“We tend to associate racist and sexist attitudes with uneducated, low-income working class people”
I was shocked to find this statement in the printed version of an LSE seminar paper by a London University Academic. I should not have been. The view it expresses has preoccupied Left commentary on the outcome of the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump as US President.
In the British case, the working class – here the “uneducated low-income working class people” – whose conduct is to be explained is normally implicitly white while, in the American case, commentators refer explicitly to the white working class. After a flurry of efforts to explain Britain’s Brexit vote and Trumps election in terms of working class disaffection from mainstream politics, and particularly from what many commentators still view as “progressive” political parties, more-informed commentators pointed out that the LEAVE victory was not simply down to the working class while others (eg Hsia-Hung-Pai openDemocracy 11 July 2016) insisted that the British working class was not entirely white.
The same paper gives a clear example of the assumption Hsia-Hung-Pai disputes, continuing that many “find it difficult to fathom … that [racist & sexist] attitudes are not only those of uneducated low-income classes, but that they are prevalent amongst the educated middle classes” before contrasting both the uneducated low-income classes and educated middle classes to ”people of colour”, thereby implying that members of the classes in question are without colour, ie.“white”.
Following my initial surprise, my first reaction, as always when I encounter the rhetorically inclusive “we”, was to wonder who they might be; was I now part of this “we” and, if not, would I want to be? No. I do not belong nor do I wish to belong to this rhetorically invoked collective, for several reasons. Before I get to these reasons, let me just ask: How is it that “we”, whoever that might be, have come to look down on the white working class?
Salt of the earth
When I first encountered socialism, in the early 1950s version of Britain’s Labour Party Young Socialists, it seemed that the working class could do no wrong. Its members were, as one visiting speaker explained in a phrase that stuck in my mind, “the salt of the earth and our hope for the future.” (Did this mean that they were not racist? At the time, I didn’t think to ask) My impression is that many on the Left have since abandoned this positive view of the working class. How, when and why has this happened? And does the “whiteness” of the working class have something to do with it?
Much of my academic work over the last 15-20 years has tried to understand the ways in which educated Europeans have contrived to imagine themselves as superior both to non-Europeans and to uneducated Europeans. The maintenance of this illusion over several centuries must surely rank among the greatest intellectual achievements of western civilisation. Where this author’s “we” view the working class as racist, I have learned to think of educated Europeans, in the past and all too often in the present, in precisely those terms. Here, just to take one example from the past, are the opening lines of a notorious footnote from David Hume’s essay “Of National Characters”, first published in 1748 and enthusiastically picked up by Immanuel Kant:
I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent in either action or speculation….
It is not hard to find overtly racist sentiments in the work of other great names in the history of liberal political thought – John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill, for example.
Growing up in 1940s and ’50s England, I lived in Stevenage, about 30 miles north of London – a small town of a few thousand people and a couple of industrial employers that subsequently became one of the many New Towns, built by the postwar Labour Government to house Londoners displaced by urban planning, slum clearance and German bombs.
While the Old Town Stevenage working class was not large it was certainly racist but so too was almost everyone else – the animus being directed, most obviously, against visiting Roma and the “jew-boys” who ran the local wartime and post-war black markets. In this respect, at least, Stevenage was a microcosm of post-war Britain.
Stevenage was not much affected by migrants from South Asia or the West Indies. The immigrants who threatened to, and did in fact overwhelm our limited educational and health services were as English as we were, working class Londoners, with strange accents, curious tastes in clothing and hair-styles and a refreshingly open contempt for school uniforms – and also, so the local press informed us, a dangerous propensity for destroying cinema seats whenever Bill Haley, Elvis Presley and sometimes even Cliff Richards were performing on screen, but not, oddly enough, during ‘family’ movies like South Pacific and The Sound of Music.
These English migrants posed no threat to our housing or jobs, but only because the Stevenage Development Corporation provided them with housing and had thoughtfully encouraged several large industrial employers to move into the area. What the Corporation did not provide for the newcomers were sufficient cinemas, pubs and shops and this insufficiency became an ongoing source of tension between the original inhabitants and the newcomers.
My overall impression of Britain during this period, as it is of the USA today, is that racism could be found all over the place, overtly amongst the white working class and more discreetly elsewhere, if you knew what to look for or found yourself on the receiving end. I recall younger teachers in my secondary school trying, against the disapproval of both their seniors and our parents, to persuade us to abandon racism, but with only limited success.
The most important lesson we took away from their efforts was that the overt expression of racism was best avoided. Some years later, at a time I find difficult to pin down, racism came to be widely regarded as a bad thing, at least among English people with more than the minimum education – or perhaps it was only necessary to avoid racism’s overt expression, a condition easily confused with not being racist. I strongly suspect the latter.
The sense that one should not be racist, and certainly not do so out loud, was one of the many norms that sustained what English people understood by class, enabling those who had absorbed this lesson to feel superior to the many who had not. This gives us a provisional answer, at least in the English case, to my earlier question: “we” started to deplore working class racism around the time “we” learned that the overt expression of racism was not such a good idea. I suspect that something similar might hold in America, but without the complication of English class sensibilities and with a wider range of targets.
This last point suggests one of the two most familiar explanations for working class racism – poor education. I’ll turn to another familiar explanation in a moment. There are numerous American studies purporting to show that white males without a two-year college degree are more likely to endorse racist views, suggesting that education has a countervailing effect. The standard case for the importance of education in this regard takes a romantic view of the impact of the humanities – especially the study of literature and other languages, all of which are often thought to promote empathy, the ability to imagine oneself in the place of another.
Yet, few US two-year college degrees are humanities-based. Most college students take ostensibly vocational courses – advanced secretarial, advertising, aged-care, business communication, commerce, early childhood education, hospitality, human resource management, office administration, nursing, etc. Most such courses are less likely to increase their graduates’ empathy than to marginally improve their employment prospects. Those with two-year degrees may be less vulnerable than those without to competition for jobs from unskilled migrants.
A second explanation
This, in effect, is the second explanation: the white working class is simply responding to the perceived threat to their jobs, housing, schools and welfare provision more generally posed by Blacks, Hispanics and migrants.
Unfortunately, this view rests on the image of an ethnically and nationally homogeneous working class that, while it may appeal to the few remaining English nationalists on the Left, has never been entirely realistic. The English working class has taken in many outsiders over the years – Irish, Jews, Scots and Welsh, most obviously, but also migrants from all over Europe, freed or escaped slaves and sailors from the Middle East, Africa, the Americas, South and East Asia and the Malay archipelago who, after landing in Britain, either failed to return to their ships in time or were cynically abandoned by their employers.
Satnam Virdee’s recent Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider makes the important point that the English working class has always been a multi-ethnic formation. It has often harboured racist sentiments and sometimes a working class anti-racism. The ‘white’ working class of America, like those of other parts of Europe, has a different but no less complex formation, complicated, in particular, by America’s heritage of virulent racisms directed against Blacks, Mexicans/Hispanics and Native Americans.
To conclude, if the working class is not entirely white, the whiteness of its ‘white’ component is somewhat exaggerated and so too, I suspect, is its racism. Certainly, the English and American ‘white’ working classes harbour racist tendencies, along with anti-racist ones, but they hardly stand out in this respect from the remainder of the ‘white’ population.