. Recent evidence from Detention Action has found that immigration detention is systemically racist – 90% of Australian nationals were released after spending less than 28 days in immigration detention, compared with 60% of Nigerian nationals. Black Lives do not seem to matter either when they are requesting family reunion or fighting deportation.

In the past 30 years migration studies has drifted apart from race and ethnic studies. Until the late 1980s anti-deportation campaigns were usually explicitly grounded in anti-racist activism but migration activism too has drifted apart from anti-racism. It is vital that we re-connect them if we are to affect systemic change. There are scholars, activists and scholar activists who have been developing work that explores the relation between migration and ‘race’ (Lentin and Karakayali 2016; Bhattacharya 2018; Yuval Davis et al. 2019; and work by Statewatch and work showcased by the Institute of Race Relations, for example). But so far little attention has been paid to the role of ‘nationality’. Nationality can be read as both a legal status, consonant with citizenship, AND as signifying belonging to the nation of the nation-state. Furthermore, national membership is traced through ancestry and nationality is sutured to race (Sharma 2020).

This ambivalence is not simply happenstance. Radhika Mongia writes, ‘A blurring of the vocabularies of nationality and race is a founding strategy of the modern nation-state that makes it impossible to inquire into the modern state without attending to its creation in a global context of colonialism and racism’ (Mongia 2018, 113). For many years, historians have been encouraging migration scholars to take a long view of human movement, and thereby de-exceptionalise migration, which today is wrongly imagined as disturbing a previous national homogeneity. ‘Societies’ have not long been ‘national’ and they have certainly not been homogenous.

Mongia goes a step further to illustrate how the labelling of certain movements as migration precipitated the emergence of nationality as a territorial attachment. Thus, controlling migration is central to state development and rule and racism is not an unfortunate characteristic of immigration enforcement, but is absolutely baked into immigration controls and enforcement.

In her new book (B)ordering Britain (Manchester University Press 2020) Nadine El-Enany powerfully argues ‘Immigration law teaches white British people that Britain and everything within it is rightfully theirs. “Others” are here as their guests.’ There are very practical ways in which this intersection between ‘race’ and nationality is manifest in immigration frameworks. For example, under the Equality Act discrimination is unlawful. Yet it is not unlawful for immigration officials to discriminate on the basis of race when ‘race’ can be construed as nationality or ethnic origins. The Act permits direct discrimination on the basis of nationality when this is required by law, Ministerial Conditions or Ministerial Arrangements, and nationality can make certain people ineligible for certain services and benefits. Nationality is a magic wand that renders ‘discrimination’ (which covers a multitude of sins, including racial subjugation) not simply acceptable but legally enforceable.

And it is not only immigration officials who are so required. The ‘hostile environment’ has rolled out responsibility to enforce immigration checks to a wide range of ordinary people – employers, registrars, health providers, educationalists and landlords may all be legally required to check immigration status. The general population is increasingly drawn into immigration enforcement: poorly trained and anxious to err on the side of the law, these deputized actors often ‘directly reinforce symbolic and moral distinctions of otherness and illegality’ (Walsh 2014, 247). In many states those charged with imposing immigration checks typically rely on race and/or ethnicity as a marker of national difference.

In the UK this is precisely what happened in the Windrush scandal. The fact that people were Black was read as meaning they were migrants and potentially ‘illegal’, and therefore their status was subject to heightened scrutiny. But it is crucial that we recognise that this is not simply individuals carrying out the even-handed law in a racist manner. In time honoured colonial fashion, the letter of the law may be, to use David Theo Goldberg’s (2002) terminology, ‘raceless’ but its practice is ‘raceful’, and it is nationality that enables this sleight of hand.

Take the right-to-rent checks that are imposed as part of the hostile environment and have resulted in landlords being significantly less likely to rent to people who they think might be ‘foreign’ on the basis of colour, name or accent. In 2019 the High Court found that the requirement for right-to-rent checks ‘does not merely provide the occasion or opportunity for private landlords to discriminate but causes them to do so where otherwise they would not’ (para 105).

The Home Office appealed this decision and won. Lord Justice Hickinbottom did not dispute that ‘some landlords do discriminate against potential tenants who do not have British passports and those who do not have ethnically-British attributes, but the nature and level of discrimination must be kept in perspective’ (para 79, my emphases). However, ‘Whilst I do not suggest that this is a point of any great force although the evidence is that, in respect of potential tenants who do not have a British passport, landlords effectively use ethnic proxies for nationality, the primary ground of discrimination is nationality not race’ (para 148, iii). Whatever its force in the judgement (which will be appealed at the Supreme Court), politically the elision of nationality and race, and the requirement to exclude, is of tremendous force.

Our own students experience the racism of the hostile environment when they are looking for accommodation in Bristol, and this is only one of multiple institutional and bureaucratic difficulties that international students must manage alone as Tier 4 visa holders. There is no guidance on the highly complex visa conditions that they must negotiate, and little institutional appreciation that they are constrained in particular ways – they can only suspend studies for 60 days or they will infringe visa conditions; they are only allowed to work a certain, but variable number of hours per week; postdoctoral applications must be submitted before visas expire, and so on. For this reason, MMB’s working group on international students is calling for a designated International Student Advocate, with knowledge of immigration law, who can help students negotiate institutionalised racism and lobby for change.

