Why is the working class always white?

One of the most persistent, and frustrating fallacies that has popped up routinely in the last decade or so, is the idea that that class and race are entirely separate categories and that white and working class are natural corollaries. Yet the working class is multi-ethnic group.

This normally takes the form of a commentator, or politician (normally white, normally male, often middle class) declaring or implying that action to address racial inequality is taking place at the expense of action on class inequality, and in particular at the cost of the white working class. What is particularly galling is this lament is often wailed by voices that demonstrate very little other interest in addressing economic injustice.

The chart below provides the latest ONS figures (based on the 2011 census) for employment broken down by ethnic group in the UK. Clearly employment is not identical to class. Nonetheless, it calls into question any implication that ethnic minorities are benefiting from a economic system rigged in favour of the non-white population.

Employment % by ethnicity, 2014

ethnic employment %

This is a critique that is also voiced on the left, Simon Jenkins recently castigated the identity-politics obsessed left for failing alienating the white working class and clearing the path to Trump and Brexit.  Ironically those who tend to fret about the splintering effects of “Identity politics” seem to advance a politics that explicitly splits off the interests of the BME working class, in order to create an imagined, snowy white working class whose interests must be addressed independently.

Implicit in this claim is the assumption that people experience only one type of discrimination – class or race based. It is not possible, in this schema for people to be both BME and working class.

In this simplistic formulation, concern for racial injustice is the preserve of the effete metropolitan elite. A boondoggle that allows them to avoid thinking about the uncouth poor.

It is for this reason that we should welcome the latest joint publication from Class and the Runnymede Trust. Minority Report  is a series of essays that pick apart the ways that race and class issues operate in the UK. Importantly, it identifies the way that discussions of one are often used to erase or disguise the other.  As the editors point out “the ‘white working class’ analysis tends to sidestep or even erase the existence of the ‘black working class’”.

We see this effect apply not merely in regard to race, feminism and women’s rights and LGBT rights are also often dismissed as being an elite, liberal distraction. As if the history of the elite in the UK is one of warmhearted embrace of women’s liberation and LGBT rights. The fact is that the working class includes women too, some members of the working class are LGBT, and some are black.


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