The elites, masses and racism

The aftermath of Anthony Walker's murder shows that it's working-class whites who are now seen as the scum of the earth.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

‘Racism? It’s endemic here’, read the Observer’s headlines about Huyton, the Liverpool district where the killers of the young black man Anthony Walker lived (1). The report says that the district is a ‘white ghetto’ and points out that only a small percentage of non-whites live in the area. The implication is that ethnic minorities are vulnerable to further racist attacks from Huyton-dwelling whites.

Liverpool certainly has a history of violent crime, but are people violent racists? It seems that this community as a whole is damned for who they are rather than for anything they have done. Such prejudices would not be applied to any other section in British society. What is it about the white working-class that creates such comprehensive dismissal? At a time when state institutions blather on about ‘inclusion’, why is the white working-class not welcome?

The aftermath of the horrific murder of Anthony Walker in July 2005 has a number of notable features. Firstly, as Mick Hume has pointed out, the murder case has legitimised the police as a tolerant ‘anti-racist’ force (see One murder doesn’t make a racist society). Secondly, the reaction from some whites in Liverpool suggests that working-class people are beginning to see themselves as a problem.

What has been ignored since the trial is how thousands of white people turned out to a public memorial service in July. And judging by those interviewed, there was more going on here than the grief culture displayed at occasions such as George Best’s funeral. Instead, there was a need to be seen as publicly condemning the brutal murder of a black teenager. Some Liverpudlians were aware that they were being singled out as problematic by the media. As one middle-aged woman put it, ‘this tragedy will be used to smear a whole community’. Judging by the recasting of Huyton as a ‘white ghetto’, she was right.

What’s also notable is how the media downplay other examples of ‘hate crime’. The murder of a white student by three Pakistani men, for instance, didn’t generate this kind of media hand-wringing. There are no articles, for instance, writing off east London as a ‘Bengali Ghetto’. This is often explained in terms of the need to be ‘sensitive’ on racial issues. In reality it’s a mealy-mouthed way of suggesting that media coverage on such incidents could set the white proles off into a racist frenzy. If examples of white racist thuggery put the white working-class in the dock, the downplaying of crimes that don’t fit the script do so too. Which begs the question: why is this section of British society singled out as special head cases?

The political defeat of the working class continues to have a corrosive and dangerous impact. Its lack of political clout means that it can be labelled, and regulated, as the elites see fit. It’s a process that has been underway for well over a decade, but has accelerated considerably under New Labour. Whether it is food and drink consumption, smoking, child rearing or multicultural etiquette, working-class people are often presented as a strange and alien breed in need of state supervision and correction. Given the elite’s tenuous connections with the masses, why would they want to potentially alienate a substantial section of society even further? Yet as the Anthony Walker case shows, New Labour is successfully forcing the white working-class to prove that they are responsible and legitimate citizens.

The outcome is that some ordinary people are internalising the idea that they are indeed a problem – and in need of professional help. In an interview on Radio 4 during summer 2005, two young working-class mothers said that they supported parenting classes on the basis they ‘want to prove we’re fit mothers’. While during the Jamie Oliver school dinners’ farrago, many a working-class mother gritted teeth in support of the joys of organic spinach.

Misanthropic introspection creates clients for the therapeutic state. Thus there is no contradiction between targeting the masses as problematic and seeking new points of connection. This is why New Labour’s cultural engineering policies have been so successful. It galvanises New Labour’s middle-class constituency against council estate ‘chavs’, while it forces the masses to conform to New Labour’s idea of respectability.

In many ways pressuring the masses to be ‘respectable’ is nothing new. For much of the twentieth century, elite notions of national and racial superiority were a mechanism to bind people to the British state. The representatives of the working class – members of the Labour Party – were only recognised if they signed up to ‘respectable’ British nationalism. From this perspective, old-fashioned British racism and the new elites ‘anti-racism’ are merely flipsides of the same conformist coin. Social critics should be as questioning of the latter as of the former.

The manipulation of the grim murder of Anthony Walker reveals how successful the elites have become in establishing new spheres of legitimacy. Whereas the police can now portray themselves as being on the side of ‘good’, the white working-class have to consciously show they’re not ‘bad’. It’s not old-fashioned racism that’s endemic in Huyton or elsewhere, but the expanding influence of the therapeutic state.

(1) Observer, 4 December 2005

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Topics Politics


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