As I write, the European Parliament has announced that they will be debating racism next week. I suspect that they will not be talking about migration. Of course, both migration and race are highly complex, and we can’t reduce them to each other. Rather, both reflect each other’s complexity –hierarchies of whiteness, the relationship between race and property, and between state, society and nation. However, let’s not forget the bottom line: until Black Lives Matter irrespective of nationality and immigration status, Black lives will continue to be disposable.

Bridget Anderson is Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship at the University of Bristol and Director of Migration Mobilities Bristol.

Unemployment and xenophobia persist for migrant workers as China’s lockdown is lifted

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.

By Xinrong Ma.

Dear friends,

I hope this letter finds you all very well.

The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic first broke out in China at the end of last year, then rapidly spread around the globe. While people in many other countries are still experiencing lockdown, in China it has now been lifted. Since the middle of May travel restrictions have been eased, business and commercial activities have reopened and ordinary people have started to return to work, although the government is still emphasises the potential risks and advises people to wear face masks in public.

The pandemic has affected Chinese migrant workers in various, extremely damaging ways. Mobility has become seen as not only risky but also immoral. Workers were locked down in their hometowns from February and have been unable or unwilling to come back to the cities. By March, labour-intensive factories, such as the electronics and garment industries, were in dire need of workers to restart their production after a month’s shutdown. To recruit workers to return to factories, local governments of industrial cities began to offer higher salaries and subsidies to attract migrant workers.

An intersection of roads with no traffic. A man pushes a cart.
Empty city streets in China during lockdown, April 2020 (image: Gauthier Delecroix on flickr)

And then, unexpectedly, the supply chains were terminated in April as the pandemic spread across the globe. Many returned migrant workers were again unemployed. I have been thinking of some of the migrant workers I interviewed previously. Most of them who used to work in manufacturing can no longer find jobs and are trapped in their hometowns. They worked for years in industrial cities where small factories have now been closed. Even the largest firms, such as Foxconn, are laying off staff. Some people, including domestic workers and those in the hospitality industry, are now gradually coming back to work, but the persistence of the pandemic across the world will continue to create difficulties for migrant workers in the coming months.

The dangerous vulnerabilities of being a migrant worker in China have also affected immigrants from abroad during the current crisis. Under recent epidemic control regulations, individuals are required to provide a health code – like a digital passport – to enter their residential compound, shopping centres, transport or other public places. This digital code also enables the government to collect people’s private information, so some immigrants are unwilling to use it. Meanwhile, others find it difficult to follow the government’s pandemic control policies due to language barriers.

Guangzhou, the city where I live, became a global media hotspot in late April when the authorities required all Africans in town to test for COVID-19 and remain in quarantine, regardless of whether or not they had recently travelled. Many were evicted from their hotels or apartments and found themselves homeless. This policy, referred to briefly in the Chinese media, caused a major backlash internationally due to the clear racial discrimination behind it.

The local government’s overreaction towards Africans is associated with Beijing’s ‘Three Illegals’ of immigration (illegal entry, overstayed visas, working without a permit) – a category that many undocumented African migrants are subjected to. Social exclusion and xenophobia among Chinese citizens have been magnified during the epidemic. Under diplomatic pressure, the local government later issued an announcement that Chinese and foreigners should be treated equally, but still, the deep division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ revealed in such an event cannot be easily erased.

Although the local government was slow to act, a group of young people with backgrounds in anthropology, sociology and psychology quickly began providing food, language translation and physical support to the Africans in quarantine. Within a few days, the number of volunteers reached over 400. Being part of this volunteer group has made me feel more hopeful about the future.

My latest research concerns foreign domestic workers in China. This is an extension of my previous studies of internal ethnic Yi labour migrants. As with many African immigrants in China, southeast Asian migrant domestic workers have also been subject to the ‘Three Illegals’ category. During the pandemic, face-to-face meetings are not possible, so my plan of conducting fieldwork has been postponed. Instead, I sometimes talk with a few familiar informants via WeChat to say hello and comfort those feeling anxious.

Many of them, especially those working part time, have lost their jobs. In their neighbourhoods they are now more frequently inspected by the community guards and in public spaces more likely to be stopped by the police, though they find subtle ways to avoid them. Being unable to follow the ever-changing government information in Chinese has caused them many difficulties. If Chinese internal migrant works are only just noticed by local civil society organisations, undocumented foreign migrant workers in China are completely out of sight. So far, the Chinese government has not issued any specific policies regarding undocumented migrants, though a few local news reports state that some have been repatriated to their home countries.

Personally, a big change in my life is that I recently became a mum. My baby girl is seven months now. Her arrival cheered me up and enriched my life with love and intimacy during the lockdown period. Like many working mothers, I am facing the challenge of balancing work with caring, production and reproduction. The struggle of motherhood, precarious academic work and the embodied existence of gender inequalities, all magnified by the pandemic, are not something I read from literature, but experience in everyday life. Being a mum gives me more empathy with many working-class women I have studied and will conduct research with, especially those who have to shoulder the responsibility of family and work, and are struggling to feed their families in the pandemic. I have the privilege of working from home, but many of them cannot afford to do so. We all need to explore our agencies and form solidarity with others.

