The "white working class" aren't racists

Symon Hill
By Symon Hill
15 Oct 2009

When mainstream politicians sit down next to the BNP's Nick Griffin on Question Time next week, they will be facing a monster of their own creation. The main parties' constant pandering to right-wing agendas, their failure to speak up for the benefits of immigration and their devotion to the interests of the wealthy have all contributed to the far right's electoral success.

As if to sum up Labour's distorted view of race and economics, the communities secretary John Denham yesterday launched an initiative aimed at the "white working class". He claims that migration has led to “resentment and a rise in insecurity” which threaten to create support for extremists.

The expression "white working class" implies that this is a group for whom race is important. Nearly every time I hear the phrase, it is linked to an assumption that working class white people are racist. Nor is this attitude found only on the political right. I've belonged to many left-wing campaigning movements that have included individuals with staggeringly prejudiced perceptions of working class people as racist, as well as sexist and homophobic.

This is not the reality. The BNP has won council seats from the Tories as well as Labour. I grew up in a white working class family that was not especially political, but it was clear to me from pretty early on that the people who differed from me the most were those who had plenty of money while my family scraped by – not people whose skin happened to look a bit different.

The Daily Telegraph, reporting Denham's speech, suggested that ministers wanted to target the white working class "after years of focusing on minority groups". But millionaires are the only minority group consistently supported by this government.

Ministers threw up their hands in horror at the devastation caused by the bankers but allowed them to keep their plunder. Despite their desire for crackdowns on benefit fraud, both Labour and Tories supported the cancellation of a criminal investigation into the far more serious corporate fraud allegedly committed by BAE Systems. The introduction of a 50p top tax rate was regarded by some as a "lurch to the left" rather than a belated and feeble attempt to require those who take most from society to give a small bit of it back.

To combat the BNP, we need to emphasise that the most important division in society is not racial – it is the division between the very rich and the rest of us. Patronising comments about the "white working class" serve only to reinforce the rhetoric of race while subtly distracting us from the realities of class division. Working class and lower middle class people of all ethnicities will always lose out from an economic system based on the whims of the wealthy. It is a system that neither Nick Griffin nor John Denham shows any sign of opposing.

------

(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia. This column first appeared on the online Guardian on 15 October 2009. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/symonhill.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License. Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.