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The white working class is another form of identity politics

The working class and whiteness are not one and the same. 

Brexit and Donald Trump’s success in the US presidential elections have intensified an already existing trend: politicians’ and commentators’ obsessive fixation with the white working class. The left has been told – and is telling itself – that it must prioritise connecting with this group. But there are many problems with this, not least because it means privileging whiteness above all other forms of identity and solving white people’s problems at the expense of people of colour.

None of this is to say that white people aren’t victims of economic injustice, or that poverty among white people doesn’t matter - it does. But the argument du jour is that the American election result symbolised a roar of dissent from the “left behind” and Brexit was a “working class revolt”. This is not entirely true in either case; wealthy voters in both instances formed a large part of the vote. 

In fact, research from the Economic Policy Institute found people of colour will be a majority of the working class by 2032 - that’s 11 years before the US is predicted to become a so-called "majority minority" country. This suggests there are more working class people of colour than in any other class bracket. In the US, although we do not have a breakdown of earnings along race lines, African Americans and Latinos are more likely to be poor, but they were far less likely to vote for Trump. And in the UK, people of colour are more likely to be in poverty than white people but they were far less likely to vote for Brexit.

As political sociologist Professor Akwugo Emejulu  and the The New Statesman’s own Stephen Bush have explained, when politicians doggedly pin Brexit and Trump on the white “left behind” voter, poor people of colour are ignored. The implication of this obsession is that poverty and disenfranchisement is only worth paying attention to when experienced by white people.

The left has bought into this dangerous thinking at a time when white nationalism is stronger than it’s been in decades. The Labour MP Stephen Kinnock has called for Labour to abandon “diversity” and stand up “for everyone in this country” including “the white working class”. These two subjects need not be so mutually exclusive, and positioning them as such means abandoning the concerns of minorities in order to pander to racism. This is, in part, because Labour think people of colour have nowhere else to go. How wrong they could be proved.

Rather than an argument grounded in economics, then, this rhetoric comes down to whiteness, which is, contrary to what many seem to think, a form of identity politics. In fact, whiteness has long-been the most prevalent and powerful form of identity. It is, in the words of academic Gloria Wekker “not seen as an ethnic positioning at all”. Like an animal well adapted to its environment, it camouflages itself as part of the societal landscape. Yet it works in insidious ways. It places white peoples’ experience as most important and works on the basis that they need to be protected from the impure "other". It structures the world we live in.

What this rhetoric does is allow the middle and upper politicians to use anti-migrant rhetoric and claim it symbolises a paternalistic shows of support for the white working classes, whatever that group's actual views. Ukip's Nigel Farage, a former stockbroker, suggested he stood up for this downtrodden group through the xenophobic Leave campaign. But this obscures a more complex reality. As University of London researcher David Wearing has found, "the Leave vote correlates much more strongly with social attitudes than with social class". Indeed, 81 per cent of people who think multiculturalism is a force for ill voted Leave. It is about more than the working class. The "left behind" narrative conceals a deep-rooted desire to protect whiteness among more prosperous voters.

Whiteness in this instance is rooted in innocence and victimhood. The assumption is people of colour are undermining poor white people; the nation as a whole is being steered off course by “diversity”. A recent rally in Washington D.C. encapsulated this well. “America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity,” white nationalist Stephen B. Spencer told a room full of people performing the Nazi salute. “It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.” This is one of the results of the constant obsession with whiteness: the nation is for white people. Flaws in the nation can be fixed by reclaiming it in the name of whiteness.

Focussing solely on the white working class in the wake of Brexit and Trump will not redress society’s problems; it will not even try to sort out poverty among white people. The fetishisation of the white working class helps reaffirm the racial hierarchy and stamp out forms of dissent voiced by people of colour, LGBTQ communities and other minorities. We should not pretend that it is anything else.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.