Statement on the murder of George Floyd

 

The Sociology programme team at Canterbury Christ Church University condemn the brutal, racist murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on the 25th May, 2020, and the violent response from government authorities in the US and UK.

We stand in solidarity with the groups, individuals, and communities who have for decades endured not only direct, explicit racism, but multiple levels of racial oppression across gender, class and religion. We stand in solidarity with all members of our learning community – students and staff alike – whose lives have been impacted by racism. We know that these anti-black racisms as they manifest in brutal policing practices are connected to deep histories of colonial and imperial power, and are part of a wider picture of racism and racial inequalities. Unequal treatment and access to housing, health care, education, citizenship, policing, and political representation has led to severe socio-economic, social and psychological damage that cannot be repaired in one sitting, one march, nor one statement. George Floyd’s death is a catalyst for change. But it is also only one episode in a long and ignoble history of countless incidents of institutionally enabled oppression, maltreatment, violence and murder.

As such, condemnation of George Floyd’s killing is not sufficient on its own. Condemning a murder is NOT the same as condemning the cause of the murder, the bodies that stand on either side of the murder, and the entire system that allowed and even encouraged the murder to take place. We condemn not only the act, but the systematic, inter-related web of destructive, social, political and economic systems that kill, maim and harm countless racialized populations in the US, UK, and around the world. We affirm that black lives matter, and stand in solidarity with all those who campaign against racism in the UK and across the world.

As Sociologists, we must ask serious questions about how we can stand in alliance with the change mechanisms that may facilitate a social justice framed world. We have a disciplinary duty and responsibility to engage in teaching that breaks the boundaries of race, class and gender, and to pro-actively work to disrupt the kinds of thinking that ultimately lead to acts of oppression. Sociology has not always been successful in this objective.

Even as the world reels from a global, deadly pandemic, a highly racialized picture of inequalities has emerged, as more Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people have died from COVID-19, and suffer disproportionate levels of infection. And this is true around the world. We cannot isolate one racist violent act from all the other inter-related complexities of this unequal world. The institutional racism that runs through US policing, also runs deep within the British policing system, supported by culturally racist discrimination and economic and political marginalisation. These systemic problems pervade every aspect of society – the society that Sociology promised to study. And yet in so many cases, and for so long, it has failed to do so.

In every sociology curriculum, at all levels throughout the UK education system, students learn about a variety of intersecting social, cultural and economic inequalities, all underwritten by social theories seeking to explain the complexity of society. But we must question, when there is so much racism in the world, across nation states and within, affecting millions of people, whether Sociology has risen to this challenge? We need to ask serious questions and create a space for honesty and humility. So how can Sociology, as a discipline and an institution, reflect the very society it is deeply embedded within? First, it is imperative that we have a frank reckoning of Sociology’s shortcomings and its role in perpetuating division, and second, that we change the face of Sociology. For it is only when we are able to honestly engage with our role in a society riven with these racial inequalities, that we can begin to become allies to the on-going project of liberation. We must listen, we must hear, we must act.

Together, we will move beyond condemnation of racism and racial inequalities, and seek to use the criticality of a changing, adaptational sociology to mobilise an understanding that contributes to building a better world for every individual, group and community.  We will seek to be allies and support the resistance against racism in ways that mobilise our skills, but which do not unintentionally reproduce the very problems we are trying to address. This will mean making mistakes, and learning from each other, with humility, and compassion.  This is the sociology that we strive to practise.

The Sociology Team

George Floyd, Racial Terror and ‘Alliances’

Dr Harshad Keval 

To breathe

George Floyd was brutally murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota on the 25th May, 2020. An assassination that was captured on video, and circulated around the world in a matter of seconds. For 9 minutes, the police officer Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck and back, whilst George Floyd cried out for air, pleading to breathe, to live, for mercy. He was arrested for allegedly having a counterfeit 20 dollar bill. Several other police officers stood and watched him die. As I write, cities around the world are exploding with the rage, anger, hurt and pain that comes from the accumulation of centuries of racial trauma.

The structural, capitalism fuelled racialised architecture of white supremacy as manifested in generations of political malevolence, are all focused through one incident as it hurls its way through billions of digital screens, and through the lives and bodies of people who simply will not, cannot, stand by. 

