Myths of the white working class

Issue section: 

Talk of the existence of a unique and specifically deprived white working class being discriminated against conceals the real issue of class inequalities

A series of walkouts under the divisive slogan "British jobs for British workers" early in the year drew unprecedented attention from the press and put strikers on the front page of a sympathetic Daily Mail. The strikes were hugely contradictory - a godsend to nationalism, racism and the British National Party while defying the anti-union laws. The mainstream media focused on the former and were broadly delighted.

A few days before the first strike in January a report asking Who Cares about the White Working Class?, published by the Runnymede Trust and available online, tackled head on the increasingly common assertion that white workers and their families suffer systematic discrimination for being white. It was barely noted beyond a piece in the Guardian and, surprisingly, on the Mail Online.

Perhaps that is because its conclusions are dynamite. In the words of the report's introduction, "The white working classes are discriminated against on a range of fronts, including their accent, their style, the food they eat, the clothes they wear, the social spaces they frequent, the postcode of their homes, even their names. But they are not discriminated against because they are white."

The report comprises eight essays on discrimination, class and inequality by assorted writers who unpick the "consistent message that the white working class are the losers in the struggle for scarce economic resources, while minority ethnic groups are the winners". It starts rightly from the premise that Britain is dominated by class division, with "class identities similar in shape and strength to 40 years ago". Income inequality is at a historic high, social mobility declining and Britain bottom of a league of 21 countries rated by child and adolescent welfare.

Reviewing references to the white working class by Labour leaders and newspaper editorial writers, the report concludes that it appears to be "permissible to use class as a stick to beat multiculturalism, but not as a demand for increased equality."

The sharpest piece is by David Gillborn, a professor at the Institute of Education, who dismantles the official statistics on educational attainment and the media's distortion of these, trashing the BBC's White Season programmes of last year which took as their basis the assertion that "a majority of white working class Britons feel nobody speaks for them".

The BBC focused solely on the "white" element of that finding, based on a poll exclusively of white people. Gillborn points out, "In the case of the headline-grabbing question, 'Nobody speaks out for people like me', the BBC chose to interpret this as meaning 'white people like me'. But the respondents were also asked about other social identities (age, religion, etc), so 'like me' could just as easily refer to 'women like me' or 'men like me' or 'old people like me' or Christians and so on."

BBC presentation of the poll established a picture of white people overwhelmingly hostile to immigration. Yet it omitted the same poll's findings that 58 percent of working class respondents did not think immigrants "put their job at risk" and 71 percent felt that "most immigrants to Britain end up fitting in".

Gillborn turns to the official education statistics and demonstrates how these reveal that "the gap between white students in poverty (in receipt of free school meals) and more affluent whites (not on free school meals) is more than three times the gaps between different ethnic groups." Strangely, he points out, this does not lead to warnings of impending class war. Where it does lead is to newspaper claims of "white working class boys" disadvantaged at school - in the Daily Mail, the Guardian, the Independent - when the data on which the claims are based refers solely to pupils receiving free meals. No matter that just over 13 percent of pupils in England had free meals in 2006, while a National Centre for Social Research study found 57 percent of British adults describe themselves as working class.

Contrary to the media headlines, what the data shows is this: "White British students who do not receive free meals are more likely to attain five higher grade [GCSE] passes than counterparts of the same gender in groups including those of Bangladeshi, black African, Pakistani, mixed (white/black Caribbean) and black Caribbean heritage."

Behind the "white working class failure" stories supposedly exposed by official figures, Gillborn makes clear, "Educational statistics rarely include accurate measures of social class." The headlines invariably refer to smaller disadvantaged groups.

Wendy Bottero of Manchester University points out, "By stressing the whiteness of the white working class, the class inequality of other ethnic groups slips from view. This sidesteps the real issue of class inequality, focusing on how disadvantaged groups compete for scarce resources rather than exploring how that scarcity is shaped."

The essays vary in tone and content and this is not meant as an unqualified recommendation - readers would do well to refer to articles on class and racism in past issues of Socialist Review and its sister publications - but there is much of merit. As Bottero writes, "The debate about the white working class is not really about class at all. But it should be."