We are required to keep our physical distance during COVID-19, but many new ways are opening up for people to be socially connected. In China and many other countries, a lot of open-access webinars are now being held. The beacon of knowledge, previously bound by the wall of the university system, is leaking to wider audiences. As Bridget wrote in her earlier blog, ‘we do need to build our intellectual and affective community so we can learn from and support each other’.

The outbreak of the pandemic urges people to think beyond their familiar world, to find connections and to overcome the isolation and individualisation of our age. I am happy to share my observation of migrant workers in my country as well as my personal experience during this time with friends whom I both know or have not yet met.

Xinrong Ma has a PhD in Chinese Studies from Leiden University, The Netherlands. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Sun Yet-Sen University, Guangzhou, China. She can be contacted at

On being a space invader: negotiating whiteness in education

By Evelyn Miller.

Poster for Juice, the online South Asian collective and magazine (2020)

I am a first-year sociology student at the University of Bristol, and a mixed South Asian woman, my mum being of Malaysian and Mauritian descent and my dad being of English and Irish descent. This blog sketches out the troubles I have experienced in white-majority educational institutions to show why it’s important for university staff and students and to challenge practices that reproduce structures of elitism, whiteness, and masculinity

Before secondary school, I lived in Woking on a diverse council estate with lots of friends and similar families nearby. As I started secondary school, we moved to Godalming, an almost entirely white and middle-class area in Surrey. Our house is on a road that was originally wholly council owned. Set in the Surrey hills, it is not your typical council estate, but a stigma is still attached to living there. Meanwhile, being one of the only families of colour in the town has made us hyper-visible. We are positioned as ‘other’ and our presence is often met with racism and hostility. I remember other children shouting, ‘go back home!’ at my younger sister, aged 10 at the time, as she walked the dog in the first few months of living there. At school and college, I experienced more subtle and institutional racism. There, I did not simply study for my GCSEs and A Levels but was also forced to learn about the inequalities and hierarchies of race and class that positioned me as an ‘other’.

At my state school, I was one of a small minority of people of colour. Even though I often academically outperformed my peers, it seemed I constantly had to prove my ability, while my peers who presented as outwardly middle-class and white were simply assumed to be able. Disappointed by a curriculum that did not reflect my own experiences as a woman of colour, I took it upon myself to bring my views and experiences into my work. For instance, when a small group of us were tasked with writing a satirical article for an AS Level in Creative Writing, I wrote about my frustration at my teachers consistently calling me Moli (another South Asian girl in the year) rather than Evelyn. I titled the article ‘The difference is written all over our faces’, but it met with ridicule from both my Creative Writing peers and my teacher, who even joked about calling me Moli in the feedback. I think the only person who made me feel ‘seen’ at school after reading this was Moli herself.

The painful invalidation of my voice and experience continued as I studied for A Levels. My final Art project explored the identities of women of colour through a series of portraits. By sharing this project beyond college, I met lots of other artists of colour, took part in exhibitions, and founded a South Asian collective and magazine, Juice. Yet my art teacher dismissed the project entirely, suggesting I should just focus on portraiture and my artistic technique. Though disheartened, I ignored him and dedicated my Personal Essay and final piece to discussing the representation and agency of women of colour in the art world. I achieved an A*. Though my teacher praised my work, he never acknowledged the importance of the themes I was exploring.

drawings of faces
Evelyn’s A-Level Art sketchbook (2019)

Nirmal Puwar’s book Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place with its analysis of the dynamics of in/visibility experienced by people of colour in white-majority institutions captures my experience at school and college in Godalming. I hoped that in moving to Bristol to study sociology I would leave behind my sense of being a space invader. But I was disappointed to find the core modules offered to first year students still prioritise the theories and thought of white sociologists, especially white men, and often completely overlook the critical work of scholars and activists of colour who had inspired my interest in sociology. In some cases, all the essential readings were by white authors. How can I, or any women of colour, find our place as sociologists whilst being taught that thinking sociologically is almost exclusively a thought process of white men?

Postcolonial feminist thought was introduced, but in a module on global sociology, as if such thinking is only relevant to global issues. Nonetheless, it was refreshing and exciting to study the works of women of colour, although ironically my seminar tutor misgendered the sociologist Gurminder Bhambra, referring to her using the pronouns he/him. Other seminar tutors have been key to my happiness and success this year, however. They have provided me with support and additional readings prioritising intersectional thought, and they have given me hope that we can create radical anti-racist and feminist spaces within the university.

When people of colour question the overwhelming whiteness of British universities, Sara Ahmed says, they are often heard as speaking about themselves, being too ‘subjective’, rather than speaking about wider structures of inequality. But the sociological imagination, as famously defined by C. Wright Mills, demands ‘the vivid awareness of the relationship between personal experience and the wider society’ – personal troubles are inherently public issues. My ‘personal troubles’ described above connect to a public problem, namely the fact that schools, colleges and universities are not ‘neutral’ spaces of learning but continue to take whiteness as the norm and reproduce classed, raced and gendered hierarchies, marginalising minority groups.

