By Alex Callinicos
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The real link between racism and class

This article is over 2 years, 10 months old
Issue 2749
Black Lives Matter protests in summer 2020 exposed a system of institutional racism
Black Lives Matter protests in summer 2020 exposed a system of institutional racism (Pic: Michael Swan/Flickr)

The Report of the Sewell Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities may look a mess. But it’s a calculated political hit. It aims to erase the concept of institutional racism.

The acknowledgement that the Metropolitan Police were institutionally racist in the 1999 Macpherson report into Stephen Lawrence’s murder was a huge victory for the anti-racist movement. Tony Sewell and the Tory government are trying to reverse this.

The report is thoroughly intellectually dishonest, as numerous critics have pointed out. I’ll focus on just one argument, the attempt to play race off against class.

The commission repeatedly says that “the roots of advantage and disadvantage for different groups are complex, and often as much to do with social class, ‘family’ culture and geography as ethnicity.”

Thus they deny that the high Covid-19 death rate among black and Asian people has anything to do with racism. “The increased risk of dying from Covid-19 is mainly due to an increased risk of exposure to infection,” they say.

Class isn’t just oppression—it’s the power to fight back
Class isn’t just oppression—it’s the power to fight back
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“This is attributed to the facts that Black and South Asian people are more likely to live in urban areas with higher population density and levels of deprivation—work in higher risk occupations such as healthcare or transport, and to live with older relatives who themselves are at higher risk.”

So black and Asian people are dying because they belong to the poorer sections of the working class, not because of racism. This assumes that what the commission calls “disadvantage” can be broken up into many different unrelated factors—class, race, geography, etc.

This is the wrong way of thinking about class.

Class isn’t a “factor”, it’s a relationship. As The great Marxist historian Geoffrey de Ste Croix, put it, “class is the way in which exploitation is reflected in the social structure.”

A capitalist society is structured by the class relationship between exploiters and exploited.

It is divided between the capitalists, who control society’s productive resources, and the workers who create through their unpaid labour the profits these capitalists appropriate.


But exploitation doesn’t operate uniformly. Workers who are more vulnerable thanks to their oppression—racism, sexism or LGBT+ discrimination for example—are likely to be paid less, to work harder and to have worse working conditions.

The black Communist Claudia Jones pointed out in a classic 1949 article that exploitation and oppression can be mutually reinforcing. She wrote about black women in the United States, using the word “Negro” which was then acceptable.

“Negro women—as workers, as Negroes, and as women—are the most oppressed stratum of the whole population,” she wrote.

So it’s nonsense to counterpose race and class. Class—in the sense of the exploitive relationship between bosses and workers—operates through racism.

Racism and other kinds of oppression don’t just make some working class people vulnerable. They weaken the working class as a whole because oppression divides workers.

The report itself is an example of this kind of divide and rule. It tries to play off what it calls the “white working class” against black and Asian people.

It declares, for example, that “it is the poorer white people, outside London, who are the largest group to be found in areas with multidimensional disadvantages”.

Britain is a class society where, according to the 2011 census, 87.2 percent of the population were white and 12.9 percent belonged to ethnic minorities. So of course there are more poor white people.

Indeed, as the great African-American scholar WEB du Bois pointed out, one mechanism keeping them poor is the racist fantasy that they are superior to black people.

So in a deeper sense class does trump race.

A united working class could sweep away the different forms of oppression and their roots in capitalism. But this requires the most determined fight against racism.

And on a world scale, du Bois writes, “the freeing of labour is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown, and black”.

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