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n European Cities, Noa K Ha and Giovanni Picker say their aim is to build up a race conscious archive of European cities in the nexus of modernity and colonialism. I congratulate them on compiling this record of race and urbanity in the many cities featured in this book. The case studies it contains bring a wealth of empirical detail and deploy a range of critical conceptual tools, analysing the various histories, intersections, manifestations and occlusions of race in European cities. In these remarks, and commenting as a sociologist, I aim to offer a contribution about some routes that can help sharpen the analyses in the book, and they will hopefully be taken in that spirit.
As the editors say – and the sub-divisions of the book emphasise make evident – the book takes its inspiration from Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe (2008). A couple of chapters include discussions of the national formations of urban studies - in Portugal and to a lesser extent in Germany. A book with a sub-title modernity, race and colonialism must have a transnational perspective, along with an interdisciplinary approach, as this one does. These chapters on the somewhat parochial nature of urban studies in some nations indicate the scope to draw further from Chakrabarty. In particular, how the imaginary of Europe is formed in and comes out of the social sciences and humanities, and the intersections of the academy with social policy, urban planning and governance. Such analyses could entail further examination of the relationship between research, policy and constructions of the European city, in the specific form of the European City model, idealised – in contrast to the American city – and simultaneously and paradoxically knowingly blind to race. These formations go beyond a kind of methodological nationalism and, as numerous critical geographers have observed, are not solved merely by taking a ‘global’ perspective.
These thoughts can be pushed further. Chakrabarty talks of a hyperreal Europe, one that is like a copy without any original. The links and crossovers between some of the ideations of Europe and the material consequences of that are what the sub-title of this book speaks to. The form that takes in discourse and in racial patterning is evidenced across this book. The obduracy of this hyperreal character, its resistance to the bare facts of a changing and ‘decentred’ world underpins many chapters in this volume. The locus of that character in various European cities is philosophised in terms of ideas of European values and this gesture towards elite discourse is not accidental. Intellectualising about the threat of other cultures is not just a preserve of cultural conservatives but also a liberal leitmotif, in which we can see the crossovers and connections between race and culture wars of all kinds taking shape across European cities.
Having said that I suggest there are ways in which the analytical task could be made more precise, particularly in the key area of race, or more so in regard to racialisation. Racialisation is a word used in a wide range of ways, as a process, a concept and a framework; it is deployed across multiple theoretical perspective. Sometimes it seems to mean little more than any race inflected situation, as David Goldberg once noted (for a fuller discussion see Murji and Solomos 2005). Calling for greater clarity in its use, particularly in terms of specification of the mechanisms of racialisation - who or what is doing it? How effective is it? Are there different levels? - is a key step in identifying the purchase of racialisation as an analytic rather than just a descriptor.
The uses of racialisation in this book sometimes make it difficult to discern whether racialisation is an being employed as explanandum or an explanans. Despite and because of the wide range of ways it is used, recent conceptual debates criticise the idea of racialisation as lacking an account of agents and mechanisms, and sometimes as tautologous. One promising route beyond that impasse is to invoke it as a meta-concept connecting contemporary imperial racisms that are part of the remaking of global capitalism (or an expression of racialised modernity) placing coloniality/imperialism and whiteness at the centre of the frame. This seems closest to what is envisaged in this book.
Likewise, intersectionality can be utilised in ways that go beyond identities but rather as a thread to connect, for instance, criminalisation and immigration control at the border and other places. In this context the coloniality of European cities extends to camps and detention centres, ‘grey zones’ that lie beyond the urban. The sub-title of this book forms its own kind of fateful triangle to parallel the race-ethnicity-nation triangle set out by Stuart Hall in his Harvard lectures. For Hall, race had a reality of its own, not as a biological distinction but as a set of materialised relations between bodies, racist ideas and social positions. Colonialism and modernity are the epistemic underpinnings of this triangle.
In this context, I recognise the editors point about a Europe that distances colonialism and colonial violence to ‘other’ places and distant times. However, both the temporalities and spatialities of the present might point more to the impossibility of doing that. The ongoing ‘crises’ of forced migration and the increasingly shrill political rhetoric reveal the connections and complicity of the west. The many obfuscations of these things highlight the labour that is required to maintain a veneer of a white Europe. Thus, race still serves as something like the barium meal to the body politic, from everyday life to hyper-nationalism and proto-fascist groups and political parties. The ‘incorporation’ of migrants – highly selective and stratified across race and class lines – in the form of transnational and official polices of inclusion and diversity indicate one level at which the idea of Europe is made and remade. This takes place in a context where hegemonic whiteness lies fractured, though it is not just obdurate but also constantly reinstantiating itself into the fabric of urban politics.
Chakrabarty, D. (2008). Provincializing Europe: postcolonial thought and historical difference-New edition. Princeton University Press.
Murji, K., & Solomos, J. (Eds.). (2005). Racialization: Studies in theory and practice. Oxford University Press.
Karim Murji teaches at the University of West London, UK. With Sarah Neal he is the co-editor of Current Sociology. His books include Racism, Policy and Politics (Policy Press, 2017) and An Introduction to Sociology (Sage, 2022).