The UK government continued its culture war with the latest so-called “report,” The Forgotten: How White Working-class Pupils Have Been Let Down, and How to Change It; complaining about those poor so-called White working-class boys being left behind by multicultural Britain. We are warned that terminology like “White privilege” is alienating the poor souls and that the usage of such terminology may even be breaking equality law. Sadly, yet not surprisingly there is nothing new about any of these backwards ideas. The spectre of the failing “White working-class” has become the new racial science, misrepresenting statistical evidence to support deeply racist agendas.
In what has become the new normal, the latest report has abused the data to present its twisted conclusions. I have a PhD in sociology but must have misread Marx’s division of society into two classes. I thought it was the owners and the workers, not those who qualify for free school meals and those who don’t. Let us be clear, there is no measure of class in the school system and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. The other stat often contorted in this literature is neighbourhood data, where we are told that it is poor White people from deprived areas who are doing worse, particularly in terms of university access. The only flaw with this is that it is completely useless because it does not work for London. Considering that half of the minoritised groups live in the capital it seems pretty impossible to draw any conclusions. Not to mention that residential segregation in the inner city means that minoritised groups are more likely to live in deprived areas even if they have greater levels of income. The actual data that we can use, that on free school meals, is in fact a lesson in White privilege.
Sewage Sewell report recognises that White students are the least likely to qualify for free school meals, with African Caribbean students being twice as likely to be eligible for food assistance. It should hopefully be obvious that you cannot compare the bottom 14% of White students with 28% of Black students. One of the key factors of school success is the parental level of education, or what is called “educational capital.”Due to racism in employment, it is likely that the Black Caribbean families include a proportion who have high levels of educational attainment but cannot secure a decent well paying job. So comparing the 14% of White students to the 28% of Black Caribbean is a misuse of the evidence and definitely the term “class.” If we had a measure for the bottom 14% of Black Caribbean students I am certain the differences in GCSE attainment would dissolve, but we don’t have this data so it not a claim I can make (my first lesson in responsible uses of data).
But if we look at the overall picture (which shows a range of performances for minoritised groups) the GCSE figure is a mirage. So much attention and focus have been put on it that communities have rallied resources to address it. The so-called “industry” that has produced the illusory gains is actually communities mobilising to improve their conditions. The state’s only response has been to try to get us to “aim higher” and imagine ourselves out of educational racism. I say illusory gains because the table in the
Sewage Sewell Report that praises all the progress in GCSE attainment for some minoritised groups also contains the results for A-Levels where almost all of the gains magically disappear.
Progress into university is another one of the mirages, where we celebrate the overrepresentation of Black students in higher education. In doing so we fail to recognise our concentration in less prestigious universities, or the yawning achievement gap between those who are White and those who are not. This is not even to mention that a Black graduate is significantly less likely to get any job, let alone a graduate career. In fact, if we look honestly then, the school system (I won’t dignify any part of it by calling it education) remains one of the central sites of racist exclusion (and actual exclusions).
Except, for those pedalling the myth of the disposed White working-class, an honest assessment of the evidence is not the goal. The data will be distorted to suit their delirious political agenda and this government has drawn its popularity by playing the race card (they invented). There is no doubt that poor White people are suffering, inequality has always been the basis of capitalism (this is a correct use of Marx and class analysis). However, most meaningful attempts to deal with inequality have always been class-related (and yes Black and Brown people are in the working-class).
The irony is that one of the most expensive class-related interventions, free school meals, is being used to make the argument that the White poor are being excluded. Universal schooling is one of the best examples of a programme meant to support all those who are disadvantaged. In addition, we have seen things like Educational Maintenance Allowance (axed by the Tories) and the Pupil Premium (made redundant by Tory cuts). Let’s make it plain: the truth is the Tories have cut taxes, cut provision, and made off with the money, and are now looking to shift the blame onto the Darkies. We are not the problem. The elite is. Yet as Dubois argued, one of the ways White privilege works is the “psychological wage” of Whiteness that maintains the feeling of superiority, of being truly British and belonging, even when you are being exploited.
So don’t believe the hype or the snake-oil salesmen posing as academics who are selling you the new racial science. There is no crisis of the White working-class in the school system separate from the issues facing all children from a deprived background. The only difference is that White children are neither poor nor struggling in schools because of the colour of their skin, and in a racist society, that is a privilege.