In the past week, two very different atrocities have taken place in the early hours of a weeknight morning in London: the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower and the racist attack on the Muslim community in Finsbury Park. After both, there was a rush to depoliticise what had happened. But neither just sprung up out of thin air or from actions of lone individuals. Grenfell and Finsbury Park show the outcome of the state’s demonisation of marginalised groups.
The charred remains of Grenfell Tower stand in London’s landscape as evidence of the deadly effects of austerity, deregulation, gentrification and legislated corporate greed. These many threads are likely to be untangled in the coming months and years, when it will become clear exactly how a preventable fire ripped through a block of flats in one of the country’s richest boroughs. But we already know this is a tale of state-engineered inequality: decades of policies designed to benefit the rich at the expense of marginalised groups – people who are cast as “other”.
People living in social housing have long been vilified as miscreants. “Not everyone who lives in tower blocks is poor,” writes Lynsey Hanley, but “the perception of social housing, particularly high-rise, as being ‘for poor people’ leads to the maltreatment of residents, regardless of their class or income.” Indeed, little did their financial reality matter; because of where they live, Grenfell’s residents were seen as the skivers David Cameron was so keen to weave into his austerity story.
The denigration of the poor by successive governments is an intentional political strategy – regarding poverty as an individual failing, to distract from the systemic nature of inequality. And so being housed by the state or in poor accommodation has wrongly become a sign of laziness and failure. That’s why there was a murmur of surprise among many that a talented artist like Khadija Saye lived in a block like Grenfell or that the people living in the area were “informed and articulate“.
But you can’t talk about class without talking about race. As Akwugo Emejulu has pointed out, housing inequality isn’t just about class; it’s about race and migration status, too. Black Britons, Muslims and migrants; you need only look through the stories of the missing, now presumed dead, to see Grenfell was largely home to people who in the UK are classed as “other”. That should come as no surprise. In a country where racism is laced into the state apparatus, people of colour are far more likely to suffer from poor housing. Housing charity, Shelter, have found twice as many black and ethnic-minority households live in conditions deemed officially unfit for human habitation, compared with white households.
Similarly, migrants are often forced to live in dilapidated, unsafe accommodation. That’s because the public have at once been told and declared that migrants are a threat to society: talked about as sterile statistics (“can Theresa May get numbers down?”), “culturally” threatening to the imagined UK way of life or a drain on society.
Migrants are racialised as menacing, so much so, that there was barely a whimper of protestation when the government withdrew support for search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean – essentially leaving people to drown. When you treat human beings as if they don’t belong in this country because of their migration status or race, their wellbeing ceases to matter.
It’s in this context that marginalised people aren’t seen to need decent housing; they’re deemed disposable. Fewer social houses are built as part of an artificially engineered housing crisis to drive up house prices and shareholder profits. In this climate, councils and private corporations – aided by a Conservative government more interested in protecting exploitative landlords than updating vital regulations – cut corners to save or make money on the ones that are still standing, so people who can’t keep up with rapidly rising rents are forced to live in squalor or in unsafe towers like Grenfell.
Their concerns about safety are batted away. Mariem Elgwahry and Nadia Choucair, two Grenfell tenants, who are missing and presumed dead, were branded “troublemakers” because they campaigned to make their homes safer. They were ignored because government policy has made it harder for them to be heard: When the council and their social landlord refuse to listen to them, they couldn’t access legal aid because it’s been cut to the bone. Grenfell, then, is a stark example of endemic criminal neglect and exploitation born out of demonisation of marginalised communities.
An Islamophobic hate crime
The attack in Finsbury Park is in many ways a different story but, like Grenfell, it shouldn’t be seen as an isolated incident – particularly when Islamophobic hate crimes, which have long been a reality in the UK, are rising and when people say they don’t trust Muslims.
Although the exact motivation that led a middle-aged white man to drive a van into a group of Muslims outside a mosque – leaving one dead and injuring eight – will be explored in detail in the trial, there is an Islamophobic environment that makes such an act thinkable.
On the morning of the attack, as some took to social media to celebrate it, others pinned the blame on far-right figures like Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson for spouting anti-Muslim rhetoric. There’s a problem with a society that eagerly gives these people a platform and treats them like the voice of “common” (read: white) people. But focusing on these individuals ignores the wider picture in which they’re situated: where Muslims have long been imagined as a homogenous threat to the country.
Now, Islamophobia is a specific form of discrimination but, as with Grenfell, a process of othering is identifiable. Muslims are monitored by the state through Prevent. Muslim politicians are accused of having “extremist links” simply because of their faith. The War on Terror demands a distinction between “good” and “bad” Muslims. And there is a tacit demand that Muslims must somehow demonstrate their loyalty to the UK, despite the fact that no amount of “proof” will ever be enough. The supposed threat Muslims pose is embodied in the deafening chorus of voices post-Manchester attack, asking the “Muslim community” to condemn what happened.
Grenfell and Finsbury Park are different in many ways. But what they bring into sharp focus is the role of the state in intentionally racialising and mistreating marginalised groups. And they show what many people already know to be true from their everyday experiences: this vilification has real, violent outcomes. – Al Jazeera
Maya Goodfellow is a writer and researcher. Her work mostly focuses on politics, and “race” and racism in the UK.The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Mail & Guardian’s editorial policy.