Anti-racism activists and scholars have worked for centuries, and continue to work, both within and outside of institutions, to challenge racist systems, policies and practices. Gurminder Bhambra recently presented a radical argument for decolonising universities, the ‘home of the coloniser, in the heart of establishment’, including greater attention to anti-racist practice within universities. It is important for students as well as staff to get involved in MMB’s Anti-Racist Network so that we can collectively explore what it means to decolonise the university and how to do it, as well as wider issues of racism and how to combat them.

Evelyn Miller is studying a BA in Sociology at the University of Bristol. She is a co-founder and the creative director of Juice, an online platform for sharing the lived experience of the South Asian diaspora.

Please contact Julia O’Connell Davidson if you would like more information about MMB’s Anti-Racist Network.

Are transnational marriages bad for integration?

By Sarah Spencer

The belief that marriage partners from less developed countries are bad for ‘integration’ is firmly held by European policy makers. With pressure to curb immigration, that concern has conveniently justified raising the bar for spouses to enter.

Marriage Migration and Integration (2020) interrogates that assumption with substantial evidence from an ESRC-funded study on transnational marriages in two of the largest minority communities in the UK: Pakistani Muslims and Indian Sikhs. Negative discourses focus on Muslim marriages in particular – hence the value of the comparison the study provides.

Led by Katharine Charsley (University of Bristol) in collaboration with Oxford colleagues, the study uncovered the first clear evidence of a fall in the number of transnational marriages in both groups. Yet around half British Pakistani Muslims and a quarter of British Indian Sikhs currently have partners from the Indian subcontinent.

Coined a ‘first generation in every generation’, the assumption is that the new family member, with less egalitarian social norms, drags social progress back from modern values; and that they are individuals whose lack of education and skills will impede their own integration and that of their partner and future children.

Yet the evidence supporting that assertion is limited; and uses problematic notions of ‘integration’, a concept rightly subject in recent years to severe critiques. This study used a ‘whole society’ concept and new definition of integration that recognises the crucial role played by the opportunities and barriers individuals face, and the differing pace and impact of integration processes across different spheres of life. The ways in which experiences in one sphere, such as employment, impact on others is a constant theme in the substantial analysis of the Labour Force Survey and qualitative interview data which form the backbone of the book.

A wedding couple hold hands in Lahore (photo: Kahdija Yousaf)

Writing about integration is like untangling a complicated knot—identifying the strands and teasing apart their relationships to each other. Pulling one strand or another first will expose particular sets of inter-relationships in a different order. In this case, to disentangle the impact of transnational marriage among other factors, the study explored the trajectories of a unique sampling of sibling pairs: couples in which both partners are UK born or raised and transnational couples where one partner came to the UK as an adult. The research design focused on families in which both couples could be found.

Exploring experiences in employment, education, extended family living, social networks and participation in community life, along with gender roles and belonging, the findings not surprisingly reveal a diversity of experiences that include – but also significantly depart from the simplistic characterisations of the trope.

Debunking myths

  • While some migrant wives take on a domestic role, many are keen to, and do, engage in the labour market. While some migrant spouses prefer to speak their first language, English is also often used. Language use is varied and contextual.
  • Transnational marriage can reinforce patriarchal gender expectations, but can lead to greater autonomy for a British woman, releasing her from the expectations faced when in-laws are close at hand. Her husband, moreover, is reliant on her for local knowledge and support.
  • Transnational marriage is associated with higher rates of extended family living, assumed to be a marker of patriarchal traditionalism; but it also brings benefits: sharing expenses helps compensate for low incomes and allows saving for investment in property and business.
  • Significant proportions of migrant spouses have post-secondary education, but can face barriers to translating educational capital into labour market outcomes. The workplace can be an important source of social contacts; but for wives not in work networks can nevertheless expand through their children’s school, language classes and community groups.
  • Retaining an identity with the country of origin does not inhibit full engagement in the UK. A sense of national identity, however, does not always come with participation in other spheres, and can be inhibited or reverse following experiences of discrimination.
  • Crucially, some experiences are not the result of transnational marriage at all but of the couple’s stage in their life course: marriage leading, as for others, to new roles and responsibilities including child-rearing. Reliance on family, a narrowing of social networks, lack of time for further education or civic participation, reflect a stage in the life course here, not migration.

Spouses face similar challenges to other migrants, but they have one advantage – a family who can provide knowledge, support and connections. Most migrant husbands find work through family contacts. Families’ resources and attitudes are, however, not uniform. For newcomers, information, signposting and support to reduce reliance on relatives for awareness of opportunities would help, as would more flexible opportunities to access language classes.

The irony of a simplistic portrayal of transnational marriage is that it reinforces the negative stereotypes that are themselves a barrier to integration. It should be possible to address gender inequality, and advocate services, without denigrating the family practices of entire ethnic groups. Instead of finger-pointing at newcomers, we could focus on unlocking the assets people bring – the under-use of migrants’ educational qualifications for instance – and the benefits of facilitating the full participation of all residents in the country’s economic, social, cultural and political life.

Sarah Spencer is Director of Strategy and a Senior Fellow at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS), University of Oxford, and was Director of the Global Exchange on Migration and Diversity until 2019. This post was first published by COMPAS on 06/06/2020 following the publication of Marriage Migration and Integration (2020).


