Are you working class in Britain? Then you must be white

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Are you working class in Britain? Then you must be white

Kam Sandhu asks why people always think the British working class is white. But ethnic minority communities have the same experiences and suffer such great inequality.


The black working class are often ‘invisible’ in Britain. ersoy emin / Alamy

People say that the successes in elections of nationalist policies in the Global North are the results of a white working-class revolt. And people say that the election of Donald Trump is because of economics and not the important role of the middle classes and racism.

This ‘forgotten’ class are all white, it seems. In Britain inequality and opportunity depend a lot on social class. And people often think that ‘working class’ is the same as white. But ethnic minority communities have many of the same experiences and suffer so much from inequality.

In 2016, politicians and commentators said Britain’s vote to leave the European Union was because of a white working-class fear of globalization, economic weakness, and mixing of cultures.

Many white working-class men with no college education voted for Brexit. 59 per cent of the Leave vote came from the middle class – mostly living in the rich southeast of England. No one asks why the middle classes voted to leave because there is no simple story about their economic fears and racism.

The real reason for Brexit?

A 2017 report from the thinktanks CLASS and the Runnymede Trust also did not accept that the fears of the white working class was the treason for Brexit. It said that the focus on the ‘white working class’ is taking policymakers away from solutions that will help working class people of all races.

Faiza Shaheen is the director of CLASS. Faiza said ‘The Brexit vote is used to show an idea of “white self-interest”. This is another way of saying prejudice and racism. If we want a truly “United” Kingdom we must return to speaking about the real problems that all the working class has – low wages, the housing crisis, and very big cuts to our public services.’

This wrong explanation of the Brexit vote ignores the experiences of working class people, who were more likely to vote to Remain in the European Union.

Paying a double price

In 2017, a government report showed unemployment rates were double for black and Asian house¬holds. In work, they pay ethnic minorities13 per cent less than white colleagues. And it is difficult to believe but the difference is wider when black workers have more qualifications.

It is frustrating for ethnic minorities to hear that Britain is a good example of diversity because it shows a picture of racial progress. But economic inequality increases and is about race.

Ethnic minorities are part of Britain’s working class history and struggles. One of the most famous examples is the 1976 Grunwick Strike at a photographic film-processing laboratory in northwest London. A group of South Asian women, more than 20,000 people – including a large number of white working-class men – joined the protest.

During the 1980s, discriminatory laws led to open racial profiling by the police, and the fascist National Front continued with no punishment. People from many different ethnicities started alternative anti-fascist groups to protect meetings from attacks. Often British working class history does not write about these struggles.

The burning tower

In 2017, Britain watched the flats of the Grenfell Tower in west London burn down. At least 71 people died in the fire. Most were migrants or from a migrant background.

For many of Grenfell’s survivors the fire was the result of social prejudice, political policy, and hate. This is what happens when we ignore communities.

In the book Come Hell or High Water, Michael Eric Dyson writes about the results of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and about how people reacted when they saw a community of poor, black Americans suffer. ‘When we are angry about what happened, we seem to care. But then we continue to ignore the real reasons for their suffering.’

The inquiry into the Grenfell fire will not look at the government’s social housing policy or how it did not look after people in council flats.

Emma Dent Coad is Member of Parliament for Kensington, where the Grenfell fire happened. Her report ‘After Grenfell’ looked at the big differences between the people in Kensington, Britain’s richest borough. The difference in life expectancy between rich and poor was 22 years. Children suffered from both obesity and poor food.

Grenfell is one part of a bigger housing crisis. Britain had its highest number of empty homes in 20 years in 2017. But, more than 300,000 people – one in every 200 – were homeless.

Pakistani/Bangladeshi and black adults in Britain are more likely to live in poor housing than white people. Over 30 per cent of Pakistani/Bangladeshi people and over a quarter of black people live in overcrowded housing. This compared to less than 10 per cent of the white population.

Kensington could have spent £200,000 ($267,180), the cost for sprinklers. which could have reduced the impact of the fire at Grenfell Tower. But they spent the money on a court dispute about a fight between rich neighbours over piano noise.

People are still not listening to the voices of black working-class people in Britain. If commentators and politicians believe that only white poverty is important, they are not looking at the problems of black working-class people’s lives. Is that right?

Kam Sandhu is a journalist and editor of Real Media, a co-operative which writes about public interest problems.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).