Phil McDuff complains about the portrayal of the white working class as a “howling mass” whose “concerns” about immigration must be heeded.
This poses a question: why do we hear so much about the racism of the white working class and so little about the racism of the ruling class?
Take the following facts:
- The median net wealth of white British households is almost three times (pdf) that of black Caribbean ones.
- “Ethnic minorities are still hugely underrepresented in positions of power” says David Isaac.
- Graduates from ethnic minorities are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as white graduates.
- “Once personal characteristics have been taken into account, all major ethnic minority groups have lower pay [than whites]” says Hilary Metcalf.
Of course, these might be due to many factors such as differences in cultural capital or occupational sorting. But they might be due in part to racism by the ruling class. Not necessarily overt racism, but also a subtle racism which under-rates and de-prioritizes ethnic inequalities.
What's not to blame for these these inequalities is the racism of the working class*. Hence my question: why do we hear so little about ruling class racism but so much about working class racism?
Certainly, this pattern serves useful functions. It helps to deflect attention away from trends that have hurt workers of all colours such as austerity, the decline of trades unions and power-biased technical change. As Phil says:
Our other “genuine concerns” – such as school and hospital funding, benefits and disability payments, the crushing of industries that formed the backbones of our local economies – are ignored or dismissed out of hand.
It also helps to divide and rule working people, and provide a justification for doing what politicians want anyway – to impose immigration controls.
But it does something else. Over-emphasizing white working class racism serves to stigmatize and delegitimate the powerless, whilst under-estimating ruling class racism helps to legitimate those in power. If you think I’m making a Marxist point here, you’d be only half-right. I’m echoing Adam Smith:
We see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent. (Theory of Moral Sentiments, I.III.29)
It’s through means such as this that inequalities of power are legitimated and sustained. And the tragedy is that so many people fall for such old tricks.
* I might be overstating this. It’s theoretically possible that employers don’t hire ethnic minorities because they fear that white co-workers wouldn’t accept them. But I doubt this is a significant factor nowadays. It would certainly be odd if bosses were so mindful of white workers’ attitudes on this point when they are otherwise so contemptuous of them.