A controversial report from a cohesion think-tank suggests it is time the white working class was given a hearing.
From Roger Hewitt’s justification of the racism of white youths in the 1990s as territorial struggle, to a study of London’s East End a few years ago describing hostility towards Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) communities as a natural reaction to the abandonment of white people by governments and local authorities, there is a history of intellectuals explaining away the racism of the white working class as a by-product of political disconnection and neighbourhood loss. Now, the line is being peddled once more in a report by the Institute for Community Cohesion (ICC): Community cohesion: the views of white working-class communities.
Published at the end of last year, this seventy-six page report is based primarily on interviews, focus groups and workshops with white working-class residents and ‘stakeholders’ from three neighbourhoods in England (Aston (Birmingham), Somers Town (London) and Canley (Coventry)). The views of nearly 100 residents are sought and some reproduced here. They are scathing about the negative way in which they are routinely portrayed, lament the decline of their neighbourhoods and feel disenfranchised from local politics. Asked about their understandings of the community cohesion policy agenda, respondents reply that such ‘race relations’ strategies are all about preferential treatment of BME communities and, whilst their perspectives on ‘race’ cover a wide range, they are frequently hostile.
‘We need to shut the gates. They are rude and ignorant, look us up and down’, says one person. ‘It’s not a problem them being here, just the rights they have over us’, says another. ‘I used to vote Labour, I won’t even vote now because they let in so many Poles and other foreigners, they get all the work, and Labour did nothing.’ ‘The schools have been taken over now – I walked past a rounders game, and the teacher and seven out of nine pupils were veiled.’ ‘Equal opportunities are anything but. We are bottom of the pile now.’ ‘I’d move tomorrow if I could. There are lots of houses rented out to all sorts, ethnics. Somalians often – don’t know who’s living there from one day to the next. In the past it was clean and there was pride around here – now there’s no curtains even.’
These views may appear ‘guttural’ the report says, but to explain them as racist would be disingenuous. ‘Rather, the racialised commentary should be seen through the prism of neighbourhood loss, political disconnection and competition for scarce resources. Residents viewed themselves as the forgotten group.’ People are antagonistic, it is suggested, because of concerns about the pace and scale of neighbourhood change, because of frustrations that certain communities are not integrating, because the changes taking place are seen as foisted on them by government. Many of the residents interviewed recognise that BME communities have lived alongside them for many decades, the report acknowledges. ‘However, white working-class communities still regarded Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Somalis as not doing enough to integrate into neighbourhoods … some residents suggested that the problem could be seen as Muslim culture being outside the norms of living in the UK.’
As stated above, none of this is new. The description of racist sentiment as a consequence of unfair treatment has historical roots. But what is different here is that this time the line is coming from an organisation with significant sway over the UK’s official race relations policy framework. The promotion of community cohesion is a statutory requirement for various public bodies, and the executive chair of the ICC, Ted Cantle, is the man behind this policy shift.
One of the community cohesion agenda’s core drivers in 2001, when it was first enunciated, was that different communities were living side by side and rarely meeting or interacting. And as such, what was needed was a new framework which promoted core values and mores. This (as this report acknowledges) soon developed into a demand for more integration and in practical terms what emerged was a set of strategies to create shared values in order to reduce intolerance, often taking the forms of events based on ‘sharing spaces’ and encouraging mixing. More widely though, it sparked a debate over national identity. Columnists, academics and intellectuals began to argue about the ‘failure’ of multiculturalism, how ‘diversity’ threatened ‘cohesion’ and how a new sense of Britishness needed to be instilled.
It is important to note this here, because when the author, Harris Beider, writes about ‘racialised commentaries’ what is largely ignored, and certainly not explored, is the way that these commentaries echo the shift to the Right within mainstream politics and the normalisation of the idea that ‘diversity’ threatens solidarity (in which the community cohesion agenda has played its role). This report as part of the ‘cohesion’ school does not understand racism as something imbricated within the laws and structures of the state and the manner in which this is manifested in popular form by communities such as those interviewed. Rather, racism is something that exists between individuals and communities and therefore requires a neutral state to resolve.
A charge of racism against the white working class would be unfair, the report argues, because the majority of those interviewed bridled at the idea of supporting the far Right. But how can racism be reduced to membership of far-right parties or movements – especially when the mainstream parties have accommodated many far-right demands? By all means, investigate the anger of the white working class. But how can that be done without examining, too, the role of the media, with its incessant barrage of stories about a country being swamped by asylum seekers or immigration? What sense will an investigation of working-class attitudes make if the role of successive governments, in normalising the idea that multiculturalism is a threat, is ignored? What about the constant noise from think-tanks and research bodies that immigration displaces ‘our’ people from the labour market and erodes the basis of welfare? What about the impacts of deindustrialisation, shattering entire neighbourhoods and ripping apart the fabric upon which solidarity between various working-class communities had emerged? What about considering what ‘working-class’ means today, in a context where globalisation has fundamentally changed the relationship between capital and labour? What about the failure of New Labour and some within the union movement to speak to new conditions and new dispossessed communities?
What about a methodological turning of the tables? How would respondents have replied to his enquiries in other than his already polarised survey areas – for example in Newham, where the working class is totally diverse, or in east Lincolnshire, where whiteness and Englishness have never been in question?
Cohesion and the coalition
There is but one mention that interviewees who demanded that the immigration gates be shut were ‘merely repeating, albeit in unedited ways, the drift in policy and language on these issues’. But this relationship is then ignored. Instead, we are asked to better understand ‘whiteness’ and to rework the community cohesion agenda in line with the Big Society. The Conservatives are changing the basis of the state, reducing its capacity and scope, and so community cohesion policies need to adapt to this changing policy climate, it is claimed. No challenge then, only compromise. Apparently this is grassroots community cohesion rather than ‘top-down’ community cohesion. And it rests in informal interactions at the grassroots of community life, in neutral venues creating spaces for communities to talk and interact, through a government which acts as ‘facilitator’ not ‘driver’. This way the white working class won’t be excluded any more. This way they, too, can have a say in how issues relating to community cohesion affect them. But surely, real grassroots forms of cohesion emerge from communities campaigning and struggling together? Surely, cohesion emerges not through merely meeting or, as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles would have it, eating together, but acting together to resolve common issues or problems?
This, at its core, is what is wrong with this report. The author states that the reason for its publication is that the community cohesion agenda had previously only focused on BME communities and left white working-class communities out. But because the understanding of racism is divorced from any real wider political context and reduced to community relations, then all that remains is an appeal for conflict resolution, for mediation, for a supposedly benevolent state to stop different communities fighting. This is, at best, misleading.
To some extent this is a report about a workless, futureless ‘working class’ playing out its frustrations on the terrain of race. But to take a racialised conceptualisation of the problem at face value, as the author has, is to compound not resolve the problem. The answer surely lies in giving all people a real stake in society, real hope about sustaining a future – not trying to appease the ‘white’ alienation which is, after all, the fall-out not the root cause of the problem.