Why Mapping Black Lives Matters


Racial Profiling of residential areas – a redlining map
Racial Profiling of riots -and its disavowal

Race, has been a constant point of intersection between cartography and demography since  late Victorian times when developing  the new field of anthropometrics[i].  Using mapping techniques  to  visualise   the spatial distribution and concentration of populations defined in terms of race or ethnicity, and correlating that with a variety of socio-economic factors has been the bread and butter of social cartography since its inception. I say race or ethnicity, but in fact the profiles that  have been constructed under this rubric have systematically conflated the two and this conflation  is as central to contemporary biopolitics as it is to the identity politics which has arisen to challenge its naturalising assumptions. The physical characteristics of populations have not only been invested with moral propensities, whether good or bad,  but entangled with factors of language, culture and history in a way which has effectively racialised them as forming a quasi-biological heritage. For example it has become routine in public discourse  to speak of Black or White ‘racial identities’ as if these were distinct  personal genealogies, implicating their bearers existentially in  particular histories of racism, either as victims or oppressors. In the process the multiple dimensions of social identity are reduced to a single iterative instance with a consequent impoverishment of representation. This may sometimes be a price  worth paying, for personal and/or political reasons, but  Cartography has played a key role in spatializing and further reifing  such  essentialist constructions.  By definition maps   define territories and, as such   enable  spatial identities to  become racial identities.  To the ‘one drop’ blood rule of racial categorisation – allocating anyone who has even the slightest  element of consanguinity  in their ancestry   to a  shared ‘race’ , maps  have  added the one spot rule which identifies particular areas in terms of their racial/ethnic profile. Red lining maps used by real estate  and civic authorities to profile residential areas in USA cities effectively ghettoised Black people  by denying them access to many essential services, while  at the same time reserving these same services for white areas.(see jpg map).    

A recent example of this practice can be seen in the maps issued by the police and media  following the 2011 urban riots in Britain( see jpg map).  Geo-locating  police  statistics of arrests the maps claimed to show that the riots were concentrated in  areas with a large Black and ethnic minority population.  However the fact is that  the demographic profile of the mainly young rioters  was multi-ethnic, and included a large number of white youth,  girls as well as boys . However the police  concentrated their attention on Black male  youth  on the grounds that they were ‘congenital ‘ trouble makers and law breakers  and  involved in other criminal activity.So they were over-represented in arrests. Even if you were just standing around on the street watching other people loot shops or set fire to cars, if you were young, Black and male, you were twice as likely to get arrested. The police area maps simply underwrote the ‘blame BAME’  game that the Tory press were playing.[ii]

A somewhat similar dialectic  of racializing spatial identities,/spatializing racial identities   operates through  the cognitive mappings  generated by  popular or common sense bio-politics.  Here the reputational profiling of  a  neighbourhood or housing estate as, for instance, ‘Black’ or ‘Asian’,  associates its physical fabric with certain moral characteristics ( viz ‘rough’ or respectable) in a way that  may bear little correlation with its actual demographic or culture. A so called ‘Black neighbourhood’ may in fact contain only a minority of people of African or Caribbean descent, but their presence is enough to get the area publicly  recognised as such. Such false totalisations rest ultimately on a purification rule which also underwrites policies and practices of ethnic cleansing : one is one too many. Once biopolitical constructs are  mobilised, so that bodily surfaces and distinctive anatomical features become key markers of ‘race’ and are then  transferred  onto the surface   and topographical  features of maps, their ‘all over’ character  means that everyone can be made to have skin in the numbers game.  For example there have been many cases in which the arrival  of one Black family in a ‘desirable’  residential street is enough to ‘blacken’ its reputation , negatively affect property values and set in motion the familiar process of white flight.  Maps, whether official or unofficial,  play a key role in articulating  this process, as they do the reverse process of gentrification.

So how Black lives are mapped really does matter to their outcome and can make a big difference to race relations. But although it is easy to see how existing  methods of critical cartography can be used to highlight   quantitative indices of  institutionalised  discrimination,  the inter-subjective dimensions of casual racism   active in everyday encounters is   much less easily and frequently represented in terms of their spatial dynamics. Charting racist incidents via geo-located oral testimonies, whilst a  valuable exercise,  does  not really capture these dynamics.  This requires  the use of participatory community mapping methodologies, but their application , for example as s a platform for anti-racist education has scarcely been developed, apart from a few pioneering efforts[iii].

