Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Race, the working class, and the economic downturn

Trevor Phillips, the head of the Equality and Human Rights Comission, is something of a hate figure to the right. In their perception, he is the mouthpiece for everything that is wrong with liberal, multicultural Britain and his words are not to be trusted. Except, of course, when he appears to affirm their point of view. Hence the emphasis given by the Daily Mail to his pronouncement that the white working class will need "the sort of special measures we've previously targeted at ethnic minorities" to help them find and keep jobs through the economic downturn.

Of course, Phillips has insisted that the "name of the game is to tackle inequality," which has ever been his stated goal, and that there is no room for "racial special pleading," and the sentiment is indeed affable, but this will not stop groups such as the BNP from proclaiming their cause vindicated. That Phillips' words "prove" that "the real victims of racism are whites." This is not true, of course; to believe that whites suffering more than blacks and Asians automatically means that blacks and Asians are the perpetrators or beneficients of such suffering (or vice-versa, of course) is facile and ignorant. However, Phillips was partially correct in what he said.

For a very long time, the debate on race and equality in the UK has been dominated by an overly-simplistic "us or them" mentality which has stifled effective action where inequality and discrimination genuinely exist. There was, until the murder of Kriss Donald in 2004, a widely-held but rarely-vocalised perception that racism in the UK didn't affect white people. Meanwhile, the equally false perception that racism against non-whites is over-exaggerated by "pro-multi-cultural Establishment institutions" has spread so that it is no longer limited to BNP supporters.

The simple fact is that racism does affect people of all ethnicities, including the majority, and that anti-racism initiatives that focus on or leave out any specific group will increase resentment and tension. This is precisely the problem, because it is not just concrete acts such as murder but also perceptions (including false ones) that damage race relations, especially in times of economic hardship. Phillips was correct in the political consequences of this:
We know what the political consequences are because we have seen it on the Continent. If we ignore the fact some white groups are going to be disadvantaged we will end up with the same kind of conflicts we have seen in Austria, Belgium and now Holland, where the anti-immigrant racist Right-wing parties get a big boost.
So, how do we proceed? Well, I don't believe that the method advocated - positive discrimination - should be pressed on with. Positive discrimination towards any group, and equally the perception of such, are part of the reason that, whilst we have managed to increase equality of opportunity for non-whites, we have not buried the issue of racial resentment and division. We also have to be very careful here, as such measures actually risk increasing the perception that whites are worse off because of their skin colour and the hatred and far-right sentiment that flows from it.

The vast majority of our current problems are economic ones, but both the establishment and the far-right - for differing reasons - have made sure that the issues of class and race have become intertwined. That this is, ultimately, a class issue shouldn't simply be dismissed out of hand. After all, we never divide "the upper classes" or "the middle class" by racial terms, but it has become an expected part of political parlance to speak of "the white working class" and "the black working class." The reasons should not need spelling out.

For the far-right, it is because their rhetoric is grounded in race, and this obfuscation helps them to steal the working-class vote from the left without having to speak of class issues they really aren't interested in. For the ruling parties, meanwhile, the reason is simple; it is their economic policies, and their pandering to the demands of the business lobby, that have wrought both the current crisis and the ongoing hardship of the working classes. But, as Phil Woolas' remarks over immigration have shown, it is easy to push the blame for our economic problems across racial boundaries. Immigrants and non-whites are as much victims of the economic policies of the ruling classes as the rest of us, but if we are seeing the world in racial terms then we cannot as easily discern this. This is the conflict and resentment that so worries Phillips and which gives cause for hope to the far-right.

What we need, then, is to tackle this issue so that the scenarios being played out in Austria, Holland, Italy and elsewhere do not migrate here. But we cannot do so by claiming their is no problem at all, nor by using language uncomfortably close to that of the far-right, as Phillips has risked doing. What we need is an open and honest debate, where we can acknowledge the failings of multiculturalist policy without it being seen - falsely - as a vindication of nationalism, and to foster a realisation that dividing the working class along ethnic lines is counterproductive as we are crushed by the economic hierarchy and the damage it has wrought.

However, as long as the debate is dominated by those with an interest in such division, for whatever reason, you can safely bet that this will not happen.