The State of the White Working Class | Mario Laghos
The white working class aren’t saintly. They aren’t worthy of airtime because they are better people, they are worthy simply because they are people. Yet advocating on their behalf is often considered heretical. Many who wish to get up and bat for them have to do so without ever naming them, never admitting to whom they refer. Much like Voldemort, they are described with euphemisms; ‘The traditional working class’, or ‘Heartland Labour voters’ are proffered as safe alternate descriptors. The Twitterati strike back – ‘You’re standing up for white people. Fascist!’ – they type. ‘No, No! I just meant working class people of any type, this is nothing to do with white people’ comes the invariable climb down. As every diversity bod would rightly assert, BAME people face particular social and societal challenges, and each group under the BAME umbrella faces challenges unique from each other group. The same is true for white working-class people, and it’s time to talk about them.
Every time you hear the BBC, civil service, or some major corporation calling for ‘more diversity’ they are really talking about having less white working-class people. The class distinction is important of course, because the higher one is on the socio-economic hierarchy the easier one is able to overcome institutional barriers. You won’t be too put out by your ineligibility to sign on to the Civil Service BAME internship programme if you can afford to enrol in an unpaid internship for some city firm in order to gain decent work experience. You’ll be less likely to begrudge the inalienable fact of your own race barring you from BBC BAME only training schemes, if you know someone in the industry who will just drop you in as a runner, or a junior producer. Stormzy can offer up money for scholarships which are reserved for black students at Cambridge, but when Sir Bryan Thwaites tried to leave money in his will to two private schools, on the condition it be used to help ‘disadvantaged white boys’, then it is rejected on the grounds the attached stipulation, namely to help white people, would breach equality legislation. Again, if you’ve got money, it’s not a problem, you don’t need a scholarship. If you don’t have money, and you’re white, then the deck is stacked against you in the name of diversity.
It must be particularly stinging for the white working-class to face discrimination because they are the indigenous progeny of the nation. When King Alfred retreated with his camp followers to drain the West Country swamps and rebuild his armies to repel the Vikings, did he imagine he was laying the foundations for a nation which would systematically discriminate against his own posterity? That the 15 minutes of fame to which all would be entitled to in the future would be on the set of Jeremy Kyle? Let me be clear: being white should not afford an individual any advantages. Meritocracy with equality of opportunity is a societal model which is both morally good, and materially good. But let’s consider that this group of the population, who are a plurality by the way, are not inconvenient uncles or leeches or brigands, but the people who built this nation. In conjunction with West Indian immigrants, advantaged by Roman technology, with a language moulded by the Normans, and so on, but the fact remains. These are the indigenous people, not second-class citizens. Or at least they ought not be.
But it’s not just about institutional discrimination against the white working class. Their traditional industries like the docks, potteries and mines have closed. Working men’s clubs and pubs are giving way to the increasingly attractive and now necessary proposition of drinking from home, further exacerbating the atomisation of once strong communities. The nature of work has changed so as to replace factory work with gig jobs or remote working. Intergenerational unemployment has wrought increases in alcoholism drug abuse and marital breakdown. The prohibitive cost of housing has robbed people of a meaningful stake in society and led to an increase in crime. The cost of neoliberalism has often been felt most keenly in predominantly white areas, while urban centres with thriving services have reaped much of the reward. This economic destitution and the invariable moral and societal decline that it causes is reflected in our popular culture, in which white working-class people have been stereotyped as feckless and stupid. Try and buy a man a birthday card and you’ll struggle to find one which doesn’t imply the birthday boy is either lazy, perverted or a drunkard. Turn on your TV and you’ll find an abundance of poverty porn, its lens tightly focussed on predominantly white communities.
Few people are blind to these phenomena. But they are overlooked because according to many of those who occupy powerful positions in our society, white working-class people still have systemic advantages born of their race over other poor groups. June Sarpong, the new BBC diversity chief said as much in a recent interview with the Telegraph:
While the “elite white male” is at the top of the tree, even the white working class has an advantage over people from black and Asian backgrounds’
But this assumption which lends cover to inaction is demonstrably false. According to data from the Office for National Statistics, employees of Chinese, Indian and Mixed or Multiple ethnicity all had higher median hourly pay than White British employees in 2018. White working-class boys are among the very bottom of the pile in terms of educational attainment, being 40% less likely to attend university than black boys of a similar socioeconomic background. The recent IFS Deaton puts the number of white boys from the poorest backgrounds making it into university at just 8%, a feat that 85% of Asian girls in prosperous areas achieve.
Individuals and organisations can freely advocate for any ethnic or racial group in the country, without fear of reprisal. A good thing too, the freedom to advocate as one sees fit is and ought to remain a right. But why does this advocacy stop where white working-class communities begin? Why are so many who dare speak up for them harangued, abused, and in any case, devoid of institutional power? Primarily because the lie of ‘white privilege’ has become axiomatic. The idea that poor white people have invisible structural advantages has gone from being treated as an amusing preoccupation of trendy students, to an accepted fact which informs discourse and policy. It’s time to focus on equality of opportunity, and ensure that every group have at their disposal the tools they need to get on in life. The toxic stigma of standing up for white people must be consigned to landfill in order to give chances to those who are presently robbed of opportunity.