Bringing the message home

These considerations were sparked off by two events over the Summer, one political, and the other personal. Black Lives Matter  in the Stix is an offshoot of the main organisation and concentrates its campaigning activities in rural areas,  where BAME  folk  are still  thin on the ground. In August, along with about a thousand others,  I attended  an event they organised linking two  Essex villages, Wivenhoe and Rowhedge which face each other across  the  river Colne. See a short video of the event here:    

The event featured a poem by the novelist and poet  A.L.Kennedy  on the subject of white privilege. The poem  set me thinking  about the kinds of positional  solidarity that can  be legitimately adopted towards the struggles of people of colour by those, like myself, who have experienced other forms of racism  (i.e anti-Semitism), but who also,  under present circumstances, enjoy  a degree of  privilege, in so far as we are not constantly harassed on account of our  physical appearance. It has not always been thus, of course. If you look at Victorian and Edwardian postcards you will find frequent caricatures of Jews   featuring  bent backs, large grasping hands and crooked  noses., signifying duplicity, greed and general moral deformity. Privilege is always situational.

  At a personal level I met Chris, an unemployed  mixed race  teenager who replied to an advert I placed  looking for someone to help me  paint and do routine maintenance work on  my sailing boat, a 25 foot Gaff Cutter  which was on dry land due to the lockdown.  He  reminded me a lot of my adopted son Stephen, who died in 2017. He had the same wiry build, the  same  studied curiosity about things, the same wry sense of gallows humour   and the same pleasure in getting on with a job and pride in doing it well. He also reminded me a bit of my mixed race grandson, who had dropped out of school at 16 and now  made a living as a drug pusher, living on the edge , but with family support that Chris did not have. Having lost touch with Ricky, perhaps I hoped that by getting to know Chris I would learn something indirectly about my grandson’s situation.    

Chris had lost his job as a cinema attendant at the local Odeon in Colchester due to the lockdown in March, but for reasons we never quite fathomed did not receive his P45 and so could not claim unemployment benefit.   He had been homeless and sofa surfing for a time, after he was thrown out of the family home by his mum after a  series  of rows. He  was now housed in temporary accommodation   by Peabody and waiting for something more  permanent.  He remained very involved with his family   and  many of the  difficulties  he had  were directly or indirectly related  to family crises. Chris recognised that he had some mental health issue but is main problems  were to do with day to day  survival hassles  and his struggle to get enough money to buy food and basic necessities. Various support systems signally to provide any kind of safety net.  In that sense his story is not unlike that of many thousands of young people who have been cast adrift  by lockdown measures; but there are also some unique features to his story which complicate the picture and which  bear on  the chaotic interface between  the oppressive  reality of what it means to be young,  Black  and poor in Britain today   and the singular  way  he re-imagined, and to some extent reinforced his predicament, even as he struggled  to transcend it.  

 At the beginning things worked out smoothly enough. Chris travelled down to the boatyard  in Brightlingsea once a week and started work on  cleaning the decks  and painting the hull for which he got paid £10 an hour, plus travelling expenses ( see jpg). He was very keen to learn about  sailing and was fascinated by the chart plotter and other navigational equipment on board, being  as he said,  a bit of a techie, and hoping eventually for a career in IT. However on the third week he didn’t show and sent no apology or explanation. Then a couple of days later I got the following text messages[iv]:

Captain Nemo Reporting for Duty

Cheryl : Hi I hope I’m texting the right person Chris was meant to meet you today and I escorted him to Hythe station, he started throwing up jus after we got there, he’s collapsed to the floor and is unconscious. I’m currently waiting for an ambulance to show up for him but I can give you a call soon and explain in more detail what’s happened.

Chris : Morning I’m so sorry about yesterday I don’t even know what happened, I was feeling fine when I get there and then I don’t really remember much, I hope you have a good day,  I got some food from Aldi and it was past its sell by date  so I got food poisoning.

We re-arranged his next visit  for a few days later to give him time to recover, but again he didn’t turn up.  The next day  he contacted me and the following text conversation ensued:

 Chris: Hey I’m so sorry about yesterday., I was in hospital I’ve only jus been discharged

Phil: What happened?

 Chris: A lot happened on Friday evening/night and I ended up trying to take my life, they had to pump my stomach n keep me in fluids for 24hrs but they said I didn’t cause too  much damage n I’m still medically fit, jus don’t feel the best rn

Phil: What happened to make you feel suicidal?

Chris: Jus my mental health played up really bad n I guess a couple if my triggers were set off to make me feel like that. Basically on Friday I had a call from my uncle telling my both my grandparents died, then my best friend topped himself within 20 min of that phone call n I jus started driving myself insane, lost my temper in  the hostel so security said to leave for a walk n I did, where I ran into my step brother who had a massive go at me telling me I’m worthless n I’m better off dead

Phil: I am really sorry to hear about your troubles. That is a helluva  lot to have to deal with all at once. Were you close to your grandparents?

 Chris: They lived in Kenya but I was really close w them we used to video call a lot

 Phil: Did the  hospital not refer you to a counsellor for support?