This one, brutal, violent death comes to symbolise, in graphic form, millions of deaths at the hands of those with power. In this and many cases, it is police power.

And yet, the power relations that have always had one knee on the neck of racialised, oppressed populations, are not limited to police and judicial systems throughout the globe.

These power relations occupy the unseen spaces in between the clear manifestations of social structure. They occupy the everyday to-ings and fro-ings of urban life, of institutional processes, of labour force operations, of employment structures, of hopes, dreams and aspirations of black and ethnic minority children and their parents as they dare to behold better, safer futures in a racial world of constant obstacles and burdens.

And of torment and terror.

The knee that deprived George Floyd of his last breath did so, despite his dying plea for mercy. That knee has been ever present, sitting, positioned ready to deliver its death blow. This is the racial-trigger that is carried by all power relations in white supremacist fuelled political systems.  

That knee is not a move in reaction. That knee is not a self-defense mechanism. That knee does not appear out of disembodied application of policing power, of law and order. That knee is always positioned just a hair’s breadth away from the necks and backs of racialised populations – of black people.

The burning buildings, rage, anger, violence that we now see – these are the hands that push away at the knee.
These are the legs that kick out at the knee.
These are the collective bodies and spirits that hold the knee back.
These are the voices that have been crying out for decades, centuries, ‘please don’t’.  

If that deathly, deadly knee is the thing that goes bump in the long night of racial terror, then this is the bump back.  

What choice is there? For anyone who has felt the fist or the boot or both, of a racist, it’s not possible to debate the action, or engage in rational talk, when the murderous violence is upon you. When that knee applies pressure, the time for debate is long past. When the full force of policing power is felt, there is little one can do, for your life is never in the balance, it is always outweighed by other lives that are valued more highly.

Similarly, for institutional racism, it’s not possible to even identify one’s attacker, let alone rely on legal equality systems to provide justice. That knee is ever present. For the victims of police racism, it takes their lives, and attempts to shatter their families and communities. For people of colour trying to work, live, breathe and simply be, that knee is only ever a hair’s breadth away.

The people under the threat of that knee owe no duty to ‘reflect’ on what comes afterwards, because if, IF, that knee can be pushed away, held at bay for a moment, then life happens. Breathing happens. If enough people help keep that knee at bay, then racist systems can be held at bay.

It may be just for a moment.

But just as with our breath, it only happens one breath at a time. So, we can, collectively, keep that knee at a distance, one moment at a time. Long enough maybe for the knee, its owners, and the body that propels it, to stop.

Alliance?

But who is ‘we’? I can see a massive proliferation of support and ‘alliance’ messages, being advertised and promoted on social media and websites – institutions, groups and bodies that, in the face of one video of one racial murder feel compelled to raise their institutional voices. And what powerful voices they are. The performativity is filled with the warm and cozy afterglow of a well performed lecture, receiving continuous applause and legitimation.

But it also smacks of the very platitudes that have resulted in absolute and total silence at every other death in custody, violent racial injustice, and every act of arrogant, belligerent, overt and covert racial oppression that black and minority ethnic people have had to suffer for generations.

Where were these messages of ‘alliance’ and support then? And now, even more importantly, what does this alliance and support mean? When white academic institutions for example, push out the ‘support’ message, what does that actually mean?

In practice?

Because in practice, people are dying from white racial supremacy fuelled violence. So, what is a group, institution, body, who feels the need to send out these well-intentioned messages, intending on doing, in practice?

Is there a willingness to turn their inquisitive, passive gaze way from angry protestors, away from theoretical abstractions they might suddenly get interested in that fill ‘top’ race´ journals, and start looking for their own complicity? Start peering into their own relations of power with people of colour? Start looking honestly at their hiring and promotion practices? Take a step back and look at their their subtle, almost-missed-it-if-you-blinked aggressions in everyday work places?

And will they listen to their own silence? What does alliance and support mean?

It means being silent at the right time, and being vocal in the right place. It means figuring how what your role in this connected, murderous situation is, and was. And then finding a way to help – help – not take a lead, assume authority, and take charge, but help make it better. And by owning the likelihood – not impossibility but likelihood – that you may never know what the feeling of violent and everyday racism feels like.

