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Rows over ‘white privilege’ may dominate the debate over underachieving poor white pupils, but it misses the real culprit

Dr Lisa McKenzie
Dr Lisa McKenzie

Dr Lisa McKenzie is a working-class academic. She grew up in a coal-mining town in Nottinghamshire and became politicized through the 1984 miners’ strike with her family. At 31, she went to the University of Nottingham and did an undergraduate degree in sociology. Dr McKenzie is the author of ‘Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain.’ She’s a political activist, writer and thinker. Follow her on Twitter @redrumlisa.

Dr Lisa McKenzie is a working-class academic. She grew up in a coal-mining town in Nottinghamshire and became politicized through the 1984 miners’ strike with her family. At 31, she went to the University of Nottingham and did an undergraduate degree in sociology. Dr McKenzie is the author of ‘Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain.’ She’s a political activist, writer and thinker. Follow her on Twitter @redrumlisa.

Rows over ‘white privilege’ may dominate the debate over underachieving poor white pupils, but it misses the real culprit
A new report by MPs highlights the neglect of Britain’s ‘forgotten ethnic majority’ – white working-class children – and recommends actions to help them. But it stops short of addressing the root cause.

Six years ago, I was asked to be an expert witness in the House of Commons for the Women and Equalities Select Committee. It was a fact-finding panel in order for the committee to think through class inequality in Britain, and I was more than happy to contribute.

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I was one of four witnesses and the only working-class one – the only one in the room who had experienced class prejudice and class inequality and could speak to that – and answer questions such as what does it feel like to be working class in Britain today, and what are the consequences of that? The committee was interested in whether people’s social class should be added to the list of protected characteristics; meaning that being treated differently or being discriminated against because of your class would be against the law.

The list of protected characteristics includes age, disability, race (including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin), religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

Yet social class is still not included. It means, in effect, that the working class in Britain can be treated differently and unfairly, and deeply-held class prejudices can be acted upon. This consequent discrimination against working-class people can go unchallenged, be ignored, and remains mostly unseen as if it were normal – which it is, all day and everyday.

Another report out today also addresses social class in Britain, this time commissioned by the House of Commons Education Committee, this time about a particular group they call the ‘forgotten’ and ‘the left behind’ – poor, white, working-class pupils.

Entitled ‘The Forgotten: How white working class pupils have been let down and how to change it,’ the report argues such children are underachieving within the education system, even behind other workin- class groups from ethnic minorities. This group – termed the ‘ethnic majority’ – comprises around one million pupils.   

The report uses free school meals as the marker of how to define class in the UK. In England, children living in households on income-related benefits (such as universal credit) are eligible for free school meals (FSM), as long as their annual household income does not exceed £7,400 after tax, not including welfare payments. 

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It is a very basic and rudimentary measurement, but often used by researchers and academics in order to show a definition of class in Britain. The report notes that poverty cannot fully account for the educational underachievement by the white working-class pupils, arguing that all working-class people of whatever ethnicity are economically disadvantaged and, despite this, it is the white pupils who consistently do worse. 

The end game for the report is to look at the numbers going on to university or further education: only 16% of the white FSM cohort do so, compared to 21% of mixed-race FSM pupils and 31.8% of Black/African/Caribbean ones – although the report also notes that these last two groups are more likely to be excluded from school and to drop out of university. And all working-class students are more likely to be found in lower-ranked universities and least likely to be found in elite Russell Group universities.

The report is more than 80 pages long and comprehensive, with over 40 conclusions and recommendations – that address geographic differences, the quality and inequality of primary and secondary education, the lack of decent employment in specific areas, and the failure of blanket investment in students across the country rather than a more targeted approach on specific communities.

Probably the issue that will be most seized-on is the one page that addresses the term ‘white privilege’, a concept which the report argues has been unhelpful to white working-class children and has led to them being neglected. It suspects that, in some cases, it has allowed a lack of empathy and care when looking at this group’s particular disadvantages.  

Although most of the report lends itself to looking at geographical inequalities, in particular the London and the South East effect, where all children’s educational attainment has been raised. This area has a culture of investment and success, as opposed to parts of the country that have suffered de-investment for decades – poor, de-industrialised communities, where large warehousing industries have set up as the only work in the area. The sorts of places and people I have written about many times on these pages. 

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And, of course, there is the obligatory acknowledgement that no one’s identity means that they have certain characteristics that lend themselves to under-attainment – yet the ‘aspiration’ word and the lean-in on working-class culture make an appearance. The familiar turns of phrase that are loaded with class stigma, class prejudice and victim-blaming.

The ‘left behind’ narrative that runs throughout the report has a common theme: that white working-class people are somehow to blame for their predicament because of their backward culture, their Brexity nostalgia for a past where their lives were better without ethnic minorities, and for refusing or being unable to keep up with the rest of the country’s progress. This narrative suggests it is at least some of their own fault. Yet there is nothing in this report which implicates the power relationships between classes and the calamitous effects of that. At the risk of repeating myself over and over again, the British class system is one that unfairly advantages the middle class and, equally and unfairly, disadvantages the working class.

Despite only one page on ‘white privilege,’ the report is undoubtedly going to attract headlines – it is a phrase that causes outrage on both sides of the argument. Lots of political capital will be flexed as the ‘culture warriors’ go out to bat for their own side. 

One group will insist that white people are losing out to a politically correct wokeness that values social justice over the ‘facts’ shown in this report and will take it as evidence that ‘white privilege’ does not actually exist – while the other side will rubbish the report, looking for holes and inaccuracies, and will insist that ‘white privilege’ is real and should be recognised and apologised-for by all white people.

These arguments will be played out on social media, almost exclusively by people who have not ever negatively experienced the deep inequalities of the British class system and who are safe in the knowledge that their own children will never be written about and spoken about in this way.

Most of today’s political outrage will come from people who have experienced the British class system, but will not recognise it because of their own middle-class privilege and their own easy access to those unfair advantages that can always be passed off as a result of ‘talent’ and hard work – rather than the in-built advantages they have been given from birth.

I welcome today’s report because it raises the issue of class in Britain, but I hope soon for a different one. One perhaps entitled, ‘The invisible advantages of the middle class,’ with 40 recommendations aimed at stopping and preventing middle-class families gaming the education system, scoping the geographical areas for the ‘right place’ for their children to go to university, to get internships and decent, well-paid jobs, and to play a system that they and their forebears created for themselves.

At the very least this current report should have swayed just a little from the usual platitudinous recommendations of ‘levelling up,’ ‘left behind,’ ‘more aspiration’ and ‘better parenting,’ and added one more key recommendation: that social class should be put on the protected characteristics list, allowing all working-class people to be given the chance to call out and challenge class discrimination on their own terms. 

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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