White Working Class Voices

Issue section: 

The words “white working class” should set alarm bells ringing for most socialists. Rarely has a seemingly descriptive term become so loaded. As Harris Beider laments, it’s become as if the only way class can be acknowledged in the media is when it’s made about race. We’re all middle class now unless we’re white and we’re victims — left behind, crowded out or swamped by multiculturalism. We don’t need political representation, unless it’s racist UKIP or the fascist BNP. It’s a noxious, racist trope and Beider rightly takes aim at it.

But while he lands a few satisfying blows, the book is too muddled and academic to really hit home. The problem becomes clear in the opening chapters. Beider shows how trendy definitions of class based on cultural narratives are slippery and vague. But without objective definitions he’s stuck with them. He fights on terrain defined by his opponents that constantly shifts beneath his feet. The white working class can be shorthand for a mythical underclass, or shrinking manual workforces, or a majority of the population. Even worse is “white working class communities” — what are these, really, when most white working class people live in areas that are mixed in terms of class and race?

The BBC gets a skewering for its part in creating the idea of racism as a form of working class expression — from Alf Garnett to the 2008 White Season. So does New Labour, whose cynical “community cohesion” schemes were shaped by its scaremongering over Muslims and migration.

The titular voices only appear quite late in the book. They show that while such schemes are often viewed with the distrust council leaders and politicians deserve, a lived experience of mixed workplaces, neighbourhoods, schools and families does far more to undercut racism. Many interviewees were proud of this diversity. Others did speak in racist, resentful terms — and often expressed a contradictory mix. Many were positive about other “communities” in general but hostile towards the most recent immigrants or to Muslims. As Beider says, far from being specifically working class, this reflects broader debates in society and racism that starts at the top.

The book reproduces too many racist myths unchallenged, or debunks them in some places then trots them out again elsewhere. Beider’s scepticism of racists’ nostalgia for a spurious golden era of close-knit communities is refreshing. But you could get the impression that Indians go round trashing the streets of Coventry, Muslims burn poppies and migrant workers drive down wages. Fatally, Beider seems to accept that different ethnic groups are in competition for resources. The real competition — the one between classes — is invisible. This myth is the basis for the divisions capitalism sows among workers, and they can’t be debunked without debunking it.

On this flawed analysis Beider builds the deeply problematic theory of “dirty whiteness”. He argues that while in “mainstream society” being white is a privilege, in the ill-defined working class it’s become a stigma, signifying backwardness in a modern, diverse society. If we’re kind, perhaps there’s a sliver of insight here as to the snobbish limits of a Blairite, neoliberal version of anti-racism. But that counts for little compared to getting the effects of racism on the working class completely back-to-front and strengthening the myths you’re meant to be smashing.

Beider essentially tries to answer the racists with “the white working class is more complicated than that”. But things are always complicated. What’s missing is a simple truth. Some people are white, some are working class, and many are both — but the white working class as such is Not A Thing.