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The truth about the ‘white working class’

This article is over 16 years, 2 months old
Behind the media hype about "whiteness" lies a racist agenda that distorts and dismisses the working class tradition of struggle, writes Simon Basketter
Issue 2092

Being poor and white is oddly popular in certain circles at the moment.

The so called quality press has spent years writing off white working class people as binge drinking “chavs”. Now it has turned round and decided that white workers are in fact to be pitied.

We are told that the white working class has been overlooked, silenced, abandoned and betrayed by a “politically correct” middle class establishment that only cares about fashionably ethnic types.

This argument is at best patronising and at worst downright racist. White workers certainly are exploited – but because they are workers, not because they are white.

And lurking behind this notion that white people are being “treated unfairly” is the idea that ethnic minorities are receiving “special favours” – a standard myth that has been wheeled out by racists for generations.

Much of this rubbish has been sparked by the BBC’s White Season, the very title of which suggests some kind of voyeuristic natural history rather than any serious journalism.

The season has sparked acres of media coverage devoted to the allegedly “lost” voice of the white working class – a voice that conveniently turns out to echo the worst prejudices of white middle class media managers.

These people claim that the white poor are “invisible” – yet they have spent their lives hiding away in gated communities from working class people in case we nick their stuff.

In fact the very idea that there is a “white working class” separate from the working class in general and with a distinct identity of its own is reactionary.

Studies show workers in Britain are more integrated and more diverse than ever – and our lives are all the better for it.

This widespread mixing of cultures and traditions is a small but important block to the further spread of racism. That is one reason why the working class is in fact less racist than the middle or upper classes.

In Gordon Brown’s Britain, the “culture” we are most likely to share is that of the workplace. We work – but we do not earn enough to get by and so we are forced into borrowing from week to week.

So up and down the country we see a shared working class cultural phenomenon – the growth of pawnshops and the dubious money lenders on high streets. That poverty hits black and white – and it also produces a deep bitterness that can fuel racism.


There are parts of Britain where working class people have had their jobs and communities destroyed.

The BBC chose to highlight Easington in the north east of England, a town they dubbed the “whitest place in Britain”.

The town certainly is predominantly white, but more importantly it is predominantly poor and ageing.

And its problems have nothing to do with multiculturalism or immigration. They stem from the fact that Easington’s coal mine was closed down and, several regeneration plans later, nothing has come to replace it.

This is a product of capitalism, and in particular the “war of all against all” encouraged by Margaret Thatcher and her Blairite imitators for decades.

In many northern textile towns there used to be a level of segregation in the mills. New immigrants did the night shift, while white workers did the day shift. But when the mills closed they both lost their jobs.

It is the oldest trick our rulers have. Politicians try to persuade white workers to turn against black, Asian or Muslim workers, harnessing whatever arguments they feel they can get away with.

What we see at the moment with the hype around “whiteness” is the establishment admitting that some white people are doing extremely badly – but only in order to direct people’s anger towards minorities and immigrants, and to blunt the arguments of anti-racists.

The challenges of working class life in neoliberal Britain are reduced to a series of obsessions over race and immigration, with those (and only those) who are white cast as passive victims of policies they didn’t choose.

But the effects of privatisation, poor pay, insecure housing and pressured living disadvantage all working class people, whether they are white or not. And the reality of racism is that all those problems disproportionately affect non whites (see table).

Some 19 percent of whites are so poor that they meet the TUC’s criteria for poverty. But that figure is dwarfed by those for other ethnic groups. This is a disgrace and an indictment of New Labour’s record.

Finally, the current arguments over the “white working class” present us with a ridiculous rewriting of history. Any notion of collective working class struggle is airbrushed out of the picture.


And it is precisely that history of protest and strikes that was responsible for creating the traditions of solidarity – or “sense of community” – that has supposedly disappeared.

What is most insulting – and most dangerous – is the way the history of working class anti-racism is ignored. Black people have always been at the forefront of fighting against racism, but there have always been white workers fighting alongside them.

The Chartists of the 19th century were led in London by William Cuffay, a black immigrant. The workers of Battersea in south London during the 1920s elected an Indian Communist, Shapurji Saklatvala, as an MP.

Black and white rose together in the urban rebellions of the 1980s, and during the fight against the Nazis from the 1970s to the present day.

It is this joint struggle of us against them – and that means the poor against the rich and their hired thugs – that has held back the worst of the assaults on our lives and won what little gains we have made.

And it is that united struggle which will improve the lot of all workers, black and white, and can deliver us a genuine, unified and determined voice.

Poverty and ethnicity in Britain

These are the TUC’s figures for the proportion of each ethnic group that are defined as poor. Whites do better than average

group % poor
Pakistani/Bangladeshi 58
Black non-Caribbean 47
Black Caribbean 34
Chinese or other 42
Mixed 34
Indian 29
All individuals 21
White 19

See also » BBC’s White Season is founded on racist lies

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