Reni narration: Welcome back to About Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge.
In part one of this episode, I went back in time to the turn of the century to look at the racial politics of Barking and Dagenham. The London borough was hit hard by de-industrialisation in 2002. This, alongside significant demographic changes, led to the far right making political gains in 2006. By 2008, the BBC was premiering their White season, looking at the concerns of the ‘forgotten white working class.’
You’ll need to have listened to part one in order to understand the full context of what we’re talking about today, so if you’ve not heard it yet, please pause this and go back to listen to it.
One thing really struck me during my conversations in part one. It seems as though, during the mid-2000s, politicians and television legitimised the idea of a new oppressed group. The white working class’ discrimination seemed to be characterised not only by class prejudice, but also by their whiteness, as though it was holding them back in some way. I think this this was a very interesting development. After all, Britain is usually wildly uncomfortable with acknowledging race.
So, in part 2 of this episode, I want to know what is so relevant about the race of white people who are working class?
I’ve enlisted the Barking native, musician and activist Billy Bragg’s help with this unpacking.
Billy: One of the weird things about English is that our racial type actually has a hyphen in it Anglo hyphen Saxon it all kind of sweeps together that there's a long history here of people coming together in these islands something that we need to kind of reconnect with and try and use that to understand that there's a continuity to what's going on here, things are always changing. A society, a country is in a constant state of change yet within that state of change there is a continuity that strings it together and not everybody has access to that sense of continuity. Some people feel completely rejected by it and that's where we have to do the work but to do that work we've got to make a case for it we've got to make a case for inclusive sense of identity…
Reni narration: So in 2006 Billy Bragg published this book called The Progressive Patriot, to counter the story about England that the far right were putting out.
Billy: Can we find a way to make that sense of belonging accessible to everyone again rather than having to be a patriot rather than having to sport a particular cricket team, rather than having to reject one's own culture, you know is there is there an accessible pathway to belonging for everybody or does belonging just be the possession of one group in society and everybody else has to focus on that. I would argue that belonging is much deeper than that. It's much, it's not a racial thing.
Part of the story of England that the far right put out involved the St George’s Flag, commonly known as the flag of England. Composed of a bold red cross against a stark white background, it’s long been co-opted by English white nationalist groups.
Reni: Do you consider yourself an anti-racist?
Billy: I do yeah, I do, I mean that’s been the politics of my my life you know going to Rock Against Racism was the first ever political involvement in my life and making music is really all about empathy, it allows you to feel empathy for someone's emotional situation that you yourself may have never experienced. But also in a political sense you can get an insight into someone else's experience through music.
Reni: So what's distinct about the whiteness of white working class people or white and working class people?
Billy: In a English sense, I think they have a stronger sense of belonging than people who are not white and I think that sense of belonging can manifest itself in a number of different ways. I mean I'm an outsider in the village where I live because I'm from London, I wasn't born in Dorset and you do still hear some people sometimes talk about it was before the Londoners come down here in conversations with you. So if people don't have, haven’t grown up in the proximity of BAME people they’ll still find them bloody outsiders because that's how maybe they define themselves.
Reni narration: I am not convinced by Billy’s use of the word ‘outsiders’ in this context. I think it actually bolsters the ‘white working class versus multiculturalism’ myth that working class people who are not white are still having to deal with.
Someone who I think completely embodies the fact that it’s not ‘either or’ is the rapper, historian, author and activist, Akala. He was born in the early 80s to a white Scottish mum and a Jamaican father, although he doesn’t define as mixed race. He also has a book out soon -- titled Natives, and publishing in May.
Akala: So my granddad one of the things he used to say and I write about this in my book is poor man, he was a soldier, he had been tortured in battle, you know he was not very well educated and he used to say you know well at least I'm not a nigger. You know, so he understood even though people pretend they can understand it today, it's no longer fashionable yet it's the very well what the psychological wages of whiteness meant to him, what it meant to be white. Even though he was just as poor as my Caribbean family he still felt he could disown his own daughter, which he did, for getting with a black guy because he still felt well at least I'm not black. That was his source of pride.
Reni narration: I asked Akala if he knows where this extra layer of ‘belonging’ for white people who are working class is coming from.
Akala: So this sense of nativist kind of white working class you belong, they don't, they’re the reason you know you're in the situation you're in is playing on that saying look look you might be poor, the material benefits of whiteness might be meagre. But we can at least give you some psychological benefit and say well you are better than these people, you are better than David Adjaye. You have more right to be here, you've played more of a role in Britain's development than one of the top architects in this country's history what happens to be a British Ghanaian simply by being white yeah, even if young African Caribbean boys have re-defined British popular culture even if Asian migrants to this country have redefined British cuisine simply by being white you belong, they don't. There's people whose grandparents who came from Poland who've never even thought about the fact they are immigrants. Do you see what I mean, who are not even encouraged to think about it anymore.
Reni narration: Around the time that Akala and I spoke, there was a hoo ha online about an interview that the BBC presenter Steph McGovern had given to the Sunday Times. I’ll quote her verbatim.
