This is a talk that I prepared for an event about the asylum policy in the Netherlands and how it affects refugees:
In this talk I want to highlight the role that anti-blackness has played—and still plays—in shaping official migration policies. More often than not, the role that anti-blackness plays in state policies remains unmentioned.
Counter to popular political actions, I want to unsettle the relatively “safe” position of those of us who are documented. My main project is to question and undermine the system of documentation itself—to think beyond citizenship. To that end, I would like us to think about why it is so that the state determines which movements are legitimate, and which aren’t. Why is no movement ‘free’—unless it is in service of corporate capital? The basic question I want us to wrestle with is, why do we need to be documented in order to be able to “live legitimately” in this society?
I want us to consider these questions concerning ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ movements as a way to broaden our views on political activism against EU asylum policies. In order to help us better answer these questions, it is necessary that we set as our point of departure the endemic and structural anti-black violence that has given rise to EU migration policies and the system of policing and criminalization. I will briefly sketch how the logic that constrained the movements of enslaved Africans through social norms and laws still underwrites migration policies and policing strategies.
Historically, Black visibility and Black mobility have been constituted as inherently suspicious, if not criminal. Unsupervised (irregular) movements of Black folk, fugitivity (flight), waywardness, and autonomy were considered a threat to White folk, and the plantation economy. ‘Irregular movement’, such as wandering, was—and still is—considered dangerous and even criminal when associated with Black people. “Black movement is,” to quote Sarah Jane Cervenak, “more often than not, read as disruptive physicality.”
During slavery and its afterlife, the policing of Black folk emerged as a form of protection offered to White plantation owners and their property. In 1872 the Dutch sanctioned an ordinance on Curaçao which “empowered white authorities to use physical force against any Afro Curaçaoan perceived [of] endangering the public order, tranquillity, and safety.” According to Nanette de Jong, “this ordinance basically empowered vigilante whites to judge and punish blacks as they saw fit without fear of personal legal consequence.”
Freedom papers, and slave passes—precursors to modern identity documents—were important tools with which to manage the mobility of enslaved Africans. Not many people may know this, but the modern passport system has its roots in the slave economies of the Americas—passports are not “insignificant pieces of paper.”
Between 1710 and 1766 a series of laws regulating the maritime movement of enslaved people of African descent were issued in Curaçao. The 1742 law “established a standardised passport system for all people of African descent.” The 1742 law also “set forth detailed procedures for how [all blacks and mulattoes] were to prove this freedom [of movement].” It stated that:
“No blacks or mulattoes would be allowed to board a vessel or leave the island if they did not present a passport.” [Linda M. Rupert, Marronage, Manumission and Maritime Trade in the Early Modern Caribbean]
An amendment to the law in 1755 “stipulated that slaves could only go to sea if they had both a passport and permission from their masters.”
Slavery depended to a large extent on the tight restriction and monitoring of both ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ movement—so as to prevent enslaved Africans from escaping. Simone Browne points out in her essay Black Luminosity and the Visual Culture of Surveillance that much of the “technologies instituted through slavery to track blackness as property anticipate the contemporary surveillance of the racial body.”
Anti-blackness provided the condition of possibility for ‘free’, and ‘legitimate’ travel. As such, anti-black violence is always-already implicated in ‘free’, and ‘legitimate’ movement. The system of documentation regulated—and continues to do so—who could go where, when, for how long, and do what, and it acts as a way to manage the racial, and economic make-up of a place.
In Globalized Anti-Blackness: Transnationalizing Western Immigration Law, Policy, and Practice Vilna Bashi notes that comparative historical evidence shows clear strategies to keep Black persons out of Western countries—except as temporary labour. So, constrained mobility should be seen as a form of racial and economic violence. These policies were “based on the certainty that black persons were inassimilable.” The Netherlands itself, as Dienke Hondius’ research shows, remained White through “a highly selective process of enabling and restricting access.” By restricting access of Black folk, the Netherlands could also regulate Black social and economic mobility.
The system of documentation, then, guarantees not only ‘a smooth operation’ of Dutch civil society, but it is also a tool of White supremacy to keep Black people, as Vilna Bashi points out, out of European countries. The EU emerges—this is in their own words—as an “area of Freedom, Security and Justice” (and Prosperity) through the organized efforts of White people “to keep Europe white, pure, and ‘secular’ in ways that do not interrogate the violence that underwrites that very project,” and through, for instance, the continuous dispossession of Africa’s wealth. Beyond EU borders, it seems, are those who live in the Not—Unfreedom, Insecurity, and Injustice.
