Socialist Worker

Are poor whites the most oppressed people in Britain?

Simon Basketter looks at the reality of race and class today

Issue No. 2029

Shopping in Dagenham, east London. Tory MP Iain Duncan Smith distorts the reasons why white workers are failed by the system  (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Shopping in Dagenham, east London. Tory MP Iain Duncan Smith distorts the reasons why white workers are failed by the system (Pic: Socialist Worker)


Poor and marginalised people living in Britain have attracted some false friends in recent weeks. The rebranded Tories sent the highly unlikely radical Iain Duncan Smith MP off to look at education, and he came back with the conclusion that the education system lets down white working people.

The Telegraph waded in with a piece headlined “White, Poor, Male – And Doomed To Fail” and the Economist shed crocodile tears with an article entitled “Poor Whites: The Forgotten Underclass”.

A tagline on the Economist piece summed up the story: “Muslims and blacks get more attention. But poor whites are in a worse state.”

The most basic point that those on the left should make is that this campaign is designed to bolster racism.

Politicians never say to workers, “We want to divide you in order to make it easier to rule over you.” Instead they try to persuade white workers to turn against black, Asian or Muslim workers, harnessing whatever arguments they feel are most persuasive.

In this case the establishment admits that some white people are doing extremely badly in an attempt to blunt the arguments of anti-racists.

The argument that multiculturalism has left poor white people behind follows hot on the heels of the claim, repeated endlessly in the press over the past year, that immigrants are cutting British workers’ wages. The Tories and right wing press are now spreading myths previously peddled only by the likes of the Nazi BNP.

Michael Collins, writing in the Sunday Times, launched a head-on attack on multiculturalism. “The culture of political correctness and the widespread (and often accurate) view among many working class people that every other social and ethnic group’s needs came above theirs when it came to government resources bred resentment,” he wrote.

“From the 1980s the multiculturalists formed part of a breed within civic bodies, keen to erase evidence of the local heritage of the white working class and emphasise the historical presence of every other creed and colour. Had all this been done to any other ethnic or social group, its problems would not have remained so hidden.”

It is important to look at these arguments in detail. The Tories’ report said that only 17 percent of white working class boys managed to gain five or more A* to C grades at GCSE level. This contrasts with the 19 percent recorded by black African-Caribbean boys from poor backgrounds, who are traditionally seen as the ethnic group with the worst educational achievement.

Now, how do you define working class or poor? The Economist study (the only one that gives details) uses people who are recipients of free school meals. This is a very bad description of working class.

Free school meals are available to children of parents who “get income support, or income-based jobseeker’s allowance or child tax credit and your annual income is no more than £14,155 and you do not get working tax credit, guarantee element of state pension or if you receive support under part Vl of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999”.

Such a definition leaves out the vast majority of workers. So the study is assuredly not of “white working class” people.

Secondly, the analyses never admit that the reach of poverty is far greater among Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, African-Caribbean people and other ethnic minorities than it is among whites.

A very good study produced by the TUC this year uses the following table:

Risk of being poor by ethnic group

Proportion of ethnic group who are poor (percent)

ethinic group%
Pakistani/Bangladeshi58
Black non-Caribbean47
Black Caribbean34
Chinese or other ethnic group42
Mixed34
Indian29
All individuals 21
White 19

The fact that 19 percent of whites are so poor that they meet the criteria is a disgrace – an indictment of New Labour’s record. But that figure is dwarfed by the figures for other groups. The report goes on to show:

Ethnic groups’ GCSE results, England and Wales

Proportion of ethnic group gaining five or more GCSE grades A* to C (percent)

ethinic group%
Other Asian 64
Indian 60
Other 53
White 52
Bangladeshi 41
Pakistani 40
Black 36

Overall, the vast majority of non-whites do worse than whites. Now revisit the arguments about comparing white children eligible for free school meals with ethnic minority children.

You are talking about some 12 percent of white pupils, and at least twice this proportion in each minority ethnic group received free school meals.

So the fact that the ethnic minority children eligible for free school meals may get slightly better results than the white children eligible for free school meals in no way cancels out the fact that white people, in general, will still do much better than black people.

If you really want to compare like with like, compare the poorest 12 percent of white children with the poorest 12 percent of ethnic minority children. Here you would find that the appalling results that the system delivers for white people are even worse for ethnic minorities.

One of the extraordinary facts that Duncan Smith did not mention is that whatever success black children now achieve is a result of lengthy struggles against the effects of the Tories’ racist and anti-working class policies.

In 1988, the year of the Tory Education Reform Act, black pupils were the most successful of the groups from manual backgrounds. Ten years later they were among the least successful.

These details are important. They explode the statistics that are dishonestly used to boost the notion that multiculturalism is holding back whites.

But it is also important not to get hung up on the figures – what is centrally important here is for the left to challenge the attempts to divide and rule.

The very real misery that working class people face is not caused by immigration. It is a product of capitalism, and in particular the “war of all against all” encouraged by Margaret Thatcher and her Blairite imitators over the past 25 years.

In the 19th century, Karl Marx argued that the antagonism of English workers towards Irish immigrants was “the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power”. Racism in the working class today serves the same role.

Even while they are pretending to champion the cause of white workers, the establishment dismisses them as “chavs” and binge drinkers, fit only for anti-social behaviour orders.

Of course, there is an interaction between race and class. Class is the key divide running through society. Generally pupils from wealthy families from all ethnic groups do better than their working class counterparts of whatever ethnic group.

So working class black African-Caribbean children find themselves alongside working class white and Pakistani pupils in the lower sets in the school system. Once children are placed in a lower set, it is more difficult for them to rise.

But there is also a racial bias against black pupils. Class divisions among black children are less pronounced than for white children – because all black children face the detrimental effects of racism. Even middle class black or Asian children often do badly because of the “ethnic penalty” they face.

The real question is who do you trust to carry forward working class concerns for the vast majority of us – white, Asian and black – who are shut out by the present system.

Do you trust Tony Blair and his coterie of business-loving New Labourites? Do you trust David Cameron, product of Eton and Brasenose College, Oxford, member of the Bullingdon dining club and White’s gentlemen’s club, married to Samantha, daughter of Sir Reginald Sheffield, 8th baronet, and Viscountess Astor?

Or do you trust working people of whatever origin to come together to push for their own concerns rather than being divided one against another? On the answer to that question hangs much of the future.


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Features
Sat 2 Dec 2006, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 2029
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