Chris: They referred me to the crisis team. I’ve  dealt with them multiple times but  they dontt really help. They put in  place  what they call an  action plan n they never follow through with  it,. They told me to try relax n not stress myself. Suggested a course in Mindfulness or  CBT but I tried that a while ago and it didn’t really help.

Phil: Hmm you need  to see someone for proper psychotherapy on a regular  basis 

Chris: Probably yea, but like part of it is to do with  struggling to get on with  basic life. Like I struggle to sort food most days. I’ve jus had enough of everything nowadays if honest. I

Phil: Well you are in a difficult situation with no regular income and no permanent place of your own to call home. Try to deal with immediate issue like go get a food  voucher organised  so you can go to a food bank  and  have a decent meal.  Cut the problems down to size and don’t try to tackle them all at once so you don’t feel overwhelmed

 Chris: That’s a very good idea, I’m mid walking to Aldi, then going to lidl to get a couple cheaper bits n then I’m off to eat

 Phil: Good idea, just one step at a time

Chris I slept horribly if honest, kept tossing and turning, waking up in the night n everything, I can meet on Wednesday

Phil: Well you are going through a difficult time so it’s only to be expected. Valerian is a good bet to help calm you down and  it’s a natural herb and non addictive.. I will give you some to try if I see you on Wednesday.

Although Chris did make one more trip to  the boat to finish off the deck, our relationship became  virtual and conducted through texting. I found myself increasingly  in a mentoring role rather  than an employer, advising him on how best to claim unemployment benefit and deal with various agencies. I wrote to Odeon on his behalf  asking why they  still had not sent him a P45 after nearly six months and this did produce a result. Some of his experiences brought back memories of my own youth, when I had been homeless and in quite a bad way psychologically. We also discovered that  we shared some common ground in the violence we had both suffered at the hands of the police, in my case for being Jewish, a squatter and a hippy in the 1960’s.

 From talking to him, or rather from  listening  to him talk,  I realised that even though Chris  had left home a lot of his emotional life was still bound up with his family, as in this conversation: 

Phil : Have you been  in touch with your family at all  recently?

Chris: I haven’t spoken to my family recently, like i tried to call my mumzy to try sort food but she didn’t answer, like as if she can’t help her own child

 Phil: Well she may be busy and has your brother to look after

Chris: I mean I hope that’s the case as I feel unwanted.so, like its jus hard, she only cares when she needs me.

 Phil: She probably cannot spare the money, feels bad about it and deals with it by attacking you for asking

Chris: She has the money to spare I know that for a fact she just hates me I guess

Phil: Hmm. well you have to let her know you also need her. When people are needy it is difficult for them to reciprocate

Chris: I do try to tell her but it’s not like she actually listens to me, she jus brushes it off her shoulder

 Phil: Well you need to let her know that you find her behaviour hurtful. She may have unrealistic expectations about you standing on your own feet just yet.

 Chris: I have, we’ve had countless arguments because of it, like I literally jus got off the phone to her, she was screaming at me because I asked her for £10-20 so I could go n try do a food shop, she went crazy n hung up…anyway thank you for all the help, it means a lot, I’m gonna go get food n I’m planning to,

He kept asking me for ‘subs’ so he could buy food, because the vouchers hadn’t come  through.  I probably made a mistake in agreeing,  thinking at least initially that he would work this off, but also perhaps recognising that our relationship had already moved way  beyond its initial contractual frame. What then transpired was that  he sent me a series of increasingly desperate pleas for money to get him, or in one instance, his sister, out of various  scrapes accompanied by often quite elaborate stories.

 Here are three such :

Chris :Hello I hate to ask but I really need your help. I’m stuck in Ipswich Ive  been here all night.: I met a guy for car fun  on Grindr and he just left me here.: I know your probably gonna think I’m stupid but it’s because I ran out of food and I really didn’t wanna have to ask you for help again…

 Phil:. Did the guy not  give you any money for a train fare ?.

 Chris: No he tried to force himself on me so I pushed him  off, he threw me out the car, I tried to hop a train n got caught so I’m now stuck walking round Ipswich like an idiot. Unable to get the train. the British Transport Police  won’t let me near the station so I’d have to get a bus and I’ve got no money. It will be the last time I’ll need anything as I’ve got the sleeping pills, I barely have any food but ill be fine I’m more concerned about getting home.

Chris  I didn’t want to ask you again for more money so I asked a friend of mine to bring me some food  and they said they would take me to Maccies, they tried to sexually assault and stab me. I’m now stuck in Kelvedon with no money and no way of getting a train or bus back and I have no way of getting food either. I’m stuck in the cold and rain. I don’t know why they tried to do that but I feel very uncomfortable and unsafe where I am currently. Its absolutely pouring with rain.I just don’t know what to do. Its freezing and I am sat next to a little fish shop. I am sorry to ask you again but are you able to help. Its fine if you can’t I’ll try to figure something out. I am sat here in tears Its cold and raining.I don’t know what to do.

