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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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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