As the US’ first black presidential couple were being toasted across Europe two weeks ago, a study released by Harvard and Tufts universities suggested that, rather than embracing a “postracial” era, growing numbers of white Americans see themselves as victims of discrimination. Progress toward racial equality is, they believe, “linked to a new inequality — at their expense” — a notion that the Tea Party movement has developed into a political platform.
These findings resonate with a 2008 British government survey that suggested 29 percent of white Britons felt themselves to be discriminated against on grounds of race. Although Britain has no race-based quotas for education or employment, perceptions that ethnic minorities get “preferential treatment” at the expense of whites have gained traction. The statistics still show there are proportionately twice as many low-income ethnic minority households as white ones; and unemployment is much higher for black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities.
Myths of white marginalization tend to be dismissed as right-wing bigotry, but the danger is that they can exert a wider appeal and stoke conflict, particularly in troubled economic times. Deployed by the far right British National Party (BNP) in impoverished Oldham in 2001, they fomented white rage and violence. On the 10th anniversary of the riots last week, a BBC Newsnight film showed that some white Oldham residents still believe that ethnic minorities get better schools and housing.
The nonsensical idea that “racism cuts both ways” is peddled by the English Defence League (EDL), which has escalated violent campaigns of intimidation in the name of “indigenous” Britons. While the BNP has met electoral disaster and the EDL remains a street-fighting fringe, we must stay alert to the uses of “reverse racism” — which, along with increasingly acceptable anti-immigrant discourse, provides false explanations for worsening economic conditions.
Most white Britons are not unthinking racists, so we must ask what accounts for the tendency to believe that migrants and ethnic minorities, rather than a blatantly exploitative economic order, are to blame for increasing unemployment and falling wages.
The answer lies less with the far right than the self--serving rhetoric of the political mainstream, which would have us believe that individual or cultural attitudes rather than systemic failures explain economic woes. We are exhorted to self--improvement through bland panaceas like “raising aspiration” and “greater community cohesion.” It’s easier for politicians to invoke an “aspiration gap” than to acknowledge an -opportunity deficit. Or to insist that an ill-resourced social background does not matter if you work hard.
That tired “social mobility” mantra emphasizes piecemeal individual advancement over more fundamental steps toward fairness. Last week it was reported that a token handful of the brightest youth with parental income under ￡26,000 (US$42,682) would be given “highly selective” admission to a new east London college to enable them to go to top universities, while primary schools face cuts. Even this minimal proposal elicited the victimized headline: “Middle class excluded from elite school.”
Race and class are pitted against each other when British Prime Minister David Cameron denounces “separate lives” and “failed multiculturalism,” now an influential cliche. Handily obscured in the process is an economic system that inflicts deprivation across ethnic communities. As the poor blame the poor, the culpable elite are shielded from legitimate anger.