Race, Expulsions, Homelessness, and Migrants

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working on a chapter that looks at the archaeology of forced and undocumented migrants and homelessness. You can read it backwards, in a sense, from here. My book is a short survey of the archaeology of the contemporary American experience, so as a result, it required that I make some difficult organizational choices. Among these was combining the archaeology of migration and homelessness.

My instinct was to combine these two because they both represented archaeological work designed to make visible groups and processes that a range of forces, practices, institutions, and policies have worked (with varying levels of success) to make invisible. As such the archaeology of forced and undocumented migration and homelessness sought to reveal the injustice inherent in how society and policies treat these groups of people. In many ways, this interpretation is at very least not inconsistent with the intent of the scholars who study these phenomenon. At its most compelling, the invisibility of migrants contrasts with the hyper visibility of border security measures. Documented migrants endure security theater while undocumented migrants move in the shadows. Among the homeless a degree of invisibility ensures security from a state that has made homelessness a crime.

Having written about 75% of the chapter, I found this basic approach effective, but a bit unsatisfying. It seemed to locate the status of the homeless and migrants in the realm of US policy rather than as part of larger global trends. To be clear, I don’t mean to downplay the role of deliberate US actions in creating the economic disparities that cause homelessness and the displacement of millions of people from Central and South America. At the same time, the trends that worked to create homelessness and the movement of groups as a global phenomena extend beyond the policies of individual states and speak to patterns of action grounded colonialism, racism, and capitalism. 

So this weekend, I spent some time with Saskia Sassen’s book Expulsions (2014). Sassen argues that the mass displacement of people on a global scale and the rise of homelessness in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 recession are related phenomenon. Using archaeological (but post-structural) metaphor, Sassen argues that these phenomena emerge from an assemblage of institutions, policies, and practices occurring simultaneously on the global and local levels. global corporations that are most frequently centered in the “Global North” have acquired tremendous wealth. Nation-states have increasingly seen these companies as necessary partners in their efforts to extract natural resources from the “Global South,” to employ their citizens, and to provide infrastructure, goods, and wealth for the functioning of the state. As a result, states (in collaboration with transnational organizations like the IMF and the World Bank) have found themselves increasingly beholden to the financial health of these companies and have sought, on the one hand, to support their right to low cost labor pools, to extract natural resources, and to move freely across borders and, on the other hand, have worked to mitigate the environmental, military, and demographic disasters that this system propagates on a global scale, but only insofar as these disaster impair the ability of the system to generate wealth. 

The mass displacement of people in the Middle East, South and Central America, and Sub-Saharan Africa is a result of an assemblage of institutions, agents, and polices, largely centered on the Global North, which privilege the accumulation of wealth over the integrity of local economies, environmental concerns, or local claims to sovereignty. The resulting displacement of people in the form of mass migrations is a byproduct of this assemblage of forces that the nation-state has taken the lead in mitigating through what Dan Hicks and Sarah Mallett have called “borderwork” in their study of “the Jungle” migrant camps around Calais in France

Sassen’s sees this system also at work in the recessions triggered by the subprime mortgage crisis in the US. A series of complex financial mechanisms triggered this crisis which led to an unprecedented series of home foreclosures and evictions in the U.S. As Mathew Desmond (2016) has shown in his landmark study of evictions, the view of homes and property as investments rather than as places for people to live has produced a system where evictions are financial necessities.

For Desmond, this system has produced a class of people who struggle to remain housed  because eviction process undermines many of the practical requirements necessary to pay rent, to achieve financial security, and to escape from a cycle of precarity. Something as seemingly simple as the difficulty in maintaining a stable address makes it harder to keep a job, keep children enrolled in schools, and ultimately to acquire the resources necessary to escape a cycle of eviction. As a result, evictions beget evictions with intergenerational impacts. 

Desmond’s book demonstrates that evictions work hand-in-hand with a continuum of homelessness that ranges from sleeping on the street to sleeping in cars, in shelters, with friends, and in squats and other forms of substandard housing. In this context, the work of scholars such as Larry Zimmerman and his colleagues, which tends to emphasize the material culture associated with “sleeping rough,” identifies only one moment in a wider range of strategies in the struggle to survive in a world where housing is a not a right, but an investment. As a result, this work doesn’t deal as much with systemic issues at the root of homelessness which often manifest themselves and reproduce racist policies and practices.   

I is hardly surprising, then, that single women of color are particularly vulnerable to evictions is consistent with their position of economic precarity. Racial profiling practices by landlords contributes directly to the evictions and this reinforces the practical, social and economic systems that produce homelessness. Homelessness, lack of education, and endemic poverty in the African American community contribute to higher rates of incarceration which in turn limits economic opportunities and reinforces precarity. 

These processes feed the persistence of racial attitudes along economic, educational, and social lines in much the same way that borders serve to produce racial and ethnic identities along national lines. In this context, the growing attention to borders both within US society, in the form of mass incarceration and the criminalization of homelessness, and between the US and the “Global South” reflect systems of expulsion formed by a wide range of institutions and policies at play on a global scale. Just as archaeology can provide insights into the global working of consumer culture, the study of the material culture of migrants and the homeless provide insights into practices of exclusion and expulsion that are part of the same economy that produces iPhones. 

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