Chris: I actually don’t know what to do at this point I’ve asked everyone. My sister went to London this morning for a job interview and the person that dropped her off just left her at the job interview with no money to get back. She gets paid on Monday and said she can pay whoever gives her the money to get home back then but she really needs to get home as it’s really cold and she’s hungry she’s got no food. She’s crying on the phone to me her phone is on 25%, I really didn’t wanna ask and your the last person I have to ask is there anything you can do to help please? I’m really worried about her.

These accounts have one thing in common: they portray states of abjection and abandonment, of hopelessness and helplessness, associated with being home-less, and also being vulnerable and subject to attack.  They can all too easily be read as sob stories  designed to extract money. But they are cries for more than financial help. The issue of whether they are literally ‘true’,in the sense of accurate representations of events that actually happened, or  whether they exaggerate the circumstances  for dramatic effect, or  indeed are  pure fabrications or phantasies , is in principle undecidable, at least by me. And anyway it is beside the point.  They are faithful articulations of this young man’s existential predicament, of the fact that he finds himself constantly caught up in situations not of his own choosing  or making,  in which he is powerless to intervene to either extricate  himself, or change  the circumstances which propelled him into such a vulnerable position  in the first place.

If we had to find a carto-graphic model of this predicament it would have to take the form of  a labyrinth or maze in whichs was trapped, a territory  to  which no map can offer a reliable  guide  and where, whichever which way you turn you may find yourself going round in circles and likely to encounter some kind of monster. If you find yourself in such a space, you  may be lucky enough to catch hold of an ‘Ariadne’s thread’  to help you find your way out, but it is not one to be found on a GPS.

 Chris frequently told me  he was ‘getting there’, when I asked him how he was getting on, though it was not initially  clear where ‘there’  was for him. Certainly it meant getting his benefits and food vouchers sorted out, and he had plans to   go to college  to take an IT course. But he intimated several times that there was more to his quest  than that.  Then one day I asked him what he did to relax and chill out. His answer opened up a whole new dimension of his life world, a space where he could at last be himself and feel free.  This is what he told me in a recorded interview conducted  during a lunch break from working on the boat. In it he describes his experiences as an urban explorer and what they mean to him and contextualises this  with some comments on his  experiences  as a young black man of being harassed by the police.

Chris’s cognitive map thus operates along two very different axes. Along the   horizontal axis the moves he makes are continually being cancelled, interrupted   or deflected, sometimes by institutional road blocks, sometimes by obstacles to his progress  which are accidentally or deliberately put in his way by others, including members of his family. Then on the vertical axis he transforms lockdown city from a place of confinement into a zone of personal freedom and tranquility through his activities as an urban explorer. To focus on only one dimension of his life  is either to reduce its meaning  to a struggle against racism, or to the aleatory moments in which he rises, literally and metaphorically,  above his situational predicaments. But these are two sides of the same story.   in his  interview Chris  discusses the routine harassment he receives from the police as a young black man, but he also refuses to be defined by it.  

So if Black lives  should matter to others, it is  not as objects of philanthropic concern or ethnographic curiosity, nor as a focus of political virtue signalling  but as an affirmation   of how and why  any  attempt to reduce these lives to an essentialised  single dimension defined by race is a travesty of  their necessary human  complication and richness . A radical anti-race-ist cartography worthy of the name is just one way, amongst many, of realising that emancipatory project.  

[i] See H Winslow ‘Mapping,race,ethnicity’ in A Kobayeshi (ed) International Encyclopaedia of Human Geography Elsevier 2020

[ii] See Reading the Riots eprint.lse.ac.uk and for a more grounded view David Lammy Out of the Ashes .Lammy  is the Labour MP for Tottenham  where the riots originated as a response   to the police murder of Mark  Dugga,n an important  figure in the local Black criminal subculture. In the book Lammy   described the riots  as an exercise in ‘nihilistic hedonism’. At first sight his comments seemed  to underwrite the dominant view that the riots were the work of a ‘feral’ underclass. However as one of the few Black MPs in the British Parliament  Lammy also recognised the historical and structural dimensions of racism  that had produced the situation in which the social contract between the State and the local  BAME community  had been broken and as a result  there was no policing by consent. 

[iii]  For example there is no application of participatory mapping methods to anti racist work in the otherwise exemplary collecting of counter-cartography to be found in This is not an Atlas (2018). Mapping has been a central aspect of my own anti-racist pedagogy and will feature in the Young Citizen Atlas of London which the Livingmaps Network is currently developing. 

[iv] These text messages are reproduced with permission. The names and other identifying details have been changed.