Why pitting BAME communities against the ‘white working class’ misses the point about inequality

Why pitting BAME communities against the ‘white working class’ misses the point about inequality

Why pitting BAME communities against the ‘white working class’ misses the point about inequality

The UK government’s rejection of anti-racism in favour of tackling socioeconomic equality presents a false choice that ignores intersectional struggles.

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives” – Audre Lorde

In December 2020, Liz Truss, the Minister for Women and Equalities, delivered a speech outlining a “new approach to equality” that would focus on the “real problems” of geographical, socioeconomic and class inequalities, rather than “fashionable” issues like race, gender and sexuality. Whilst Truss is right to identify the importance of tackling problems facing the working class — like unemployment, poverty, and a lack of social mobility — her comments have been criticised for portraying this fight as separate to, and in competition with, the fight against issues like structural racism.

Truss has been widely condemned, not only by anti-racist and BAME groups, but also by trade unions and campaigners for workers’ rights. In particular, she has been criticised for perpetuating a myth of BAME “exceptionalism”, which portrays protections for BAME communities as coming at the cost of addressing the issues faced by the “white working class”. The Trades Union Congress have condemned Truss for presenting a “false choice” between tackling class inequality on the one hand, and discrimination against “protected characteristics”, such as race, on the other. This narrative is not new — political discussions on everything from Brexit to benefits to immigration have often falsely portrayed ethnic minorities and the working class as having conflicting interests.

Put simply, race and class cannot be separated this easily. The working class are multi-ethnic, making up a community with shared struggles such as low wages, austerity, and the loss of traditional industries. As suggested in a report by the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS) and the Runnymede Trust, this overlap in lived experience proves the need for narratives about class inequality that don’t counterpose class and race and pitch working class people against each other along lines like race and migrant status.

Furthermore, for those from BAME backgrounds, socioeconomic struggles are compounded by racial inequalities. BAME households are over twice as likely to live in poverty as their white counterparts, and suffer higher rates of unemployment and insecure work , whilst BAME women are the hardest hit by austerity measures. Whilst BAME groups may experience higher levels of educational success — a point often raised in relation to valid concerns over the underrepresentation of white working class men in universities — this doesn’t translate into greater social mobility or better economic opportunities. These intersections of racial and socioeconomic inequality have been highlighted even further by the Covid-19 pandemic, with BAME communities particularly impacted by the financial fallout.

In this sense, by separating socioeconomic and racial inequalities — and counterposing the struggles against them — Truss’ approach fails to acknowledge how inequalities are intersectional. Many of the working class are also from BAME backgrounds, and their experiences of racial inequality have a distinct impact on their experiences of poverty, unemployment, and a lack of social mobility. Indeed, the data on socioeconomic issues is itself proof of the existence of structural racism; evidenced by the disproportionate representation of BAME groups in the statistics for problems like unemployment.

As such, if the government are serious about tackling socioeconomic inequalities, this focus must go hand-in-hand with a commitment to tackling structural racism and its socioeconomic impacts. The government must foster solidarity, not competition, between “white working class” and BAME communities, building a shared agenda that can tackle both the structural causes of socioeconomic inequality and the ways that this inequality can intersect with other forms of injustice. Otherwise, an emphasis on class risks seeming half-hearted, insincere, and even an underhanded method for side-lining racism — what GMB Union has called “smoke and mirrors” to attack equality and human rights.

At JAN Trust, we recognise the importance of acknowledging intersectional inequalities, experiences, and identities. We work with women from a variety of marginalised communities and circumstances, providing advice, guidance, and support with the issues that affect them and their communities.