Racialized Insiders and Hidden Bogeymen

by Emma Jackson

Those at the forefront of current fights over public housing are as much part of the working class as the 'white van man'. But how does the ‘white van man’ come to stand in for the working class in debates over class, race and nation?

First published: 23 December, 2014 | Category: Class, Culture, History, Housing, Labour movement, Racism

Satnam Virdee’s Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider traces formations of race and class in England from the early industrial period to the 1980s. These themes take on a particular poignancy in a context where UKIP’s success has rattled the major political parties and in the run up to a general election where imaginings of England and debates about immigration are likely to take centre stage. The current media and political furore involves the conjuring of particular racialized and classed figures such as the ‘white van man’ and the ‘hidden migrant’. Virdee’s book is useful in unpicking some of these typologies - of both racialized outsiders and insiders - and provides tools for deconstructing the ‘whitewashing’ of the English working class in the popular imagination and for starting to untangle how race, class, immigration and ideas of the nation are co-constituted and inextricably linked. The book does this both by problematizing the idea of ‘thewhiteworkingclass’ as a homogenous mass, while also not shying away from uncomfortable histories, such as that of racism in the labour movement.

New Left Project readers will be familiar with the episode in the Rochester and Strood by-election where Labour MP Emily Thornberry tweeted ‘Image from #Rochester’ with a photo of a house with St George’s flag in the window and a white van parked outside. The tweet, interpreted by the Labour leadership and the Sun newspaper (‘Only Here for the Sneers- Snob MP’s Twitter Dig at White Van Man’s English Flags’[1]) among others, as making fun of white working-class people, resulted in Thornberry losing her cabinet position. This was then followed by a response from Thornberry’s brother, who is a builder and drives a (red) van, asserting that his sister wasn’t a snob.  I am less interested in the rights and wrongs of this particular case than thinking about how race, nation and class play out through such debates. How does this image, and the act of sharing it, become so loaded, and what is going on with entanglements of race and class here?

Thornberry’s tweet could only create outrage because of a national context in which MPs are widely regarded as an out-of-touch elite and therefore try to present themselves as in touch with the common people by patronising and clunky stunts, such as donning high-visibility vests at any given opportunity. The tweet also taps into a wider discourse of ‘abject whites’[2] which reassures white middle-class people that racism lies firmly in the camp of another social group ‘thewhiteworkingclass’, which is cast as homogenous and racist, leaving manifestations of racism among the white middle classes untouched. It does so in a context where UKIP have gained support and two MPs, while the other political parties fall over themselves to chase potential UKIP voters, who are imagined as the occupants of houses like this one. (A later interview revealed that the occupant of the Rochester house did in fact hold strident anti-immigration views.)

But how does the ‘white van man’ come to stand in for the working class? And what of the surge of Labour MPs proclaiming their affinity with the St George’s flag after the incident? For example, Tom Watson tweeted a picture of the flag with ‘Labour’ printed over the top. How does aligning oneself with this contested symbol of Englishness become the way to show solidarity with the working class in a time of austerity and deepening inequality?

One of the political and historically important contributions of Virdee’s book is to point out that the English working class has long been a mixed bunch of people, and furthermore that Black, Asian and Irish people have played key roles in the fight for rights for working class people in England. This is a complex story, and alongside hopeful moments of solidarity including the formation of the Anti-Nazi League and the Grunwick strike, Virdee also unsettles rosy left-wing histories, such as those surrounding the ‘Red Clydeside’ period in Glasgow[3] where, he argues, ‘racism was deployed by socialist activists  to create a cohesive opposition to government and employer attacks.’[4]. What is often characterised as a golden socialist age in the city also involved racist riots that targeted black seamen in Glasgow.  At the same time, Virdee draws attention to the role of white working-class Glaswegian women, who were married to the black seamen, in opposing racism. This retelling of a well known historical period starts to pick apart the white working class as a homogenous mass of either left-wing heroes or racist hoodlums and demonstrates how a racially coded version of national belonging can be used and propagated for political ends.

Another way in which the book troubles the category ‘thewhiteworkingclass’ is through considering changes in the boundaries of whiteness and belonging. Tracing the incorporation of the Irish into a white identity is particularly useful in demonstrating the social construction of race and the shifting boundaries of whiteness (see the quote from Carlyle in Virdee’s essay in this symposium ‘Crowds of Irish darken our towns’[5]). However, while some racialized outsiders may become incorporated over time, there are always new arrivals to be feared and it is through these figures that belonging to the nation is reinscribed. So, while the period of New Unionism of the late nineteenth century saw solidarity between Irish-descended workers and their English counterparts, Virdee argues that the limits to claims for economic and democratic rights were personified by the outsider figure of ‘the Jew’ (‘each time the boundary of the nation was extended to more members of the working class, this was accompanied and legitimised by a racialized nationalism that excluded more recent arrivals.’ Virdee, this symposium).

