White Working Class Identity and Race.

Against the backdrop of a novel coronavirus, forcing 1.7 billion individuals worldwide into quarantine during the early months of 2020, the world was paused. In that pause, we collectively watched the drawn out and tormented murder of a 46-year-old father of five. With an officer’s knee crushing the nape of his neck we heard his last words:

“They’re gonna kill me, they’re gonna kill me. I cannot breathe. I can’t breathe. Please sir, please sir, please. I can’t breathe.”

Suddenly the acute viral threat we had felt in our communities was now pivoted to the chronic racial threat our black neighbors feel in our communities everyday. As a black man, George Floyd was twice as likely to take his last breath once he encountered the police that day relative to his white counterpart. His murder, far from being an isolated event, was a predestined physical conclusion of deep rooted conceptions, prejudices and structures that black men, women and children are born into; and it’s not just America. In the UK, if you are part of the approximate 3% of the population which is black, you can expect to be disproportionately stopped and searched some 9 times more than if you are white. You are far more likely to have force used against you, and you can also expect to take your last breath in police custody inordinately compared to any other ethnic population in the country1. Black lives matter, don’t they? It would seem from the evidence, we have concluded: no, not as much. Our common humanity is far from common and still very much reserved over racial lines.

Education and Class

Picaninny Freeze Metal Sign
Advertising for Picaninny Freeze (1922)

The current zeitgeist in the UK has it that far from the historical trend of the upper-class driving, propagating and profiting from racism and racist institutions, it is now the ‘uneducated’ working class alone that harbours racist prejudice and resentment. It is the ‘uneducated’ part that we cling to. We hold this view and pass over the fact that our current PM Boris Johnson is, in a lot of senses, educated in the highest rated educational facilities England has to offer. That his education seemed, far from ridding him of his racism, to further arm Boris with the language and historical context for it. Mr Johnson is on record stating that Africa’s developmental issue “is not that we were once in charge but that we are not in charge anymore”, that African’s are “flag-waving piccaninnies” and have “Watermelon smiles” all in 2002 alone; but that stigma has never really attached to him; or the class he sits within.

This educational stigma has stuck to the less educated working class. We assume those at the bottom of our society are where the most racist of individuals and groups are found due to this educational gap2. But the evidence for education’s effect on racism and racial prejudice can be summarised by Mr Johnson in the above: that education may change the expression of your racism but not the fact you are racist. Numerous “studies find that highly educated Whites are no more likely than less educated Whites to support specific policies designed to overcome racial inequality”3. For instance, if your education does not give you contact with other races, has racial prejudice contained implicitly within in it or simply ignores other races, then your education could instead give depth to your racial prejudice as opposed to ridding you of it. Curiously higher education could make you feel less threatened by other races if the educational system does not cater to them, and as your attainment inadvertently distances yourself from day-to-day contact with other races in the upper echelons of English society4 . The quality of education counts. If education cannot be relied upon to explain racism and racial prejudice what about the economic threat education allows you to rise above?

“If the perception that Britain’s minorities are an economic threat is an important source of hostility towards minority groups then such hostility is likely to be concentrated in the lower social classes, with whom ethnic minorities have in the past competed most directly” (Ford 2008). This explanation fits the portrayal of the English working class and disadvantaged as the “beleaguered natives” swept aside through incoming immigration and ethnic diversity. The economic hostility propagates the idea that the working class is ‘white’ and “prioritises issues of identity over inequality” as the main characteristic of the disadvantaged class in England5. Working Class racism, it would seem, stems from the ill-founded anxiety and fear of other races with similar economic and political interests crowding them out or being put before their own interests; this is key to what we will concentrate on in this piece.

We speak of the working class in England as a wholly white group. We (or indeed some of the sub-groups of the working class) invoke the working class ‘group’ in opposition to other racial ‘groups’ which veer for political and economic attention, neatly summed up in the reactionary ‘All Lives Matter’ counter-protests. These tensions are actively propagated by our continued conception of shared economic interests with one group as ‘opposed’ to another centered around racial identity instead of equality6. This group conception (or class consciousness) is real in so much as it’s a relational in it’s definition: my family are defined by my conception of how I relate to them as opposed to others. This is no small point, my relational conception of the world is my internal model, and in turn becomes how I experience world, or put or another way:

“… those systems of meaning, concepts, categories
and representations which make sense of the world,
and through which individuals come to ‘live’ “
7

Due to this fluidity of group conception influencing an individual behaviour (examples of which are shown in the graphic below), the concept of your group is open to, and is use in, political weaponising. If we allow ourselves to be passive, and not active in relating the truth of the disadvantaged in England, our conception becomes malleable to others hands. We see this today as we continue to watch the working class and their group conception of themselves be stirred up by Nigel Farage, Tommy Robinson and now “All Lives Matter”8.


