Working class in Britain? You must be white

Kam Sandhu questions why the British working class is inevitably conceived of as white, despite ethnic minority communities being at the sharpest end of inequality

The black working class are often ‘invisible’ in Britain. ersoy emin / Alamy

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 ready-made 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. One of the most celebrated examples is the 1976 Grunwick Strike at a photographic film-processing laboratory in northwest London. Led by a group of South Asian women, more than 20,000 people – including a significant number of white working-class men – joined in the protest.

During the 1980s, discriminatory ‘sus’ (‘suspected person’) laws led to open racial profiling by the police, and the fascist National Front operated with impunity. Alternative anti-fascist networks were set up by people from a range of ethnicities to protect gatherings and events from attacks. These struggles are often written out of British working class history.

The burning tower

In 2017, Britain was forced to take notice of working class people of colour as it watched the flats of the Grenfell Tower in west London burn down, killing at least 71 people – the overwhelming majority migrants or from a migrant background.

While the shock of what happened rippled out, for many of Grenfell’s survivors the tragedy was the inevitable result of social prejudice, political policy and contempt. It is what happens when we ignore communities.

In the book Come Hell or High Water, Michael Eric Dyson examines the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and the reaction of wider society to seeing the suffering of a community of poor, black Americans: ‘By being outraged, we appear compassionate. This permits us to continue to ignore the true roots of their condition, roots that branch into our world and are nourished on our political and religious beliefs.’

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

As a sea of officials surrounds the Grenfell story, stage-managing its development, the mostly black and brown residents are once again marginalized from their own experience. The inquiry will not look at the government’s social housing policy, at its obsession with deregulation, nor its neglect of council tenants.

Kensington Member of Parliament Emma Dent Coad’s report ‘After Grenfell’ shone a light into the chasm in Britain’s richest borough (where Grenfell was located). Life expectancy differed between rich and poor residents by 22 years. Children were suffering from both obesity and malnutrition, and rickets – which had mostly disappeared in the Western world – had returned.

Grenfell’s failure to ensure safety standards is but one part of a wider housing crisis. In a country that had its highest number of empty homes in 20 years in 2017, more than 300,000 people – equivalent to one in every 200 – were homeless.

Pakistani/Bangladeshi and black adults in Britain are more likely to live in substandard accommodation than white people. Over 30 per cent of Pakistani/Bangladeshi people and over a quarter of black people live in overcrowded accommodation. This compared to less than 10 per cent of the white population.

The destruction of the Grenfell fire was the result of numerous choices in what appears to be a rigged system. The £200,000 ($267,180) cost for sprinklers that could have reduced the impact of the fire at the tower had been readily spent by the council on a court dispute centred around a fight between rich neighbours over piano noise.

The voices of black working-class people in Britain continue to be ignored. If commentators and politicians continue to believe only white poverty deserves recognition, the conditions under which black working-class people live are denied – or should that be, justified? With a government desperate to move on from the story of what happened at Grenfell, it would be disastrous to miss what it tells us.

Kam Sandhu is a freelance journalist and editor of Real Media, a co-operative dedicated to public interest journalism.