This process of incorporation and the creation of new ‘others’ resonates with research I have been involved in recently, exploring the impacts of anti-immigration government campaigns. In focus groups conducted across the UK we have heard recent migrants being cast as outsiders by a range of people, including not only BNP and UKIP voters but also more long-standing migrants who are keen to distinguish between their generation, as hardworking and respectable, and new arrivals, as dependent on the state. And this is where one of the book’s central provocations comes in: Virdee argues that left-wing politics have fundamentally failed to challenge racism by refusing internationalism and instead working inside forms of nationalism. If the boundaries of belonging are the boundaries of nation, then citizens will always need an outsider to set the limits of belonging.

It is important to add that even when previous generations of migrants to the UK may seem to be accepted into the national story, this belonging to the nation can be questioned at moments of heightened tension – such as the present. We can see how fears of the ‘insider within’ echo through English history, through Enoch Powell’s scaremongering about ‘immigrant-descended populations’ described in Virdee’s book, to the recent Daily Express headline about ‘Hidden Migrant Millions’[6]. This recent tabloid portrayal of the dangerous migrant takes a King Herod-like turn, fixating on babies born to people from outside the UK. While roundly mocked, this headline perfectly demonstrates Paul Gilroy’s argument that, ‘Different people are still hated and feared, but the timely antipathy against them is nothing compared to the greater menace of the half-different and the partially familiar.’[7] In this rendering, the imposter babies’ menace lies in their legitimate claims to national belonging, and, terrifyingly for the Daily Express, their partial familiarity - they may not even look different to other babies. While those criticising the Express have pointed out that their criteria for ‘hidden migrants’ applies to Nigel Farage’s children, this also illuminates a racialized and classed subtext to such categorisations. The tabloid figure of the ‘hidden migrant’ is unlikely to be associated with the white middle classes. Virdee’s book is helpful in providing both a historical context and a sociological perspective on the creation of these tabloid folk devils.

However, one inherent limitation in focussing on the formation of the working class and racism is that it leaves middle-class racism and the relationship between whiteness and middle-class identity to one side. Perhaps a sequel is in order?

How then might these lessons from the past inform anti-racist organising and opposition to neoliberalism today? Firstly, the book illuminates the limits inherent in mobilising around national identity. Secondly, examples from the past show how opposition can come from unlikely places[8], including broad-based coalitions (think of the Grunwick strike) and often involving those considered unrespectable. An important example from Virdee's book is the matchgirl strikers of 1888, in which teenagers at the bottom of the class structure took successful industrial action which inspired other groups of unorganised workers in London. Looking to the present day, we might think of those at the forefront of current fights over public housing like the Focus E15 mums, a multi-ethnic powerhouse of working class women.  Or to the Glasgow Girls, another ethnically mixed group of young women who fought child detention and the dawn raids on asylum seekers in Glasgow. These young women are as much part of the working class as the white van man. Virdee’s book goes some way to help us understand why these kinds of struggles (and victories) get left out of classed and raced stories of Britain and imaginings of the working class.

Emma Jackson is a Research Fellow in Urban Studies at the University of Glasgow and is joining Goldsmiths as a Lecturer in Sociology in January 2015.

This article is part of our series, Race and Class in Britain.

[1] The Sun, 21st November 2014.

[2] Haylett C. (2001) 'Illegitimate Subjects?: Abject Whites, Neo-Liberal Modernisation and Middle Class Multiculturalism', Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 19 (3) p351-370.

[3] While the book focuses on England, Virdee argues that this episode is crucial in understanding race and class in workers’ uprisings during this period.

[4] Virdee, S. (2014) ‘Racism,Class and the Racialized Outsider’ (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan) p 81

[5] and Ignatiev, N. (1995) ‘How the Irish became White’ New York, Routledge.

[6] Daily Express, 26th November 2014.

[7]  Gilroy, P. (2004) ‘After Empire’ (London, Routledge) p137

[8] ‘Strength lies in improvisation. All the decisive blows are struck left-handed.’ Benjamin, W. (2009) ‘One Way Street’ (2009) (London, Penguin Classics)

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