‘White Lives Matter Burnley!’ ran the banner trailed by a plane above the Etihad stadium, Manchester City’s ground, during a match with Burnley in June. Since the Premier League resumed after the coronavirus hiatus, players and officials have ‘taken the knee’ at the start of matches in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement against racism and police brutality.
The stunt was roundly condemned by almost everyone: Burnley captain Ben Mee, football administrators, and most people in the Lancashire town, black, Asian and white. Yet if the banner drew near-universal opprobrium, implicit in the slogan were several themes that resonate more widely today – the claim that the needs of white people are being ignored, the notion of white victimhood and the growing significance of ‘white identity.’
Even a decade ago, discussions of ‘white identity’ belonged to the fringes of politics. It was Nazi-speak. Today it has become a significant political issue on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain, the debate about the so-called ‘left behind’ has focused mainly on the travails of the ‘white working class.’ Many commentators bemoan the way that traditional working-class culture and heritage has been eroded by mass migration. There has been growing interest in the problems facing certain poor towns, many of which remain overwhelmingly white.
Figures showing falling life expectancy in the most deprived areas of Britain have prompted fears of the UK following the US. There, economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have documented a shocking drop in longevity caused by ‘deaths of despair’ – people dying from suicide, alcoholism and drug overdoses – specifically among less-educated whites. The poor performance of working-class white boys in schools has added to the sense of ‘white neglect.’ Last year, educationalist and philanthropist Bryan Thwaites offered two private schools a £1m donation to provide scholarships for disadvantaged white working-class boys. When the schools turned it down, Trevor Phillips, former head of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), said the refusal showed ‘the liberal guilt of a largely brahmin caste’ standing in the way of someone who ‘wanted to do the right thing by families who need support.’
In the US, a new genre of books about the lives of poor whites has emerged, the most celebrated of which is JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. There are also serious accounts of the way that poverty among white communities has long been ignored, such as historian Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. American polls show that almost half of white workers feel like ‘strangers in their own land,’ while a third believe that not enough is being done to ‘preserve its white European heritage.’ The British-based Canadian political scientist Eric Kaufmann has stirred controversy – but also found a sympathetic hearing across the political spectrum, including from the Spectator’s Douglas Murray to Prospect’s founder David Goodhart – by arguing that whites should be able to assert their ‘racial self-interest’ like any other ethnic group.
Lurking in the background of this debate are myriad interlinked developments: the erosion of the power and standing of the working class; the blurring of the old divisions between left and right; the creation of a new fault line separating the winners from the losers of globalisation; and the rise of populism and the emergence of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim movements. Most of these issues have been dissected at length. Less attention has been paid, though, to the nature of white identity itself, and to its historical roots. Identity politics is usually viewed as a politics of the left, and white identity seen as a latecomer to the scene – an attempt to replicate the success of minority groups. A longer view reveals the opposite to be the case: that progressive forms of identity politics were the ones late on the scene, and that the origins of the politics of identity lie not on the left but on the reactionary right.
Read the full article in Prospect.