Sweden faces COVID-19 with a neoliberal elderly care system and a racialised labour market

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.

By Anders Neergaard.

Dear friends,

Reading newspapers every day and strolling around the streets and parks of Malmö (Sweden) I watch people trying to live with the pandemic. It’s scary as a human being but interesting as a sociologist. It raises so many questions that need further research. Being who I am, I often study a phenomenon or practice in terms of how class, gender and racialisation affect people. Thus, this blog post is about how inequalities intersect with the pandemic health strategies of elderly care, mobility and migration.

In newspapers around the world (such as The Guardian, El País and Página 12) Sweden is making headlines as one of few countries that have not implemented legislated lockdowns of society, instead trying instructions and recommendations for physical distancing (please do not call it social distancing, as we are trying to maintain social closeness in times of physical distance). Is this Swedish approach an experiment, and if so, what will be the consequences compared to other strategies? While these are important questions, we need more time and better material to be able to answer such questions.

Instead, I want to focus on two particular, and partially connected, aspects of what seems to be an Achilles heel in limiting the consequences of the pandemic. One concerns the neo-liberalised care of the elderly in Sweden, and the other the racialised (often of migrants) class structure.

Two elderly people in wheelchairs sit at a table waiting to be served
Elderly residents of a care home in Sweden. Photo credit: Elitsha

One of the few things we know about COVID-19 is that it aggressively targets the elderly. Thus, the organisation of elderly care is at the core of understanding who dies and why in the pandemic. Most people would argue that care of the elderly is a central aspect of humane societies (despite the fact raised by many economists that their direct contribution to the economy often stops with retirement). Thus, we have some forms of organised elderly care, but it is rarely an area of priority in politics. The elderly care system was far from being good during the heydays of the social democratic welfare state, but the neoliberal re-regulation (using privatisation) (Peck 2004), New Public Management and shrinking municipal taxation (in Sweden the municipalities are formally responsible for care of the elderly) has created a system based on scarcity, just-in-time services and profits (Szebehely 2017). Consequently, elderly care is characterised by employees who have to care for numerous elderly people, elderly people receiving care who have to meet many employees and an austere elderly care infrastructure (Behtoui et al. 2016). In times of the COVID-19 pandemic, this mean that elderly care is a hotbed for the spread of the virus.

Another way of showing the vulnerability of elderly care services is by looking at its care workers (I focus on paid care work, but we shouldn’t forget that a substantial part is carried out by daughters or other female relatives as unpaid work). Within this group, assistant nurses (by far the most prevalent job in elderly care in Sweden) are disproportionately represented by women and racialised workers, both women and men (often migrants) whose role intersects with poor working conditions, low wages and discrimination (Behtoui et al. 2020).

This reflects the gendered and racialised Swedish class structure, meaning that women in general and racialised men and women (many migrants or children to migrants) in particular are overrepresented within the working class, and are overrepresented in working class jobs that have lower wages and poorer working conditions (Neergaard 2018).

What does this have to do with elderly care and the COVID-19 pandemic? In answering, I would like to highlight two key points. In this pandemic two particular categories of jobs with low wages and poor working conditions are important in making the society function but are also highly exposed to COVID-19 and thus to spreading it. The first, mentioned above, are assistant nurses directly involved in caring for the elderly and in containing the virus. The second is the more general category of service workers, especially bus and taxi drivers and ticket inspectors of public transport, but also workers in retail and restaurants. Both these groups work in economically underfunded services, are highly exposed to COVID-19 in their daily work and have been neglected when it comes to protective equipment and instructions for avoiding contagion.

Furthermore, if one of these workers is infected with the virus, then the chance of continued infections is substantial due to their housing situation. In a recent analysis of Statistics Sweden, it was shown that almost one in three immigrants from countries outside Europe, who have been in Sweden for less than ten years, lives in a home with more than two people per bedroom. The corresponding figure for persons born in Sweden, with at least one domestic-born parent, is 2 per cent. Many of these immigrant households are three-generation families that include elderly grandparents due to the difficulties of finding adequate housing among the lower and racially discriminated sections of the working class (SCB 2019).

We don’t yet know when robust statistics will be produced that show Sweden’s excess mortality in the era of COVID-19, although preliminary statistics show a strong overrepresentation of elderly within care, as well as migrant and racialised workers and their parents. However, we shouldn’t focus only on the government’s interventions to contain the pandemic. What I have argued in this short text is that the combination of a neoliberal elderly care regime with a racialised (and gendered) working class structure seems also to be a central factor in explaining why the elderly in care, and the elderly within racialised families, have been more exposed to COVID-19 in Sweden.

Anders Neergaard is Professor in the Department of Culture and Society and Director of the Institute for Research on Migration, Ethnicity and Society (REMESO) at Linköping University, Sweden. His research focuses on inequality, power and resistance, especially related to discrimination, migration, racialisation and racism.

The dismal UK Home Office response to coronavirus: the wider picture

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.

By Colin Yeo.