“UKIP’s narrative does not encourage a united approach to tackling disadvantage. Rather it helps to reproduce a longer established public discourse of divide and rule; one that seeks to separate out ‘strivers’ from ‘skivers’ to justify cuts in benefits, and immigrants and ethnic minorities from the so-called indigenous population in defining who belongs to the UK’s constituent nations.”9

It’s now time for the working class to prevent this weaponising themselves and to renew their relation and consciousness of each other. To actively participate in reflecting the truth: that the working class should not, and cannot, define itself as racially homogeneous. In doing so it actually pits itself against itself in an identity row of “us” vs “them”, framing disadvantage through political identity instead of political inequality.

Today within the two lowest earning quintiles in the UK, you will find 62% of the UK’s black population along with 37% of the white population. A black man can expect to end up poor in the UK at twice the rate of a white man10. Right now, those most disadvantaged are demanding that their race should not influence their class. Opposing this idea can only conclude in asking to keep that racial disadvantage at the bottom of our society. The UK working class must transparently look at the power distribution in the UK and those in similar economic and political situations and see that political and economic equality across races always favours white people across all classes; this is structural racism.

But why? Why does talk of disadvantage throw up identity politics and call upon the narrative of the “beleaguered native”? How did political identity get so wrapped up to political inequality for the most disadvantaged in England. To understand why race is so entangled in class in the UK we must look back to the origins of the working class in England and expose that original entanglement and its failings. When we do we see that the idea of race has deep and fundamental ties with the working class in England that still muddy our concept today. The language and balance of forces have changed but the relational conception of “us” vs “them” is deeply rooted and we allow this to be the case as we actively relate to one another.

Setting the Scene

The English Working Class was first crystalised as a distinct group in English (and indeed Western) society between the 1780-1830s, around 6-7 generations ago. During this period the turning over of systematic slavery was gaining immense ground within the African enslaved communities within the Caribbean. In the West Thomas Paine’s ‘The Rights of Man’ had stoked passionate discussions surrounding equality, and the political movement calling for the abolition of slavery in English colonies had found it’s way centre stage in English Parliament.

Curiously in his seminal (and romanticised) work on the origin and crystalisation of the working class E.P. Thompson does not mention slavery, the Haitian revolution, the numerous Caribbean uprisings, or the eventual emancipation of African men and women. There is no excuse for this. it was emancipation of the African slave that the disadvantaged in England were reacting against in forming themselves as a group. The abolition of slavery played a pivotal role in the defining and eventual uprising and reform of the new English Working Class11. In order to explain why and how the working class chose to define itself as the white working class, we must briefly turn to the pseudo-scientific basis that gave legitimacy to the social idea of slavery and the stratification of race.

Science as a community held a very different place during this period. It followed social norms rather than challenged them and in turn followed rather than lead the social conception of race and slavery12. There were genuine and scholarly discussions in biological sciences surrounding what became our social concept of ‘race’ between two schools, the Monogeneticists and Polygeneticists. The Polygenesis school put forth that races were to be seen as distinct and separate species. The Monogenesis school held that different races were of one single species and that biological differences were not so distinct. The Monogensis school eventually won out. This was mostly due to the fact that the Polygenesis school could not embed smoothly within the UK due to the preeminence of Christianity within the country. Polygenesis was seen as a direct contradiction of the book of Genesis, that all humanity is descended from Adam and Eve. It was seen as heretical to claim multiple species of man, where would they have came from if not the white Adam and his white Eve…

Alas there was still a social contradiction for Monogenesis to alleviate: the contradiction of holding that there was a single genetic origin of races but also continuing the social conception of superiority of one race. To solve this contradiction the idea of historical condition was put forward. It was established that there was a chain of lesser to greater types of races within the species of man, of which the white race through his historical civilisation, became the greatest and was fit to rule. The degradation of other races was therefore seen as circumstantial and not genetic as the polygenesis school thought put forward. All was not lost it seemed, we could ‘teach’ civilisation. More Bible anyone…

