Occasionally you come face to face with an argument that riles you in its offensive stupidity before you can quite pinpoint exactly why. This particular argument comes up a lot, in one form or another: “immigration is rough on working class people; rich people like having nannies and gardeners and cheap food, but working class people are pissed off that the foreigners took their jobs. I’m personally not one of those nasty intolerant people, but won’t someone think of the poor working class people, it’s a lot for them to cope with.”
We see it from both sides of the political divide; we see it in the way the EDL are mocked more for their bad spelling and bad haircuts than for their fascism. We see it in the constant assertions from the media that there’s some innate conflict for the Labour party over immigration; the liberal bisexual hippy woman Guardian reader in Islington versus the traditional working class white man on a council estate dichotomy. (There are clearly no bisexuals, women, non-white people or hippies in council estates. Nor are there any racists in Islington. Media fact for you.)
Julia Hartley-Brewer from the Daily Express came out it with again on Question Time last month, but it’s not even her comment that’s triggered this post, really. It’s only because she put it in such honest language that the full offensive absurdity of it hit me. I’ve been feeling my skin crawl when people on the left and the right have implied the very same things for a long time.
We need to stop accepting the simplistic assumption that racism and xenophobia are somehow working class phenomena when in fact these things are top down evils. There’s plenty of both among journalists and media owners, many with salaries north of £100,000 a year, wealthy MPs, and even the very pinnacle of the British class system – the Royal Family.
It’s also the narrow dismissal of what immigrants bring to the country – indeed, the implicit conditionality of a migrant’s humanity being founded in what they “bring” to the country, for “our” benefit – that irks me. The insinuation that you’d only be pro-immigration if you had an immigrant as a gardener, but not if you had immigrants in your class at school or in your local A&E or living in your street is saying that immigrant communities are great at making exotic food and make lovely nannies, but they’re not so jolly to actually live alongside. That is a profoundly unpleasant thing to say. Maybe your best friend at school is an immigrant, or the child of an immigrant. Maybe your neighbour who feeds your cat when you’re away is an immigrant. Maybe your partner is an immigrant. But these experiences are all erased by that kind of rhetoric.
It reminds me of Richard Littlejohn’s sneering assertion that Jack Monroe couldn’t possibly be working class or be making cheap simple recipes that are useful to people without much money because poor people “don’t eat pasta, they eat spaghetti out of tins.” In other words, if you don’t fit the stereotype of what an extremely rich journalist, who mostly lives in a different country anyway, thinks a poor British person must live like, then you’re clearly some kind of fraud. That is a very special level of arrogance.
I am tired of seeing rich people project their own xenophobia and racism on to working class people. Can’t they at least take responsibility for it?
Are there racist working class people? Obviously. To say nothing of the fact that people have complex, nuanced views about things. People may think immigration is too high in some areas but low in others. People may think immigration should be recorded better but not necessarily cut. People may think immigration would be fine if minimum wage regulations were always enforced but find it hard to believe that is a reality that will ever materialise. But racism is top down, and it always has been. Is racism and xenophobia uniquely working class, or even disproportionately working class? No.
We might instead ask: does immigration disproportionately have a negative impact on working class people and poorer communities? Yes, it probably does. In fact, it would be surprising if it didn’t because pretty much everything else does. Of course working class people aren’t sharing equally in the economic benefits that immigration brings. That’s hardly a problem with immigration. It’s a problem with economics.
Perhaps that’s the thing that’s really enraging to me. The fact that a whole class of people can notice how immigration impacts the guy living on a council estate much more harshly than a wealthy lady living in Kensington, then identify the problem as immigration, not the differences in the lives and opportunities between those two individuals.
After all, if you took away all the immigration from Britain, those two hypothetical lives would still be grossly unequal. But if you tackled the inequalities between them, you might just mitigate some of these so-called “problems” with immigration at the same time. Radical I know, but maybe that is where our anger should be directed.
Mark Algar: Needle Exchange 7. 'Clear eyes, full hearts'. by Thoughts On Love And Smoking. on Mixcloud