Dear Bridget,

We’ve learned that closeness does not mean contact, so I hope that this can count as a ‘Letter from Afar’ even if ‘afar’ seems a strangely 19th-century way of talking about the distance between Newport and Bristol. I wanted to share with you some of my reflections on the UK Home Office’s response to coronavirus and what it means for migrants and asylum seekers.

Let me start with recognition of the fact that basic steps to reduce immediate contagion risk were quietly implemented in mid-March – such as suspension of immigration bail reporting and cancellation of asylum interviews. This may have been because the hand of the Home Office was forced by social distancing guidelines from other government departments. But where the Home Office response has been seriously deficient is in its chaotic communications, failure to protect migrant lives, failure to protect families and questionable legal competence.

Adrian Berry from the Immigration Law Practitioner’ Association and I gave evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee about these failings. But I want to step back from the immediate Home Office failings here and think about the broader context. There are important features of the immigration system that could inform a considered, strategic and effective government response. If there was to be such a thing.

Unauthorised migrants

First, there are estimated to be between 600,000 and 1.2 million unauthorised migrants living in the UK. If the government decides to employ a policy of contact tracing, the size and distribution of this population will potentially make such a policy very difficult. Unauthorised migrants are not going to volunteer to download an app which tells the authorities where they live and work.

This group are in considerable danger from coronavirus. Many are destitute, have no routine access to healthcare and live in substandard accommodation with no access to furloughing or Universal Credit. The government says it is trying to stop transmission of the virus by reducing non-essential work that brings people into contact with one another, but for this group work is literally a matter of survival.

Some countries have responded to the coronavirus crisis by offering unauthorised migrants access to lawful residence and to welfare support. There were already lots of reasons to pursue this policy and the public health dimension during a pandemic is just one more.

Access to healthcare

This brings us to the hostile environment. One of the features of the policy – and it is a feature, not a bug – is that it makes unauthorised migrants afraid of the authorities. Data sharing agreements between departments mean a sick person who seeks medical help may be reported to the immigration authorities and there is plenty of evidence that unauthorised migrants would rather go untreated than risk deportation. The government has added coronavirus to the list of diseases for which free treatment is available to all. This is welcome, but it does nothing to address this fear.

An amnesty would address this issue. As a first step the data sharing arrangements between government departments and the immigration authorities need to be suspended.

Nature of the immigration system

The immigration system is highly complex with outdated and sometimes incomprehensible laws, a widespread lack of faith in the immigration authorities, a very poor working relationship between the authorities and civil society and the legal community, and dire consequences for anyone who makes the slightest mistake.

Immigration lawyers have to be cautious because for us worst case scenarios are the norm. So, we are reluctant to accept such unverifiable and easily-reversible Home Office platitudes as ‘we’ll extend visas, trust us’, and we are slow to trust a government website that changes almost daily, leaving no trace of whatever was yesterday’s mumbled, fumbled plan F. We need to see proper statutory instruments that we can be confident are legally effective. At the very least, the Home Office needs to share why it thinks announcements on a website meet the formal requirements of the Immigration Act 1971.

Valuing migrants

The UK immigration system values migrants by their economic worth. Migrants are Good Migrants if they contribute to the economy as the ‘highly skilled’. Implicitly and often explicitly, migrants are Bad Migrants if they contribute to our economy and society through ‘low-skilled’ work picking fruit, cleaning hospitals and delivering food. Or by caring for children and the elderly.

The public and maybe even the government may be re-evaluating what the coronavirus has definitively shown to be a false dichotomy. I’m not holding my breath; the old ways of thinking have become deeply embedded.

A range of harsh policies are automatically triggered against migrants who lose their jobs or whose salaries are reduced. If a family that includes a migrant husband, wife or partner finds that its income has dropped below £18,000, the migrant will have to leave the country, and the British partner and children will either have to accompany them or stay behind and hope better times eventually come. If a skilled worker on a Tier 2 visa loses their job or their salary drops below £30,000, they will also have to leave the country. Some are affected by this rule right now, but many others will face the problem in the coming months as their visas expire.

Immigration policies tying immigration status to economic value are supposed to incentivise migrants to work hard – or, at least, to earn a lot, which is not always the same thing. But during the coronavirus, when the government is trying to discourage everyone from unnecessary work and the social contact it inevitably brings, migrants are still compelled to work. Migrants do qualify for furloughing, but if the 20% cut in wages puts them below the income thresholds, they are ultimately going to have to leave the country.

If migrants are valued in purely economic terms, and very narrow economic terms at that, they are – not to put too fine a point on it – totally screwed if or when the economy collapses.

This is why I and others have been so critical of the whole hostile environment policy. It does nothing to deter future arrivals or encourage departures, but it does treat migrants already in the UK as a disposable economic commodity rather than as human beings worthy of respect.

It is difficult for politicians who have risen to power on the back of anti-immigrant sentiment to reverse an anti-immigrant policy. Some are genuinely ideologically committed to reducing immigration but also their political support depends on their presenting themselves as tough on immigrants.

It is time to separate out future admissions policy from the treatment of migrants who are admitted. The coronavirus offers an opportunity to make changes on a temporary basis that can later become permanent. The opportunity should be embraced and hostile environment measures suspended.

