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How the government criminalises race

Three weeks, 17 people were deported to Jamaica after serving time for criminal offences. Two weeks ago, Shamima Begum lost her first appeal against the Home Office on her revoked citizenship. The thread that connects these two events – systematic racism in Britain – is at the forefront of conversations once again. However, for anyone who is an ethnic minority in this country, it isn’t a case of once again, but another display of their everyday reality. Crime isn’t as simple as it seems, it isn’t always a case of right or wrong. Britain prides itself on having a robust and effective legal system, upholding the rule of law, but whether that law is on your side, has a racial dimension which is often overlooked. How a person is viewed under the law is inevitably shaped by the colour of their skin, a truth that Britain continually refuses to confront.

The deportation flight went ahead last Tuesday despite a Court of Appeal ruling the previous day that it should be halted, as some of the men had not had access to proper legal advice. 25 of those scheduled to be deported were taken off the flight, but 17 remained. The government’s justification was that these men are “foreign nationals” who have committed serious crimes such as murder, rape and manslaughter, but this is actually only a minority of the offenders. A large number had committed non-violent crimes or drug offences, and are not repeat offenders. Speaking to The Guardian, 23 year old Tajay Thomson said he felt his “life had been taken away by the Home Office”. He lived in the UK since he was 5 years old, and served a 7 month sentence for a drug offence in 2015. It is convenient for the government to use the examples of high level crimes as it villainises black men. It effectively plays into the stereotype that black means dangerous, and that “foreigners” are a threat. It paints them as outsiders, reinforcing the “you don’t belong here” narrative that is all too familiar for ethnic minorities and immigrants. This mirrors the Conservative government’s treatment of Windrush generation citizens, many of whom were wrongfully deported after being questioned about their right to live in the UK.
This criminalisation of black people is nothing new. The Lammy Report, undertaken by MP David Lammy in 2017 found that black people make up 12% of the prison population despite only being 3% of the population in England and Wales, clearly disproportionate. Figures have gotten worse since then. More than half of the people locked in young offender institutions in England and Wales belong to an ethnic minority, up from 41% in 2017. According to the London Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, 43% of stop and searches in London were black people, compared to 35.5% white people (2018 figures). This is disproportionate again, as black people make up 15.6% of London’s population compared to 59.8% white people. These figures highlight institutional racial bias in the criminal justice system of which the Jamaica deportees are a victim of.

Another cause for concern around the deportations is the issue of citizenship. Jeffery Boakye writes about this in his best-seller book Black, Listed. He says that “black people living in white contexts will have a complex relationship with the countries they call ‘home’. For many, the black experience is one of intersectional heritage, churning with the overlap of cultures and inherent power politics that lay therein”. For Boakye, he is always reminded that he is “not British, but Brit-ish”. People with a heritage from countries which were previously colonised by the British, and subsequently immigrated here, live amongst a system which privileges white skin as ‘true British’.

The case against Shamima Begum illustrates this. Born in the UK and raised in East London, Begum was groomed online and then fled to Syria in 2015 to fight for terrorist group ISIS. In February 2019, she was found in a Syrian refugee camp. 9 months pregnant at the time, she claimed she wanted to return to the UK for the safety of her child, but the then Home Secretary Sajid Javid stripped her of her British citizenship. Two weeks ago, she lost her first appeal. The Court ruled that the stripping of Begum’s British citizenship did not render her stateless as she was entitled to Bangladeshi citizenship through her mother. The legal complexities are of too great a depth to be fully discussed here, but to simplify: anyone whose parents or grandparents have held citizenship in another country could potentially be stripped of their British citizenship if the Home Office deems necessary. This is partly dependent on the country of heritage’s laws. However, the government of Bangladesh said that Begum is not entitled to Bangladeshi citizenship and her lawyers say if she goes there she risks being killed.

This case adds an unsettling layer of truth to Boakye’s words. Those with power are able to dictate the terms of ‘Britishness’, and therefore how they are treated under the law. Begum’s actions can not be wholly overlooked, but because she won’t be given Bangladeshi citizenship, the British government has rendered her illegally stateless under international law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares the right to a nationality, which she no longer has.

Evidently, the Conservative government’s hostile environment policies have serious consequences. Jeremy Corbyn was met with groans when he asked in the House of Commons if “a white boy with blond hair from the US who later dabbled in class A drugs would suffer the same fate as black boys originally from the Caribbean”. He was referring to Boris Johnson, who was born in New York and has openly admitted to using cocaine. The white privilege and class privilege that is afforded to Johnson operates in conjunction with the institutionalised racism that both Begum and the 17 deported men have suffered from. Johson is just one in a row of white, elite politicians who have admitted to Class A drug use but do not face any consequences, such as Michael Gove and Rory Stewart.

The concepts of legality and illegality are produced around anti-blackness and this is reinforced when the government decides to use the law as a tool for disadvantaging people of colour. This reality is one that Britain refuses to take accountability for, even when the evidence is as clear as in the Lammy Report. For those of us with foreign heritage, Shamima Begum’s case shows that our citizenship is never secure, but instead conditional depending on how the government wants to shift the goalposts of the law. Thus, we are never equal to the white British. The experiences of people of colour in Britain are by no means homogenous, but are connected by the shared reality that we are a part of a system which sees us as ‘Others’, and therefore our rights can be taken away in the blink of an eye.

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