Given this backdrop, the question of slavery reform and the abolition movement became a question for the common Englishman of why there was such a focus on ‘them’. They vehemently questioned bringing “common humanity” to black men, women and children indentured as slaves when there were eminent issues and demands for equal political recognition of the white working class at home. Those contesting the abolition of slavery in the early 19 century found that “in their eyes, the money and attention being poured into the abolitionist movement would have been better spent on the equally exploited, but inherently more deserving, white British workers”13. Abolition was seen as a direction of attention and financial resources towards a hierarchical lesser race, less deserving than the more immediate issues the “beleaguered natives” in the UK.

Indeed to summarise this point in the 1824 short story ‘An Appeal to the Fairer Sex’ (Inviting their attention to the present situation of climbing boys)’ John Holland has his fictional young chimney sweep Henry lament:

“They loved the negro ‘oer the wave,
they strove to set him free;
But though I am a little slave,
there’s nobody loves me.”

This reaction to the attention paid to black African slavery instead of the English working class condition and need, as portrayed against the backdrop of Transatlantic African slavery, led to direct comparisons of working conditions to slavery; which it was not. These comparisons can be seen in literature throughout Europe during this time. For example Ernt’s Willcomm’s ‘White Slaves’ portrayed the long hours, low pay and chronic conditions of the industrial workers and pulled on the sentiment and attention given to slavery.

Even today we still see people still sensationalising and referring to the white child labor of the industrial revolution as chattel slavery, which to repeat, it was not. David Keys in his article ‘Revealed: Industrial Revolution was powered by child slaves’ in The Independent in 2010 laments again the for the white child slave during this time. Whereas the actual paper by Oxford professor Jane Humphries doesn’t once mention white ‘slavery’, as if aware it was not. If we go back to the bible of working class formation with E.P. Thompson’s work, writing in 1963, and along the same vein compares the class system in Britain in the decades after 1975 as “apartheid whose effects – in the niceties of social and educational discrimination – can be felt to this day”. Here again calling on far stronger systems put in place along racial lines and built of the backside of pseudo-scientific and racial hierarchy of the ‘social chain’. This must stop. These comparisons are at best conceptually inaccurate and tone deaf and at worse trying to redirect the emotional weight and atrocities of racism back towards political inequality in the white race in isolation.

We can now understand that there was a concerted effort to play off and play down the competing issue of slavery abolition and an “explicit depiction of degraded black humanity as a comparator against which white, specifically working-class, intellectual or moral superiority could be claimed.14 This pseudo-social narrative of the undue attention to a ‘lesser’ race and the idea of creating ‘common humanity’ before white ‘political equality’ would form a foundational characteristic of the disadvantaged in England. This playing off and weaponsing of race to redirect the attention back onto themselves has been eerily reflected in the reactive ‘All Lives Matter’ and the playing down of ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement today.

Industrial labour was not white slavery, and while the white working class were horrifically treated their conception of this only caught fire against the tensions of having African slaves be given more equality (or common humanity) before they were given further political equality to other white men. To hit home this point fully in talking about the value of African slave in comparison to Irish laborers we see their complete domination as property as opposed to labor: “the niggers are worth too much to be risked here; if the paddies [Irish] are knocked overboard or get their backs broke, nobody loses anything” quotes Fredric Olmsted from a shipworker in 1855 Alabama. Reflecting the racial-chain of the African, seen in the Western world as the lowest race and the subject of chattel property and certainly not labour or labour rights. When the slave emancipation act was finally passed in 1833, the British government agreed to compensate the slave-owners, to the amount of around £20,000,000, for the loss of their human ‘property’.