“We concentrate too much on ethnic diversity and not enough on class. It’s dead important to represent loads of different cultures. But what the BBC doesn’t do enough of is thinking about getting people from more working-class backgrounds’.
Akala: 15 percent of white British people are eligible for free school meals. About 40 percent of ethnic minorities eligible for free school meals. So ethnic minority communities are literally more overwhelmingly working class communities. So if she means working class it would still mean disproportionately it should, proportionally if we take working class people and we say right proportionally who’s more working class well ethnic minority communities are overrepresented in that status. Now don’t get me wrong I have some sympathy for the white working class and I believe that there should be some sort of multi racial class collaboration if that's possible.
Reni: The argument is that any emphasis on ethnic minorities is a loss for white people who are also working class. It's a narrative a potent one that I believe started with the far right and has absolutely seeped into popular culture.
Akala: But what's the evidence? I mean the evidence suggests…
Reni: Nah they never go on evidence.
Akala: Right. But let's let's be specific. So Bristol and Warwick University did two studies where they looked at every secondary school in Britain and they did what you call blind marking and essentially you know, you can check out both of the studies and I referenced them in the book, but it found that black children that are essentially middle class are still treated with the same contempt and stereotypes as black children that are poor. So when we look at the evidence the danger of this, the White working class are being victimised because they are white narrative, in which no one can provide any evidence for is that even middle class black people have to deal with the baggage of being black in this society, when we look at the evidence. Us fourth generation black Caribbeans are the most like the white working class. We've become English.
Reni narration: Now, I’m not saying Steph McGovern is a far right sympathiser. To her credit, a few days after the hoo ha, she clarified her comments, telling the Guardian ‘If you focus on class too, then that will bring with it diversity in every sense, not just ethnicity. There shouldn’t just be a focus on ethnicity.”
I’m glad about her clarification, because there is some truth in it. Even though I benefited from one, I’m personally sick of diversity schemes that overwhelmingly catapult privately educated, Oxbridge degreed people of colour into middle class professions. It’s just not good enough.
But the initial implication -- that race and class are in conflict when it comes to equality? I think that that’s a key myth that anti-racists have a duty to push back on.
The author, activist and columnist Owen Jones once wrote that ‘class politics without gender, race, and sexuality makes no sense’.
Owen: There's a very bad class analysis which is basically talking about straight white men and that’s a minority working class people. Most people of either a Bangladeshi or Pakistani heritage earn less than a living wage. So what we understand there is you have the dynamic of class oppression that those workers will face, in terms of employment terms and so on which they may well share in common with many of the people their co-workers in.
Reni: Do you use the word intersectionality?
Owen: Yes. Of course yeah.
Reni: Because I mean that’s what it is.
Owen: That’s intersectionality. Exactly. So look we can’t...and it’s gender and race as well. I mean look women are concentrated in the lowest paid the most insecure work equally people from minority communities are concentrated in the lowest paid and most insecure work. Anyone who walks into the BBC, you can see very quickly, they will see people from minority communities working in reception and security and the cafeteria overwhelmingly and then the higher you go up the whiter it gets.
Reni narration: Ah, yes. The BBC again.
The social scientist Alana Lentin is now based in Australia. She was working the University of Sussex in the UK between 2006 and 2012, so she was there for all of this.
Alana: you’ll remember no doubt the BBC White Season 2007 I think it was so it’s moment at which you suddenly have this sort of very publicly endorsed idea that you have to have a discussion of the left behind white people. The left behind is you know is an expression used all the time but wasn’t really used at the time very much.
Reni narration: She partly blames her own profession for this.
Alana: a lot of social scientists invested a lot of time and money into researching this this group which is a completely fabricated group right because obviously the working class is as black and brown as it is white yeah. The language right to for example the BBC and the newspapers and as you put it Question Time and so on gave them the language to talk about this population that you know we haven’t been spending enough time looking after.
Reni narration: In 2011, Alana Lentin and Gavin Titley, both Irish academics, published a book called The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age. As you can imagine, it’s quite an academic read. But I think it touches on the exact moment the public conversation moved from ‘diversity is our strength’ to ‘we’ve had enough of this’.
Alana: The crisis of multiculturalism or the crisis of multiculturalism are really the contemporary expression of racism and we called it you know the sub title of the book is Racism in a Neo-Liberal Age
Reni narration: Quick definition of neoliberalism. Britannica.com defines it as an ‘ideology and policy model that emphasises the value of free market competition.’ But how is it linked to how we relate to one another? Well, in a nutshell, state responsibility takes a back seat.
In the introduction of their book, Alana and Gavin write: ‘complex social problems and political-economic disjunctures can be blamed on ‘migrants’, and the solution, in a neoliberal era, located in an increased individual responsibility to become compatible and integrate.’