By owning this, you leave a space for change. You become a potential ally. But by acting as if your ‘support’ can fix it, you take the change possibilities away.

But that means realising that before a message of support and alliance is pushed out, ensuring it doesn’t sit right on top of that deathly, deadly knee.

That knee comes with a whole body, and that body is white supremacy. That is a weight that is too much to bear and will no longer be borne without consequences.

#BlackLivesMatter #NoJusticeNoPeace #GeorgeFloyd

The potential and pitfalls of putting the ‘university experience’ online

Jennie Bristow, Sarah Cant and Anwesa Chatterjee
18th May 2020

Way before the upheaval of the COVID-19 crisis, universities were gradually moving some teaching activities online. Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) such as Moodle or Blackboard are well-established for providing access to course materials, including readings and lecture slides, and the submission and marking of student coursework.

More recently, a head of steam has developed around technologies such as ‘Lecture Capture’, where academics’ lectures are recorded for students to play back in their own time, after – or instead of – the physical lecture. Communications between academics and students routinely take place over email and Skype, and even mental health support is now offered via some online platforms to deal with increased demand. 

The hurried closure of university campuses since March has confirmed the value of thesetechnologies, in terms of being able to carry out the work of Higher Education where physical encounters are impossible. The need to reorganise teaching and assessment procedures so rapidly has of course presented universities with significant challenges, and students’ experience of these changes will have been uncomfortable and uneven. But unlike the days when universities functioned only as physical spaces – with paper essays, pigeon-holes, bulging bookshelves and staff office hours – it has been possible to respond to this emergency by keeping education going online.   

However, before we rush to embrace the virtual university as the ‘new normal’, this crisis has also thrown into relief some more problematic aspects of technologised education. In researching our new book Generational Encounters With Higher Education: The academic-student relationship and the University experience, we talked to a range of senior and junior academics from both pre-1992 and post-1992 Universities, and also to current undergraduates and sixth form students about their expectations and experiences of Higher Education. The increased use of, and in many cases reliance upon, technology, emerged as a significant theme in their accounts – and though its benefits were acknowledged, so were its limitations.  

Among academics, one widely-voiced concern was that technology has become relied upon as a cheap way of managing increasing student numbers, in the context of shrinking numbers of staff to students and the financial pressure upon Universities to recruit the maximum possible number of students. Here, there were concerns that thedepth traditionally associated with the academic-student relationship is being diluted, in favour of a massified, depersonalised, and disembodied model.  

Related to this, academics discussed the effect of the policy construction of the student as a ‘consumer’ of Higher Education, charged with demanding a certain level of ‘service’. Concerns were raised about students’ increasing expectations of course materials such as slides, handouts and recorded lectures, lengthy feedback on assignments, and even the award of a particular grade – signalling a more passive relationship to the intellectual project of Higher Education than in previous times. Our study notes how the policy focus on student expectations as a driver to Higher Education reforms has resulted in the gradual disappearance of the academic from successive policy documents, and now even from some key elements of teaching practice.   

Academics talked of the difficulties of providing pastoral support to increasing numbers of students presenting with anxiety and depression in the limited amount of time available, particularly in a context where they felt under pressure to develop their own research profiles and career progression opportunities, whilst shouldering significantteaching and administrative responsibilities. They worried that they were unable to give students the support that they both expected and needed, and that the distance between academic and student was often exacerbated by an over-reliance on impersonal educational technologies. 

And what about the students? Many current and prospective undergraduates said that they appreciated the convenience of being able to access course materials online, and to ‘catch up’ on lectures that they had missed. However, they also expressed frustration at what they perceived to be a fragmented experience, where they did not feel that they got to know their lecturers, and sometimes felt that they were being sold short by the provision of generic course material. Students’ accounts expressed a yearning for a meaningful educational relationship with their tutors, which would scaffold their academic development.  