The Political Weaponising of Race

In politics we see this portrayal more viciously used and weaponised to stir up and galvanise the white disadvantaged. In Leeds you can go to the plaque of “The Factory King” Richard Oastler, a prominent abolitionist and working class reformer, to see his recently refurbished bust and read quotes from his famous working class reform letter in 1830 on ‘Yorkshire Slavery’ which when read in full contains this statement:

“Let truth speak out, appalling as the statement may appear. The fact is true. Thousands of our fellow-creatures and fellow-subjects, both male and female, the miserable inhabitants of a Yorkshire town, are this very moment existing in a state of slavery, more horrid than are the victims of that hellish system ‘colonial slavery’.” … “The very streets which receive the droppings of an ‘Anti-Slavery Society’ are every morning wet by the tears of innocent victims at the accursed shrine of avarice, who are compelled (not by the cart-whip of the negro slave-driver) but by the dread of the equally appalling thong or strap of the over-looker”

It became the norm of politicans and national voices to shore up group belonging and cement the relational conception of the new disadvantaged white group. The working class from their very conception defined themselves negatively against slaves who were seen to be given undue attention as a lesser and more distant race13. This homogeneity would lead to a skewed identity not based off disadvantage but as a distinct racial group with common objectives. Thus race became entangled in the English conception of their disadvantage as ‘natives’. The popular Cobbett’s Political Register in 1816, a periodical journal for political purposes for the unreformed parliament, allowed their platform for Major John Cartwright the “father of reform” himself, to state that

“On the Negro Slave Trade nothing short of complete abolition will content them. But a complete abolition of the English Slave Trade seems so little to their taste[.] That [in] touching [upon] that object, they prefer confining all their exertions within those guilty walls, where they with a certainty know that, unbacked by the nations voice, they must fail.”15.

Cobbett himself very explicitly used the pseudo-scientific basis for his weaponising of race, describing African slaves as “animalistic, and suggested that their suffering was therefore less acute than that experienced by the more intellectually and morally sensitive white English working class.”16. Cobbett was again met with applause when, during a public lecture in 1830, he expressed his ‘indignation’ at hearing MPs “whine over the sorrows of the fat and greasy negro in Jamaica . . . while our own countrymen are found in such a condition under their very eyes”17 And therefore “in the years between 1780 and 1832 most English working people came to feel an identity of interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.”18

History becomes and informs the present. And just as is propagated today, 6-7 generations ago while the disadvantaged in England grouped themselves for the first time we find that those leading and actively participating in this group conception, horrifically using race to galvanise the disadvantaged. They “Expounded an ever-narrower nationalism, they questioned the very humanity of enslaved and free Africans in the same pages that their plans for a politically and socially reformed Britain took shape. The idea of an apparently fundamentally different and inferior racial antitype made the mere social distinctions used to disenfranchise and exploit English workers seem far less significant by comparison. In this way, the English working class came to understand itself as the white working class, almost from its very inception.”19

Yesterday Becomes Today

Modern day sociological theory supports the need for re-conceptualisation. Your concept of your group informs and influences your behaviour just as your behaviour propagates and influences the concept of the group. This propagation will continue unless challenged by either the individuals themselves or external forces. In sociology this is explained in Group Theory as “emphasis[ing] the importance of group interests in shaping intergroup conflict and co-operation. From this perspective, racial hostility is conceptualised not as an individual vice, but as a collective phenomenon that is affected by the structure of intergroup relations.”20

Hopefully we have shown that the racial characteristic of disadvantage and ‘class’ in England has been there since it’s inception and still hounds the narrative and relations to this day. It doesn’t have to be like that. The question then becomes how do we move forward? According to Group Theory there are two ways this conceptual and relational correction can happen, either through top-down leadership or bottom-up active participation. Given our current Prime Minister has such contempt for the black community as to play off racial stereotypes for gags I do not see this being through leadership at this point, nor should we particularly need this to be the case, structural issues aside. That being said, in the void of positive leadership, we should not let the modern day Cobbett’s and Cartwright’s continually mobilise the working class over racial lines and tap into the “beleaguered native” cited above in characters such as Farage, and leadership groups such as UKIP, and the Vote Leave campaign Mr Johnson spearheaded.

Active and passive participation in the formation of groups is constantly happening in the day-to-day interactions we have, and the narrative we tell ourselves / allow others to tell us, as a nation. So it should be noted again, within the two lowest earning quintiles in the UK, you will find 62% of the UKs black population along with 37% of the white population. A black man can expect to end up poor in the UK at twice the rate of a white man. This needs actively correcting and supported to bring a common humanity across racial lines to the most disadvantaged in this country before any further propagation of the advantages afforded to the white working class. Actively correct yourself, your friends and challenge the portrayal of the most disadvantaged in this country being white, that is only part of the picture, and certainly not the piece to focus on; if there is suffering and hardship, help deal with the suffering and hardship, do not shore yourself up so that it doesn’t happen to you.