Alana: The idea really is that racism adapts itself to context and time, this is something that we know and a particular expression of it at a time when to speak openly about race, so 19th century ideas of race is taboo. Everybody knows that it’s wrong but you need to find another mode for this to emerge and culture comes to replace race as the central mode through which white society tries to contend with what we call too much diversity of the wrong kind we call it bad diversity as opposed to good diversity, right. So because you haven’t dealt openly and honestly with the legacy of race for Europe, okay so, really the extent to which Europe is built on it’s racist legacy, colonialism, slavery in particular, is not something we discuss openly
Reni narration: I think what’s key in Alana’s work is how she broadens the conversation to the whole of Europe, and what this continent’s domination has meant for the world. For me the wider question about why we have these crises is because it’s basically a crisis of whiteness. There’s a realisation that societies have been indelibly changed by migration, but not only that we’ve always been multicultural, for want of a better word and that this necessarily if it’s taken to its logical conclusion will displace the power of whiteness. And that is a deep fear that you know white societies are confronted with.
Reni narration: Does she mean all white people, though?
Alana: In this particular context we’re obviously not talking, and this it you know, something you’ve dealt with extensively in your book, we’re not necessarily talking about individual white people we’re talking about whiteness as a structure that it’s more acceptable perhaps to talk about it in the context of the US but I don’t think we talk enough in the context of Europe. We don’t talk enough about the extent to which Europe, it’s whole vision of itself is of as a white continent and therefore Europe has always had problems with its margins, its darker margins if you like, like Southern Europe, Eastern Europe right and these populations have been racialised to greater or lesser extent over time. So part of the European project is in who can be drawn in right to the project of white Europe and who still needs to be at its margins right or indeed completely excluded from it as we’re seeing from the current kind of situations placing refugees and asylum seekers drowning in their masses in the mediterranean and so on and so forth
Reni narration: It’s clear we’re still living under the weight of Empire. It’s looming over this conversation about class and race, and who gets to belong.
Akala: Remember Britain expelled its class conflict onto its colonies. So the white working class benefited tremendously from the British Empire. They know this. We didn't come to Britain. Britain came to us. We're going to have a fight on our hands because the British ruling class have always played class against race very cleverly and they will continue to do so and they'll continue to peddle this narrative of the Left Behind white working class because they believe rightly or wrongly that the white working class can be more easily bought. That's the crux of it. As horrible as that is to say that's what they believe. So someone like Stormzy gets very successful becomes, situation he's in and still feels the need to call out the prime minister partly because his lived experience of being both working class and black and the government understands this very well even if the white left don’t understand it.
Reni narration: That clip was Stormzy performing at the Brit awards courtesy of ITV.
Alana: I do think that within the younger generation there’s a lot of acceptance that this conversation has to be placed at the centre of the way in which we think the future can look like and that we cant have for example this is on the left now, a facile separation of class and race as if the two weren’t completely and utterly interrelated, right. So I am seeing that so I have certain hope that’ll be the direction which it’s taking.
Reni (from Akala interview): it's not immigrants calling these people chavs and white trash.
Akala: They live next door to us in the same estates. This is this is what I mean it's the white ruling class deflecting from their own class contempt for poor white people onto us. We don't call white people chavs, they’re in the hood with us. So who's calling them chavs, you're calling them chavs and then you're saying but you're white you shouldn't be chavs they should be chavs. So it's a really you know white ruling class and middle class deflection.
Akala: There is a demographic consequence for British politics in the future and that's what people are lashing back against as no, it stems from no sense of real affinity to white working class people because if they had an affinity for white working class people they would see the similarities between Easter House and Hackney between the Gorbals and Tottenham but they don't, that's a black problem that's a class problem because black people have no class of course our class is black.
Reni narration: From these conversations, it's really clear to me that the general definition of what it means to be working class desperately needs an update. It’s something I wrote about in my book, and it is a drum I will continue to bang. Solidarity is needed, but not one that flattens difference. Solidarity needs to come with an acknowledgement that racism exists. I asked Akala about the alternative class story that we need to be telling.
Akala: Ironically a lot of this white anti-racist tradition in Britain has often come from educated middle class folk exposure to literature oral history about race sort of invokes a sense of understanding of your place in history. Seventy percent of the people arrested in the Brixton riots in 1981 were not black despite its being characterised as a black riot I also think we have to recognise there is a working class hood culture in Britain. You go to any supposedly black gang in Tottenham and there'll be one honorary white boy and one boy from Cyprus called Mike or Andrew, like. So in a sense the street yoots they don't care about all of this. I don't know if this is a contradiction that can be properly reconciled because it's so deep seated.
So when Britain expelled poor people to Australia or to America or to southern Africa or to what was then called Rhodesia that was a form of a safety valve for Class conflict in Britain the violence that was done to those people may well have been done to the British ruling class. If they didn't have that safety valve. Imperialism is in a lot of the working class British people's interest and so it’s trying to reconcile those traditions and educate people into understanding a sense of historical belonging and how British imperial history has shaped the country.
So there is I think a space, if we counter effectively and there are people doing this. I don't want to give the impression that all working class white people are bigots. There is a tradition of people that recognise this contradiction and I think those of us who are quote unquote African Caribbean and black academics and writers and thinkers also have to speak to that tradition and say look this is the way this issue is worked against you but we also have to recognise it has worked for many people too. And so I think it's just a contradiction we have to deal with.