“If you’d done your jobs we wouldn’t be here,” a man yells at police blocking access to Westminster Bridge; “Call us racists? We’re all fucking racists!” he adds, and the crowd applauds.
Before it descended into drunken racist violence, last Saturday’s (13 June) far-right demonstration in Parliament Square was repeatedly punctuated by these monologues of victimhood. A man in postal worker uniform pulled a white feather out of his pocket and waved it at the police, shouting: “That’s what you deserve. We should all be here. Cowards the lot of you! Why are you protecting them?”
I saw another man – shaved head, face florid after numerous cans of Stella – shout into the face of a police officer: “You should be arresting them!” – “them” being the generic term for black protesters, none of whom were in sight. He then threw a punch and was arrested himself.
The longer I listened to these self-pitying rants, the more I understood what was driving them. This is the sound people make when the “wages of whiteness” have not been paid.
The black American sociologist WEB Du Bois ascribed the persistence of racism after the abolition of slavery to the “public and psychological wages of whiteness”. White people may be just as poor as black people, he wrote in 1935, but they get to join the police force, sit on juries and act lawlessly without punishment, while the newspapers “utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule”. This, for Du Bois, explained why the labour movement’s repeated attempts to unite black and white workers around “economic” issues failed.
In Britain, institutional racism has been gradually if inadequately eroded. We have a flawed but usable framework for safeguarding the human rights of ethnic minorities. We’ve had the Macpherson report. We have black people in senior positions across the media, business, politics and policing itself. But we still have structural racism.
Black people are nine times more likely to be stopped by the police than white people in England and Wales. At least 40 per cent of young people in custody are black or Asian. Double the number of households where the head of the household is black or Asian live in persistent poverty compared to white households. White people receive consistently shorter jail sentences than black and Asian offenders.
These figures are from the government’s own Race Disparity Audit, which was commissioned by the then prime minister Theresa May, published in 2017 and revised in 2018. They were placed in a drawer so deep that the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, was able to say this week, with a straight face, when asked whether he thought the UK was racist, “I don’t”.
For the middle-aged “football lads” on Whitehall last Saturday, who were mainly from manual working-class backgrounds, these disparities matter. In an economy that penalises manual skills and low educational achievement, they provide what sociologists call a “glass floor”, beyond which it is impossible to fall.
And what mattered most of all was that black protesters had been allowed, the week before, to express pride and anger on a mass scale. The hostility to the police was clearly driven by the assumption that they should have cracked black people’s heads until they went away.
Du Bois traced the psychology behind US white supremacy to the legacy of slavery: you may be a degraded factory hand but you are never “real estate”. In Britain, as I listened to the language around me on Saturday, the root was clearly the legacy of empire. You may be on the minimum wage and borderline unemployable, but you are not a “coon”, “nigger”, “Paki”, “Paddy” or “wog”.
Almost all the racist terms these men use are words their fathers and grandfathers would have used to describe the subjects of the British empire. It’s a link made explicit in that now-deleted Major Gowen scene from Fawlty Towers: the major knows how to express the difference between Indians and West Indians in the correct racist way, but his wife is so stupid she can’t tell the difference.
There’s understandable wariness about the term “white privilege”: as the Labour MP David Lammy acknowledged in a radio interview following the protests “there will be people… who are working class, who are poor, they may be in northern constituencies – they’re not feeling very privileged”. But understood correctly it explains a lot about why the racists who rioted on Saturday feel so bereft.
Racism’s core proposition, said Du Bois, is the fantasy that white people own the world: that everything good that was done was done by them. What it breeds, he wrote, in a passage that well describes some of the faces I saw Parliament Square, is “a deep and passionate hatred, vast by the very vagueness of its expressions”.
The demonstrators grabbed each other and danced ecstatically, singing (to the tune of “The Sloop John B”), “Sir Winston Churchill, he’s one of our own.” Does that mean Churchill was working class? No. What they meant was that Churchill was a white imperialist who reportedly told the secretary of state for India, Leo Amery, he hated Indians, and who was nonchalant about letting them starve during the Bengal famine.
As they posed in front of Churchill’s boarded-up statue, some did Nazi salutes. Others had swastika tattoos. One carried the green, “joke” version of the Wehrmacht’s war flag, as promoted by the US alt-right. Not far away from him two veterans of the Parachute Regiment stood proudly in their berets and regimental T-shirts.
Saturday’s events in London were a political disaster, both for the organised far right and for British conservatism. The Tory tabloids and the Prime Minister had whipped up anger against a non-existent left-wing plan to “erase our heritage” by attacking statues, bringing people to the streets.
As a group these men – it was 95 per cent men – looked lost in the modern world. Their self-dramatised oratory, pissing and littering were an attempt to express power. But outside the bulletin boards and the closed Facebook groups they have very little social power.
The numbers themselves are not spectacular: 4,000 maximum in London, 300 in Portsmouth, and between 200 and 300 in Leeds and Newcastle. In Glasgow, boosted by loyalists, around 500 racists managed to prevent Black Lives Matter protesters from reaching George Square in the city centre.
But it’s a challenging moment for the left. Many Labour and progressive activists have been inspired by the audacity and clarity of the young people who took to the streets in the BLM protests. But the question is not simply: how do we attack structural racism? It is also: how do we create a wider cultural movement that neutralises the influence of plebeian racism, and atomises the potential coalition of hardline fascists, racist football “lads” and selected military veterans?
For a start, let’s be clear: this is not about statues. Pulling racism up by its roots is the patient work of years, aided by moments of rapid advance like this. The statues narrative was created by Tory tabloids out of two incidents – the Colston statue and the defacing of the Cenotaph – and comes straight out of the Dominic Cummings playbook.
Racism has always existed in working-class communities – but from the very get-go it was confronted by anti-racism. In communities today atomised by low-paid work, crime, ill health and under-investment the only thing that’s going to defeat the right – the ideology of which is massively amplified on social media – is grassroots activism, by people trained and educated to know what they are up against.
Claire Ainsley, Keir Starmer’s head of policy, writes that the issues common to both the “traditional” working class and the new, multi-ethnic, younger, progressive working class are “family, fairness, hard work and decency”. If so, our job is not to counterpose these issues to the problem of structural racism: it is to show why racism, divisive language and political violence are tools used by the rich to stop all working people achieving the life they want to live.
Though the far right failed on Saturday, it is now operating in conscious symbiosis with the agenda of the flailing Conservative government. Its instincts when in trouble are repellent: restrict trans rights, scrap the Department for International Development, and gaslight BAME Labour MPs.
Last Saturday could have been worse. Had tens of thousands of BLM protesters turned up, the police would have been incapable of preventing a major clash. Instead we got the picture of Patrick Hutchinson carrying a dazed white man to safety. This was no breakthrough moment for British fascism.
The clash we have to fear is when a government comes to power committed to delivering social and economic justice, attacking structural racism and disavowing “the wages of whiteness” in both words and deeds. You may say we experienced this under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, but that was in the years before the financial crisis, before Silicon Valley decided to make megabucks out of amplifying hate, and before the White House was occupied by a fascist-sympathising clown.