Colin Yeo is a barrister, writer, campaigner and consultant specialising in immigration law. He founded and edits the Free Movement immigration law blog. This Letter from Afar is an edited version of one of his recent posts on the Free Movement website. Colin’s latest book, Welcome to Britain: Fixing our Broken Immigration System, will be published by Biteback in July.

Migrants abandoned – lockdown at the Mexican-Guatemalan border

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.

By Ailsa Winton.

Dear Bridget

I hope you are keeping well and sane. Although working at home is quite normal for me, the anxiety is not. So it was great to read your letter and to be able to share some thoughts!

I feel as if I am writing this from many places at once: from my home in Tapachula, at the southern tip of Mexico; from Guatemala where – until recently – I had been busily working on sabbatical research; and also from the UK, where I am virtually rooted to home and to loved ones. Living this ‘global’ event simultaneously through different places like that is interesting but quite unsettling; experiences, information, decisions and relationships take on an entirely different form in relation to each other.

Being a distant spectator even to things that are close by has been weird. When things happen, as they often do here, not being able to be physically present is odd and frustrating. But much more importantly, the fact that local NGOs can’t do any face-to-face work at the moment means many lifelines are being cut off for those who need them most. For many, economic precarity is becoming critical, especially among migrants.

A fence across and empty street. Two parked pick-ups.
‘Tyre repair shop open’: local business tries to attract customers amidst road closures in a southern Mexican border town (image: author’s own)

In Guatemala, the government was fast to act, moving quite quickly to limit movement both from outside and within its borders. I was midway through some fieldwork on violence-based displacement there when rumours about shutdowns began to circulate in March. People in the rural communities in Huehuetenango where I had been working were worried about how they would be able to meet their basic needs in the face of strict curfews and severe restrictions on movement. I couldn’t help but think apocalyptically about what a major outbreak of COVID-19 would look like in those same places. Thankfully, this has not yet happened, but already high levels of food insecurity are now critical in many parts of the country.

For its part, Mexico’s official response so far in terms of control has been patchy and notably more relaxed than many neighbours to the south. There is definitely a sense that people do not feel protected or reassured in general, and abundant misinformation circulating on social media has stoked fears; there have been many reports of locals blocking roads to stop the intrusion of the infected outsider and, shockingly, many cases of attacks and threats of violence targeting healthcare workers and hospitals. So, as my dad back in the UK pops out to clap the NHS one Thursday evening as we chat on skype, I am reminded in a very crude way of the hugely complex social conditions shaping personal responses to this ‘global’ threat.

Meanwhile, the US-Mexico-Central America migration dystopia continues apace. Just one example: in April, the authorities in Mexico decided to bus hundreds of undocumented Central American migrants from detention centres in northern and central Mexico to the southern border with Guatemala with a view to ‘repatriating’ them. Nothing particularly unusual in that, except that they did this in the full knowledge that Guatemala had sealed its border weeks previously, making crossing to that or any of the other countries of origin impossible. So they left them at the border, hundreds of people with nowhere to go in the midst of a pandemic.

Old tyres lie across the road; men stand in front of vehicles
A temporary roadblock at the approach to the Guatemalan border (image: author’s own)

Some Guatemalans decided to cross the river dividing the two countries, bypassing border controls, and try their luck with the police-enforced curfew on the other side. But most were stuck, left to weigh their barely existent options. Amidst rising tensions with locals, the National Guard was forced to intervene to remove the offending migrants, loading them onto buses again only to dump them in groups outside Tapachula, the nearest large town some 15km away from the border. An atrocious act under any circumstances, but especially now with migrant shelters and other services closed, and even public space cordoned off. But what else to do with these disposable bodies when they can no longer be discarded in the usual receptacles (detention centres, migrant shelters, countries of origin), other than to just toss them on the side of the road?

Like you, I am particularly struck that many people have suddenly become aware of mobility as something that shapes life. I suppose like other types of privilege, that of being able to choose your mobility is invisible to those who benefit from it, until it is challenged. As a migrant who studies human mobility, I have certainly been made aware of my own mobility privilege, and I have also witnessed first-hand over many years the noxious effects of precarious mobility. You are spot on with what you say about ‘precarious migrant time’. I see so clearly now amidst so much uncertainty that one of the privileges of being able to choose your mobility is the degree of certainty it affords.

I look forward to reading your piece on corona-nationalism! This massive systemic rupture is so full of transformative potential, but of course it also brings a real danger of that transformation taking us down dark paths. There is so much to reflect on and learn about collectively. So it is really encouraging to see so much excellent critical thinking already coming out. Notice how flexible academic time can be when it wants! Let’s hope those voices start to talk and pull together.

Keep in touch! There’s another platitude turned genuine.

Warm wishes,


Ailsa Winton is a Senior Researcher in the Department of Society and Culture at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, Tapachula, Mexico. Her research currently focuses on processes of mobility, inequality and violence in the context of border regions.

A violent disregard for life: COVID-19 in Brazil

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.

By Angelo Martins Junior.

