The white working class is another form of identity politics

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

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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.