Sixth formers, in particular, spoke of their feelings of having been ‘spoon-fed’ at school and their excitement about the prospect of higher studies, where they could go beyond ‘the mark scheme’ and explore ideas in more depth. Yet some undergraduates continued to feel that their university work was an extension of ‘spoon-feeding’, while some academics spoke of their own frustrations with students’ reluctance to take intellectual risks, as they tried to tick all the boxes to achieve the best grade. Here, we identified the phenomenon of the ‘schoolification’ of the University, where the relationship between academic and student is increasingly coming to be framed as an extension of the relationship between schoolteacher and pupil in compulsory education  

Academics’ and students’ concerns about the nature of the current ‘university experience’ were not focused on technology per se, but on the wider tensions invoked by a massified, marketised, and consumerised Higher Education system. Students feel under great pressure to ‘succeed’ yet unclear about what success looks like, aside from a high grade. Paradoxically, this can be exacerbated by the proliferation of easy-accessible resources designed to support students’ learning. Where students feel that their work should be based on digesting the resources given to them, this discourages independent study; and when they feel that participating in physical lectures or seminars is unnecessary as it is all available online anyway, the experience of study becomes further atomised.  

Academics, meanwhile, often feel thwarted in their attempts to develop a deep and educational relationship with an increasingly individuated student body. Where technology is used appropriately, it has the potential to mitigate some of these bigger problems – and this was acknowledged by academics and students alike. The problemarises when educational technology is used not to support the academic-student relationship, but to substitute for it. The big challenge, right now, is to consider how we might build that relationship despite the constraints on physical interaction and keep it central to the project of the academy, rather than assuming that all students need from us are more recorded lectures.

Generational Encounters with Higher Education by Jennie Bristow, Sarah Cant and Anwesa Chatterjee is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £60.00 or get the EPUB for £21.59.

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Image Credit: Felicia Buitenwerf on Unsplash

RACE, CLASS AND COVID-19 – NOT AN EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES CONTAGION

Discover Society

Harshad Keval

Despite the narrative of crisis and chaos that permeates both news media reporting and the everyday experience of life in ‘lockdown’, there are emerging patterns that need thinking about. Many observers have already pointed to the massive inequalities that are appearing in the cracks in between national and international efforts to combat the global pandemic story. The Guardiannewspaper has started reporting on what it frames as ‘emerging’ stories of ethnic inequalities in how the disease impacts communities, whilst most news media has already alerted us to the socio-economics of Covid-19 impacts. In this short piece I would like to highlight the way in which race-analytics need to be made more integral to the Covid-19 story.

Hostile territories
In the US, UK and elsewhere, it is those living at the sharp end of the neo-liberal, deregulated market ‘trickle down’ who are most at risk, and yet again, race and ethnicity are at the heart. In the UK, BAME communities making up 13%-18% of the population, have higher admission rates for the virus at 33%, suffer more from cramped housing and, ironically, play a huge role working in the NHS. We know that BAME people are 40% of doctors and 20% of nurses nationally (rising to 50% in London). Black, Asian, and minority ethnic people are also 17% of the social care workforce, rising to 59% in London.

Long term conditions e.g. high blood pressure and diabetes are associated with higher rates of mortality from COVID19. Given that African Caribbean people have higher prevalence of high blood pressure, South Asians have higher rates of coronary heart disease and are up to six times more likely to have diabetes, what does this mean for Covid-19, society, and ‘crisis’? The British Medical Association has asked the government to investigate the disturbing trend in disproportionately high BAME staff deaths from coronavirus in the NHS (the first 10 doctors to die from the virus were from BAME backgrounds). As the Race Equality Foundation – amongst many voices has consistently reported these issues, BAME people have always occupied the precipitous position of ‘precarity’ (long before the notion ‘the precariat’ became academic social class label-de-jour). It is this precarity, deeply embedded inside the racist and racial nature of state governance that now runs the risk of being over-written by ‘exception narratives’.

The ‘everydayness’ of the Covid-19 story is interesting because the everyday institutions and facilities that allow society to operate–health, social care, transport, service industries – are precisely those employment and institutional entities that are the foundation of society, and which are overwhelmingly populated by BAME people (BAME people more likely to be key workers and/or work in higher risk occupations, e.g. include cleaners, public transport (including taxis), shops, and NHS staff.)

A ‘state of exception’ narrative, which relies on the term ‘crisis’ to mark out practical and discursive territories as beyond normal governance structures, also demands a silencing of the accountability for pre-existing intersectional inequalities. Such a landscape struggles to see the racialised structure of labour, access to health and social care, housing, representation in politics, the NHS and public transport.