Dear friends

Two months ago the governor of São Paulo decreed a state of emergency and social isolation measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, I was in São Paulo, conducting fieldwork for the ERC project I am working on, ‘Modern Marronage? The Pursuit and Practice of Freedom in the Contemporary World’. The project uses histories of Atlantic World slavery and the means by which enslaved people sought to escape it to guide research on marginalised people’s efforts to move closer to freedom today. So, my days are now mostly spent reading about the history of slavery and its aftermath, and anxiously following news on the Covid-19 pandemic, topics that are closely entwined in the Brazilian context.

Here, as elsewhere in the world, the Covid-19 crisis has illuminated existing inequalities. Besides the massive division between those who can afford access to high quality health care and those who cannot, much of the country’s population simply cannot enact the practices recommended by the World Health Organisation to prevent contagion, such as washing hands or social isolation: 38 million people (41.4% of the labour market) are informal workers; more than 100,000 are homeless; 31 million lack access to a water supply system; 13.6 million live in the thousands of favelas spread across a country that is twice the size of the European Union.

A cart on the street filled with rubbish, with painting and slogan on the side
‘My dream… is to have rights!’ – a street recycler’s barrow in São Paulo (image: author’s own)

Bolsonaro’s deny and defy approach to the Coronavirus pandemic has already been widely reported in the international media. Over the past month, the President has claimed that the Covid-19 crisis is a media fabrication and trick, or a ‘little flu’. He has also attacked scientists and fired his Health Minister for defending and promoting social isolation; urged people to go on demonstrations against their governors and isolation measures. Bolsonaro mobilises his support with a narrative that places the economy and the virus in competitive opposition, claiming that he is trying to save lives by demanding an end to social isolation, since hunger is a far greater threat to the mass of Brazilian people than a ‘little flu’.

Hundreds of his supporters (video 1) have taken to the streets across large cities in Brazil, waving Brazilian flags, calling the pandemic a communist farce, chanting and shouting violent, nationalistic and authoritarian slogans, asking for dictatorship/military intervention, and mocking death (video 2). Many people have been physically attacked by demonstrators (video 3), while others have suggested killing governors who have decreed social isolation.

These demonstrations are visceral testaments to two things that go hand in hand in Brazil – first, the absence of belief that the state has any role to play in providing for people, and second, a violent disregard for life. Instead of asking why the state is not providing for people so they can safely stay at home, the idea that people will die from hunger if they are not allowed to work individualises the problem and fosters violent sentiments towards those who defend social isolation measures.

Many will rightly link the popular response to the pandemic to neoliberal politics and its individualising social enterprise. It is true that, from the 1980s, neoliberal policies, and their individualising ideological commitments, have been normalised in Brazil, translating all social problems into matters of individual misfortune or misdeed. We can say, indeed, that the ‘neoliberal rationale’ has become a hegemonic feature of the Brazilian cognitive political struggle as well as in people’s minds. This could help us understand why so many people do not see the state as responsible for caring for its population, but instead applaud its efforts to send them to work to avoid dying from hunger even when this means spreading a virus that will kill thousands.

But we also need to remember that in the colonial and post-colonial order of Brazil, violence, disregard for (particular) lives and state repression have been almost omnipresent features. Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery, after having enslaved 4.9 million Africans or 40% of the total number forcibly taken to the Americas. To transform people into slaves, it was necessary to continually repeat acts of violence designed to impress upon the enslaved the knowledge that they were nothing but slaves, with no existence conceivable except as an appendage to the master who owned them. Violence was not only a matter of punishment, but something core to the existence of the enslaved, the masters and the whole system of slavery. For centuries, the mass of people in Brazil were condemned to live in a society where their own social status and very existence was dependent on perpetuating and/or submitting to acts of violence, and this has had great consequences for later generations, long after ‘emancipation’.

After abolition, an entire class of black and mixed people – the formerly enslaved and their descendants – as well as lighter skinned poor Brazilians were left to their own fates, having to survive in the poor peripheries of large urban centres. They have been marginalised both in the configuration of urban space and in the labour market, dealing with daily exclusion and discrimination. In Brazil, there was never a welfare state, as in Western Europe, which could attempt to remedy such inequalities by providing the basic social rights and protections required for this population to be able to live with dignity. In fact, after independence, almost all governments that have tried to promote social justice and diminish social inequality were impeached or suffered a military coup. In this context, violence has continued to be an important element in Brazil’s social order.

The descendants of the enslaved and lighter skinned poor Brazilians have historically faced a discourse of degradation, rejection from the human commonwealth, and state violence – often being executed on the streets by the police. They are the ones now struggling in the favelas, being told to go back to their already precarious, low paid and insecure work to avoid dying from hunger in a moment of health crisis.

As Stuart Hall has noted, it’s difficult to work through the question of how violent colonial pasts inhabit the historical present. Yet there can be no doubt that this past still reverberates in Brazil’s socio-political-economic structures, as well as in its collective psyche today. Unbidden, our history shapes a present in which the state and many ordinary people place no value on the lives of millions of their fellow beings, and are not only willing to allow death en masse but often violently to attack those who act, symbolically or materially, to preserve the lives of all alike.

Angelo Martins Junior is a Research Associate in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. He is working on the ERC research project ‘Modern Marronage: the pursuit and practice of freedom in the contemporary world’. This is an edited version of a longer blog that appeared in Discover Society on 23/04/20.