There Is No White Working Class

By Dr. Omar Khan @omaromalleykhan

New research reveals how government policy and rhetoric stereotypes and divides poor communities, making life much harder for migrants and asylum-seekers, explains Dr. Omar Khan, director of Runnymede, the UK’s leading independent think tank on race relations and inequality. 

“After years when class was ignored, Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump’s election in the US have placed it firmly back on the agenda. Notably, the re-emergence of class analysis has taken a distinctive form, namely by focusing principally on the white working class, and more on their cultural or social exclusion than on how structural inequalities deny the working class (white or otherwise) access to opportunities, resources and power…

In a sense the poverty of the discussion of the white working class has simply followed in the footsteps of the poverty of the discussion on race. Instead of focusing on structural inequalities and the barriers to equal participation, white working-class culture is pathologized, while their attitudes and behaviours are the main focus of analysis – and in a way that blames them for their condition. For those working to challenge racial inequalities, this culturalized (or racialized) analysis is familiar, and so too the tendency to suggest personal choice and culture is to blame for persistent and widespread inequalities.”

Minority Report: Race & Class in Post-Brexit Britain

Destitute asylum seekers are five times more likely to live in the poorest areas, while the richest areas often have no asylum seekers at all, new research by the Guardian has revealed. This also reveals the gap between political rhetoric and reality on social inequalities in modern Britain. Sending asylum seekers, who are not allowed to work, into towns with worse job prospects, while at the same time keeping asylum seekers out of wealthier areas, is a policy that predictably makes it harder for asylum-seekers and host communities to support one another.

Working class communities have often welcomed newcomers but when those communities are under stress from a shrinking job market, more part time and zero hours work and public service cutbacks they are ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous politicians who tell them the cause of their discomfort is the newcomers, rather than the decision-makers.

Today we have a multi-ethnic working class where there is arguably more social interaction between different ethnic groups than in more middle class circles. This multi-ethnic working class has many things in common, not least the experience of social exclusion by those with privilege and neglect by those in power who have failed to respond to either racial or class inequalities.

Our recently published Minority Report: Race & Class in Post-Brexit Britain, produced in collaboration with the Centre for Labour & Social Studies, finds that the white working class had been simultaneously stereotyped and encouraged to resent immigrants. Poor black, white and Asian communities live side by side, often in diverse neighbourhoods with high levels of social interaction. The truth is that the ‘left behind’ are not just white. Furthermore, both the white working class, immigrants and in fact all ethnic minorities would all benefit from public policies to tackle social disadvantage.

Yet government has moved away from tackling ‘socio-economic’ issues or dealing with poor social mobility. The jobs market discriminates against poor white and ethnic minority people in different ways, which is why we need to ensure schemes to tackle unequal outcomes have intelligent targeting. For example, allowing asylum seekers to work while waiting for their claims to be processed. However there are also many actions government can take to improve the lot of low income families in general.

Sadly ministers are heading in the opposite direction. Analysis that Runnymede and the Women’s Budget Group carried out on the Chancellor’s recent budget shows that the poorest third of households are the biggest losers while the richest third are hardly hit at all. Black and Asian women are worst hit, losing over £2,000 per year after tax and benefit changes, which again highlights the diverse nature of working Britain.

Government also has a responsibility to set the tone on tackling racism in all its forms. Reports that asylum seekers are hiding their identities to avoid racial attacks comes after a spike in hate crime following the EU referendum. Opinion polls consistently show a good portion of the public want Britain to extent a warm welcome to people fleeing conflict and persecution. Yet far from capitalising on that sentiment for good, the Home Office persists in making life as hard as possible, leaving churches, mosques, charities and volunteers to pick up the pieces.

If the establishment is this hostile to refugees, it is hardly surprising that elements of the public are too, especially when fed a daily diet of negative stories by the media. From the prime minister down, those with power should be doing more to promote integration by welcoming newcomers and tacking the labour market barriers that block integration and exclude groups such as African, Asian, Caribbean and Roma. It would also help if British society were more aware of the extensive multiethnic history of these islands.

All this would go a long way to unite multi-ethnic communities and counteract the populism that seeks to promote a form of mythical ‘white Britishness’ to fill the void left by the absence of jobs, resources and a voice in society, nostalgic for a time that never was. United, a multi-ethnic working class would be a powerful force for change on behalf of all those ‘left behind’.

It is of course true that immigrants need to settle as quickly and successfully as possible, especially in terms of gaining the legal right to remain and work. However, the evidence on racial and class inequalities suggests that immigrants and their children continue to experience vast disadvantages in British society even after winning their legal rights.

There is now an opportunity for immigrants, British-born minorities and the multiethnic working class to work together. For those fleeing wars or violence there’s little doubt that moving to the UK improves their lives. But until we tackle racial and class inequalities in Britain, the hopeful lives we all want for ourselves and our children will remain elusive.

The publication of Minority Report, designed to kick-start a conversation about race and class in Britain today and launches an extended project over the next year during which Runnymede and CLASS “will seek to work with others on improving the public debate and policy analysis around race and class in Britain.” Find out more at www.runnymedetrust.org

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