This essay, on race and class in contemporary Britain, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on the politics of human fossil finds.) It was published on 7 July 2019, under the headline ‘Working class versus minorities? That’s looking at it the wrong way’.
Officials eyeing you with contempt. Police treating you as scum. A sense of being constantly watched and judged by professionals. Living in fear of benefit sanctions. A lack of community facilities.
Such is likely to be your experience if you are working class. Such is also likely to be your experience if you are of black or minority ethnic origin.
But here’s the odd thing: people from the working class and minorities are rarely seen as facing the same kinds of issues. Instead, in political debates from Brexit to welfare benefits, minorities and the working class are seen as having conflicting interests and often set against each other. We are Ghosts: Race, Class and Institutional Prejudice, a report published last week by the thinktanks Class and the Runnymede Trust, attempts to address this this issue of common experiences yet conflicting perceived interests. Based on interviews and focus groups, almost entirely in London, the sample may not be statistically valid but the subjective experiences of the interviewees are revealing.
For many people on low incomes, whether white or of minority background, encounters with the state – police, local council, social services, jobcentres – are experienced as punitive and disempowering; a sense of being policed rather than supported. As one interviewee put it: ‘You just feel like you’re constantly being watched, and you’re always being judged by what you’re doing or what you’re saying, but I just don’t feel that there’s a lot of support.’ For minority groups, this has been compounded by ‘hostile environment‘ migration policies that effectively turn doctors, teachers and public officials into border guards and spies.
Many also feel priced out of the neighbourhoods in which they grew up, observing how a combination of gentrification and austerity has helped shut down community organisations and the social networks that sustained them.
But while experiences are often shared, the sense of being bound together in a common class rarely is. What it means to be working class has become blurred. Work was always the anchor for working-class identity. But the character of work has changed enormously. Traditional industrial workers now make up less than a third of the working class. Four out of 10 of these workers are in the service industry, while 30% form the ‘precariat‘ – lacking security, often shifting from one short-term job to another. Today’s working class is more precarious, less organised and comprises more women, migrants and minorities – and is less conscious of itself as a working class. In a fragmented labour market in which unions have lost much of their power, there are fewer opportunities to share physical space, build a collective sense of identity or create a common ground for mobilisation.
White people are far more likely to identify as working class than those from minorities. Partly this may be because minorities are more likely to be in casualised jobs. Many, the report suggests, may also have internalised anti-working class sentiments. ‘When you say working class,’ observed a black interviewee, ‘you think of people on council estates, drinking that cheap Ace cider.’
And then there’s a question the report does not address: the impact of identity categories on self-perception. Minorities have come to be identified, and to identify themselves, in terms of race, ethnicity or ‘community’. Class categories, these days, are applied primarily to the white population. Class distinctions have become racialised – few now question the use of the term ‘white working class’. Meanwhile, class divisions within minority groups are often ignored.
Consider for instance, another report published last week, an Office for National Statistics (ONS) study of the ‘ethnic pay gap’. It showed that those of Chinese and Indian origin have a higher median hourly pay than White British. Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Blacks have lower pay, with Bangladeshi people doing worst.
The differences are not simply ethnic. Age matters. Among Bangladeshis, for instance, those over 30 earn 27.9% less than White Britons, while for those aged 16 to 30 the difference is just 3.1%.
What of class? Indian and Chinese migrants to Britain tend to be more middle class than African Caribbeans, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Studies have shown that class structure of minority groups plays an important role in employment prospects but also that racial disparities persist even when class differences are taken into account. Unfortunately, the ONS study does not look at the issue of class. Hence, for all the debate about the study, the significance of the ethnic pay gap is not easy to pin down.
Race and class shape people’s lives in complex, sometimes contradictory, ways. What these reports reveal is that too often we stress the wrong differences and ignore the commonalities that matter.
The image is from Diego Rivera’s ‘Detroit Industry murals’.