The Colonial Logic of Grenfell

Slave Ship by J.M.W.Turner

We are living in Britain at a time of extreme hostility towards people racialised as non-white. As Home Secretary, Theresa May said explicitly that her Immigration Law reforms of 2014 and 2016 were designed to ‘create a hostile environment’ for migrants. Brexit since both amplified and legitimised racist hatred in Britain. The Leave campaign won on a mandate of ‘taking back control’, and making the country a better place to live for Britons, conceived in large part, as white.

Scapegoating of migrants and those racially profiled as such frequently manifests itself in the lie that they live in the council flats that white British people are entitled to occupy. The Grenfell atrocity cuts viscerally through this construction of the unjustly enriched and privileged migrant. The substandard accommodation to which the predominantly brown, black and Muslim Grenfell victims were confined is indicative of ongoing colonial practices of state-sanctioned racial hierarchy and segregation in Britain.

I have written previously about how Britain’s unacknowledged and unredressed colonial past haunts the present. Understanding the colonial logic of the Grenfell Tower atrocity demands a historical and contextualised analysis. Many of the Grenfell residents and their ancestors suffered the dispossessing effects of European colonialism. They lived and fled not only the lasting material consequences of colonisation, but also the economic decline caused by global trade and debt arrangements that ensure the continued impoverishment and dependency of Southern economies on those of the North.

The Grenfell residents whose faces now smile back at us from Missing persons posters could not escape their condition of coloniality. It haunted them, confining them to lives of poverty in a dilapidated and dangerous building in one of the wealthiest places in the world. In this way, ‘colonisation has continued apace’ (Razack 2002, 127). [1]

The majority of the Grenfell fire victims are racialised as non-white. Officially, 80 people are confirmed dead, although on the ground, the death toll is said to be more than twice that. The fire spread rapidly up the building due to highly flammable exterior cladding that had been installed primarily to enhance the aesthetics of the building for the white wealthy people living in the surrounding area. There was only one stairwell, and no sprinkler or alarm system. The statistic that children who live above the fourth floor of high rise blocks in England are more likely to be black or Asian is striking in a country that is 87% white.

People racialised as non-white are systematically and disproportionately made vulnerable to harm and premature death. In their recent work, Akwugo Emejulu and Leah Bassel demonstrate the differential impact of austerity policies, which disadvantage minority women disproportionately, exacerbating existing inequalities. Race and its ongoing colonial configurations in Britain overdetermined what brought the Grenfell victims to the dangerous heights of the high-rise tower and ultimately to their violent and premature deaths (Ruth Wilson Gilmore 2006, 28). [2]

The hyper-segregation and differential quality of life of North Kensington residents mirrors practices of the colonial era when British authorities instituted spatial ordering on the basis of ideas and practices of racial hierarchy and white European supremacy. Sherene Razack has documented the way in which the end of the colonial era combined with 1950s and 60s urbanisation policies of segregation to replicate the spatial zones produced by colonisation whereby ‘slum administration replaces colonial administration’ (Razack 2002, 129).

Practices of subjugation and control of people racialised as non-white persist in the state-sponsored disproportionate confinement of people from former European colonies to high-rise buildings lacking the most basic safety measures. Rapid gentrification in the area and the local council’s prioritisation of the interests of new, predominantly white wealthy residents intensified the vulnerability to harm and premature death of the marginalised poor housed in Grenfell Tower. Gentrification entails the over-policing of communities racialised as non-white to enhance the desirability of an area and to ensure property prices are not devalued. Khadija Saye, who was killed in the Grenfell fire could not telephone for help on the night of the fire because she had recently been wrongfully arrested and the police had not returned her phone.

These practices, rooted in colonialism, are implemented and sustained through such processes of regulation and deregulation, which serve to legitimise and de-politicise the painful, fraught and sometimes disastrous consequences for people racialised as non-white. People come to inhabit adjacent worlds that are materially drastically different.

Our understanding of the Grenfell atrocity is marred by the abstraction of day to day life in Britain from the country’s colonial history. The reality of Britain’s colonial history continues to be denied along with the fact that certain sections of society continue to benefit from it. The result is a failure to connect the presence of many people racialised as non-white in Britain today to the destruction and dispossession of European colonisation.

Yet the colonised cannot escape their colonial condition. Sarah Keenan has shown how people racialised as non-white take with them a space of hyper-vulnerability to violence and premature death. Of the first confirmed victim of the Grenfell fire, 23 year-old Syrian refugee, Mohammad Alhajali, she writes that Alhajali’s death is a most horrific example of ‘the space of disproportionate vulnerability to the most extreme forms of violence, which Alhajali took with him all the way from Syria to Kensington’.

Grenfell epitomises the persistence of a colonial social order predicated on racial hierarchy in Britain. Britain’s geography is marked by spaces of colonial control and exclusion in which resources are withheld from people living in conditions of spatial and temporal precarity. Hanging over the lives of the Grenfell residents was the assumption that they were taking up space. Their presence was all that stood in the way of profitable real estate ventures.

The authorities’ disdain for the brown, black and Muslim residents of Grenfell is resonant of the racism that pervaded imperial Britain at the time of the 1781 Zong massacre which saw slaves thrown overboard by their captor to save a British slave ship and in the interest of profiting from an insurance claim. The Grenfell residents were considered equally disposable, their lives exchanged for a saving of £5000 on highly flammable cladding.


[1] Sherene Razack, ‘Gendered Racial Violence and Spatialized Justice: The Murder of Pamela George’ in Sherene Razack (ed.) Race, Space and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society (Toronto, Between the Lines, 2002)

[2] Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines racism as ‘the state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death’ in Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (California, University of California Press, 2006), 28.