The promise of ‘safety’ and ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ and ‘prosperity’ hides the ordinariness of everyday violence that accompanies the protection of political stability—the detention and incapacitation of Black folk both at home and abroad—and the tremendous violence that constitutes European citizenship. ‘Democracy’ and ‘safety’ and ‘freedom’, or to put it plainly, “the violent spectacles of racialization that [the state] calls the ‘maintenance of order’,” constitute a state of emergency for Black and Blackened folk. Everyday racial violence is that which makes ‘democracy’ and ‘safety’, as markers of political stability, cohere—make sense.
Following Frank Wilderson, I posit that Blackness itself has no place in civil society. Civil society as “a space of uncoerced human association” is not a space intended for the Black subject. It is coded as waged and wages are White. One of the central concerns of both the state and civil society has been how to contain “the Black.”
To illustrate my point, I turn to the conditions under which citizenship was granted to the ‘freed’ enslaved. After Emancipation, the formerly enslaved were subjected to laws and regulations that were the result of debates in which they had not participated. These laws were unilaterally drafted by their (former) masters. There were articles against vagrancy and that forced them to labour. The formerly enslaved were not allowed to do nothing. Doing nothing was punishable by law.
‘Black citizenship’ is the result of coercion—and violence. The point that I want to make is that ‘Black citizenship’ or the denial of Black citizenship trade—on a deeper level—on the very same logic: both are geared towards Black containment and captivity.
Essentially, Black people went from being owned by plantation masters to being owned by the State. Through citizenship, Black people were rendered the internal property of the Netherlands. What’s more, anti-blackness places both ‘Black citizens’ and ‘Black non-citizens’ within contained geographies that exist outside the borders of Whiteness—outside of Europe.
For “the Black,” who is always-already recognized as ‘non human’, or anti-human, “there [is] no inside to civil society and no outside to policing,” which is not to say that “the Black” cannot ‘exist’ in civil society, but rather that civil society gains coherence, that is makes sense, by structurally excluding Blackness. Black people ‘exist’ in civil society, but are not a part of civil society. Civil society is more than just a set of discriminatory practices—civil society, and by extension Europe, is a murderous concept.
In other words, the grammar of anti-black violence sets the conditions for civil society—White, industrious, documented—and makes all ‘life’ subordinate to neoliberal ideas of freedom, security, justice, and prosperity. However, anti-blackness, as Tommy J. Curry notes, “denies racialized people the ability to claim a right to life.” To be Black is to have a “life unworthy of life.” As such, anti-black racism isn’t a problem of misunderstanding; it is the structural necessity of deeming Black/ened life as “unworthy of life.”
What citizenship offers Black people is a temporary respite from spectacular violence. Citizenship, or documentation, does not protect us from racial violence. The brunt of racial violence is displaced onto undocumented “disposable bodies,” the Black and Brown people, who are risking their lives to get into Europe.
The deadly logic of ‘democratic inclusion’, which “[defines] freedom through captivity,” has created, through an ever-growing set of lethal configurations, a class of Black folk (as Allochtonen, ‘matter out of place’) that is able to observe the dying Black and non-Black people of colour at the EU border. Democracy has created populations ‘on the outside’ whose deaths “as by an invisible hand [restore] the market to what it must be to support life”—life that is always-already coded as White.
The world of peace and order promised by the EU is a ruse for capitalism’s continuous production of death, and dispossession. Violence is a condition of the EU’s coherence. And the rationale of letting die, or exposing to death, as a necessary condition for the maximization of life and prosperity is what animates ‘democracy’. And it is through the deaths at the EU border, that is “democracy’s boundaries,” that the fantasy of Black citizenship gains its coherence.
When anti-black violence is always-already implicated in ‘legitimate’ movement, and if there is “no outside to policing” for Black people, then to exist outside policing (by being undocumented, and untraceable) is tantamount to (administrative) death. Being readable—being documented, a ‘proper citizen’, having ‘freedom papers’—has always been a vital matter of racial, social, economic, and political importance. Violence-as-law and Law-as-violence work in tandem to preserve the sanctified category of citizen—the lives ‘worth preserving’. If our goal is to end the violence of the security, detention and asylum industrial complex, then our activism needs to go beyond the ruse of citizenship, and legal solutions.