Gordon Allport in The Nature of Prejudice calls out for this active supporting as shifting the concept: “contact must occur under specific conditions for it to have positive effects: equal status between the in-group member and out-group member within the situation; the pursuit of common goals; intergroup co-operation; and the normative support of authorities, law or custom.21

Outside of active participation in the formation of the group, there is the passive formation of just being around those of different races allowing individuals to relate and shift their concept of who is in their group: “Consistent with the contact hypothesis, the size of a ward’s black population is negatively related to each of the five measures of racial hostility. That is, whites who live in neighborhoods with relatively large black populations are less likely to express negative attitudes towards ethnic minorities than whites who live in areas with few blacks.”22

We can see this statistically play out in Figure 1 which displays how the likelihood of a typical respondent giving a racially hostile response varies according to the size of the ward’s black population.

Whites who live in areas with few non-whites are more likely to say that black and Asian immigration has been bad for Britain, that immigrants take jobs from the British-born and that immigrants do not make Britain more open to new ideas and cultures than are whites who live in more racially diverse neighborhoods23. In this way we should correct our threat, racial diversity allows you to be less racist, assimilate a wider group, and correct century old conceptions of ‘the other’. Embrace diversity, you have far more in common with those racially diverse but in the same economic condition as you than those in a different class.

The conception and structure needs to change, disadvantage should not follow racial lines, anyone who disagrees and has managed it this far: I applaud your delusion. The concept of class being racial is centuries old and incorrect; it was then and it is now. The disadvantaged must relate to each other from across racial lines, not within, and re-conceive their political sway as a single racially diverse group. The fact right now BLM is demanding the correction of chronic disadvantage in their particular racial group as a whole should be supported by all those disadvantaged in England. They form part of the most disadvantaged group and should not been seen as separately dealing with their own issues. They are your issues, just worse, for no other reason than their melanin levels. BLM is not asking for an advantage along racial lines, but equality along racial lines so that the subjugation and double-disadvantage is corrected. Widen your conception of who suffers with you, correct your privilege and widen your group when possible. Break the century old racial chain.

References

1.How many black people die in police custody in England and Wales?, 3, June 2020
2. It’s not the ‘White Working Class’, Faiza Shaheen, 7 March 2019
3. The Impact of Education on Inter-Group Attitudes: A Multiracial Analysis, Geoffrey T. Wodtke, 2014
4. Is racial prejudice declining in Britain?, Rob Ford, 2008
5. Finding Common Ground Against Disadvantage: Challenging the Ethnicisation of Class, Rogaly and Taylor, 2013
6. The Making of the Working Class, E.P. Thompson, 1963, page 27)
7. Race, articulation and societies structured in dominance’, Hall, 1980, page 334)
8. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/20/racism-on-the-rise-since-brexit-vote-nationwide-study-reveals
9. Finding Common Ground Against Disadvantage: Challenging the Ethnicisation of Class, Rogaly and Taylor, 2013
10. https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/work-pay-and-benefits/pay-and-income/income-distribution/latest
11. The Mysterious Intersections of Race and Class, Gargi Bhattacharyya, Runnymede, 2017
12. Race in Science, Nancy Stepan, 4-5
13. Slavery and the Birth of Working Class Racism in the UK, 1814–1833, Ryan Hanley 2017
14. ibid
15. Major Cartwright, Cobbett’s Political Register, 15 June 1816, 757: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=-0haAAAAYAAJ&pg
16. Slavery and the Birth of Working Class Racism in the UK, 1814–1833, Ryan Hanley, 2017, Page 11
17. ibid
18. The Making of the Working Class, E.P. Thompson, 1963, page 11)
19. William Cobbett, A Third Lecture on the French Revolution, 11, 1830
20. The Contextual Determinants of Whites’ Racial Attitudes in England, Bowyer, 2001
21. Gordon W. Allport, The Nature of Prejudice, 1979
22. The Contextual Determinants of Whites’ Racial Attitudes in England, Bowyer, 2001
23. ibid

2 thoughts on “White Working Class Identity and Race.

  1. This is just another first worldist apologist piece ignoring the material benefits of white working class racism for white workers.

    Like

    1. @el I’d argue that actually the piece is showing how badly English workers wanted to keep their advantage and hierarchical status above Africans because, as you state, it benefited them so much for their not to be common humanity. As it does today.

      Like

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