As other writers have explored, fear, paranoia and anxieties of the contagious ‘other’ lead to more racism and  xenophobia, while racial science yet again rears its head, as bio-racial, race-thinking identifies spaces in public and political consciousness that are ripe for hankerings for new essentialisms projected onto black bodies (e.g. testing vaccines on unprotected ‘Africans’). Race-thinking, racism and class are transversal lines that run through these issues.

In it together?
The paradox of championing key workers whilst ignoring the race-class dynamics are exemplified in the fact that all the key cabinet members who are currently publicly championing the NHS and key workers, also voted against giving nurses a pay rise in 2017. Given the high proportions of BAME nurses in the NHS compared to UK BAME populations, the higher risk of exposure to both socio-economic and now Covid-19 impacts is a moveable oppression line that barely gets acknowledged.

But this ‘race angle’ (as undoubtedly it and other similarly themed pieces will be labelled) is not principally about race and class up to the nation-state border. If social science in this time, written inclusively by people in and of this time is to take part in analysis that dispels the mythology of insular Westernised, European-centred thinking, it must de-link itself from its own narrow confines.

As the sociological landscape becomes increasingly complex and uncertainty driven, several levels of isolationist paradigms emerge. On one, there is the very real, physical isolation and distancing required to mitigate contagion, violation of which has massive consequences. But on another level, isolationism in thinking about Covid-19 and society can prevent analytical imaginations to think further than national and European borders. We are now beginning to see, hear and read about the immeasurable, mass human disasters that will befall global southern countries hit by Covid-19.

While economists discuss the important impact of import restrictions on medical supplies to developing countries, there are more transparent human tragedies unfolding around the world. For example, there are only three ventilators in the Central African Republic and Liberia, with four in South Sudan. If we add to this for example the potential human misery that is currently being experienced by undocumented migrants around the world we can begin to see the importance of connected empathies in social science work. The ‘race angle’ is actually the constitutive structure of British society and the global picture of inequalities is an intimately connected set of global structural processes that span the enduring legacies of imperial and colonial power. If sociological analysis cannot yield valid conceptual discussions without these integral components, then logically, Covid-19 impacts cannot be rendered usefully without a similar integration and interrogation.

My point is simple, but signposts a deeper complexity: that the ‘race’ story here is not an unfortunate addendum about minority ‘cultures’, or an additional issue that sits along-side and is to be subsumed under larger more important issues in the Covid-19 story. If we are to make sense of the impacts of this virus, then we fundamentally need to restructure our conceptions of what constitutes society itself, what kind of polity we seek to live in, and who is rendered a part of that vision – now and after the ‘crisis’.

Covid-19 is not a leveller, a ‘colour/class blind’ virus which, in the bio-medicalisation narrative might perhaps be tempting to rehearse. Worse still, the socio-economic inequalitiesexplanations, vital as they are as an integrated intersectional component, once again run the risk of explaining-away racial disparities rather than demanding structural change to the racist structures inside which these disparities are maintained. To make social scientific claims and produce analysis of Covid-19 and society without a constant attention to the race and class dynamics that lie at the heart of society, is a social injustice.

The increasing isolation and lock-down lives we are living risk turning away from these fundamental interconnections and necessarily focusing on ‘survival’. But for many, ‘survival’ has been the only mode of operation for decades, and just as we need to continue to hold government, politicians, and ministers to account, we also need to maintain vigilance against ‘exception’ narratives in social thinking that do the work of rendering race and racist structures invisible. Covid-19 may not give a damn about the ‘hostile environment, but we know that many people continue to live in one, precisely at a time when life is going to get even more difficult.

Harshad Keval is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology, with special interests in race, postcolonial and decolonial theory. He is based at Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent.

 

Studying Sociology during the Covid-19 lockdown

The CCCU Sociology team has put together a list of popular Sociology books, novels, and films to keep our minds active over the next period. Read and watch what you want to, and keep that sociological imagination working!

New students

For students joining us in September, these books will get you thinking about the course:

Sociological reflections on the Coronavirus crisis

Here are some initial reflections from blogs:

There are many sociological articles about pandemics – see this for example:

Popular Sociology and non-fiction books

The publisher Haymarket Books is offering 10 free e-books. Check them out here.

Novels and poetry

TV and film