Magazine article New Internationalist

Working Class in Britain? You Must Be White

Magazine article New Internationalist

Working Class in Britain? You Must Be White

Article excerpt

The electoral successes of nationalist agendas across the Global North are the results of a white working-class revolt - or so we are told. The significant role of the middle classes in delivering the election of Donald Trump, for example, is conveniently sidelined for a simpler narrative based on economics and not racism.

This 'forgotten' class are all white, it seems. In Britain, where inequality and opportunity are hugely influenced by social class, 'working class' is often synonymous with being white, despite ethnic minority communities sharing many of the same experiences and remaining at the sharpest ends of inequality.

In 2016, after a volatile political campaign, Britain's vote to leave the European Union was attributed by many politicians and commentators to a white working-class reaction against globalization, economic precarity and a 'legitimate' cultural anxiety.

But while white working-class men without a college education voted for Brexit in high numbers, 59 per cent of the Leave vote came from the middle class - largely those living in the affluent southeast of England. The motivations of the pensioned, middle classes are skilfully skirted over as there is no readymade narrative of economic precarity conflated with racism.

Universal standard?

A 2017 report from the thinktanks CLASS and the Runnymede Trust also rejected the argument that the fears of the white working class 'explained' Brexit. Instead, it argued that the focus on the 'white working class' is distracting policymakers from solutions that will help working class people of all races.

'The Brexit vote is now being used to justify an idea of "white self-interest", which is simply a rebranding of prejudice and racism,' said Faiza Shaheen, director of CLASS. 'If we are to have a truly "United" Kingdom we must return to speaking about the real issues that hurt the whole working class - low wages, the housing crisis and devastating cuts to our public services.'

The distorted account of the Brexit vote ignores the experiences of working class people who were more likely to vote to Remain in the European Union, regardless of income.

Gurminder Bhamra, Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies at the University of Sussex, calls these exclusions 'methodological whiteness,' a way of looking at the world that 'fails to acknowledge the role played by race in the very structuring of that world'. It views the white experience as the universal standard rather than recognizing it as the dominant element. This approach erases the experiences and social reality of the black working class.

Paying a double price

In 2017 a race audit, carried out by the government, confirmed unemployment rates remained double for black and Asian households. In work, ethnic minorities are paid 13 per cent less than white colleagues, and, incredibly, this gap widens as black workers achieve more qualifications.

While racial disparities persist in all areas of British life, terms like 'diversity' and 'multiculturalism' have become buzzwords. Attempts to address structural racism with political policy are frequently lambasted by rightwing media commentators and flagged as supposed explanations for racism by more liberal voices.

But the celebration of Britain as a beacon of diversity can be frustrating for ethnic minorities, as it paints a picture of racial progress while economic inequality increases and remains highly racialized.

Ethnic minorities are part of the fabric of Britain's working class history and struggles. …

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