Poor Lives Matter: Class and Identity Politics

To many of us the “All Lives Matter” and “White Lives Matter” response to the Black Lives Matter protests seems either knowingly racist or at the very least wilfully ignorant and/or disingenuous. But a recent conversation I had suggested another possibility.

I pointed out to someone that the full meaning of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is actually something like “Black Lives also matter”, or perhaps “Black Lives Matter as well.” Or maybe “Black Lives Matter as much as white lives“. Whichever way you define it to me and I am sure all of us on the left, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” clearly entails the idea that ‘all’ lives matter.

However, the person I was talking to seemed genuinely surprised by this idea and said to me, “Why don’t they say that then?”

I replied that “Black Lives Matter” is a rhetorical phrase asserting black rights and to qualify the statement by adding the ‘also‘ or ‘as well‘ or whatever, would undermine the rhetorical power of the phrase and perhaps even buy into the racist narrative that people of colour are ‘others’ that can only be defined in relationship to whites.

The person I was talking then said they were hearing a different version of the phrase which they interpreted as something like, “Black Lives Matter more than white lives“.

The person I was talking to is not an idiot, nor are they a bigot or a ‘nationalist’, so how can it be that in the context of George Floyd’s vicious murder, they can so profoundly misunderstand the point of the “Black Lives Matter” slogan and associated movement?

I believe the answer lies in the failure of liberal “identity politics” to recognise the importance of class in the fight for social and economic justice.

If you are poor and white to say that you have “white privilege” compared to a wealthy Asian businessman is ludicrous and insulting. If you are poor and male to say that you have “male privilege” compared to a middle class female barrister or CEO is infuriatingly unjust.

This is not to deny the reality of racism or the logic of “privilege” as it is currently used in liberal, identity politics rhetoric. I understand the logic of asking white people or men or heterosexuals to “check-in their privilege at the door,” but I think the use of the word “privilege” in this context is profoundly unhelpful, if not dishonest, because it ignores the lived-reality of class and poverty.

To call a white single Mum working three minimum wage jobs to feed her kids, “privileged” compared to anyone, black or white, is insulting.

And I do understand that this “privilege” we are referring to is the relative privilege of the white woman compared to a black woman in the same position who faces an added burden due to racism. Nonetheless to describe the poverty stricken white woman’s position as “privileged”, while it may contain an element of technocratic truth, is rhetorically counter-productive and in my view simply wrong because to live free from discrimination is not a ‘privilege’ it is a right.

To describe ALL white people as being “privileged” compared to ALL black people is both inaccurate and highly divisive.

A white, male, British barrister educated at a public school may have an advantage when compared to a black, female, British barrister from a similar background and education but both of them have immense privilege when compared to a white, male refuse collector. A white boy from a sink estate may not have to suffer the racism that his black mate does and this may give him a slight advantage but to call either of them ‘privileged’ compared to a black, female barrister, educated at a public school, is simply insane.

Many years ago a feminist friend said I had “power” because I was a white, educated, male. The patriarchal “power” she claimed I had, she also claimed she could never have such ‘power’ because she was a woman living in an oppressive patriarchy, in which I enjoyed male privilege.

At the time I was an unemployed freelancer in a brutal, brutal industry and I was going bankrupt. No one would answer my emails let alone give me work and I was under intense and unremitting stress. I was like Yosser Hughes in Boys From The Blackstuff, desperately calling out “Gi’us a Job!”  while going noisily and publicly insane. To suggest I had any ‘power’ over anybody or anything was insulting. Indeed, the woman who told me I had this male, patriarchal, ‘power’ was herself quite a senior social work manager with a full-time job, protected by employment law with a full package of pension and welfare rights. Yet apparantly I was the ‘powerful’ one because of my gender, not my lived reality, but my gender, a biological fact over which I had no control that made me part of a privileged, oppressing class.

And I would describe myself as a feminist in so much as freedom from violence, freedom from sexual harassment, equality of education and opportunity and equal pay for equal work for both men and women is the most basic civil liberty of all… and of course should apply to ALL men and women regardless of race, religion, creed, gender or sexuality.

And it is also clear to me that this equality has not yet been reached and that the fight to achieve it must go on.

But to say that an unemployed man has “power” because of his gender is to talk in the abstract terms of the sociology lecture and ignores the lived-reality of unemployment and poverty. It is true that most people who have power in the world are men but that does NOT mean that all men have power. It is equally true that most people who have privilege in the world are white but that does NOT mean that all white people have privilege.

These words used in this context have escaped from the sociology classroom and only really make sense in such a context. If you are studying entire ‘societies’ in an abstract, academic way, there may some technical legitimacy in claiming that statistically across all of a society ALL white people have relative ‘privilege’ compared to ALL black people. But such statistics do not, indeed cannot, reflect the nuanced ‘reality’ of a class society, let alone the lived-experience of unemployment and poverty. Such statistics are merely abstract numerical representations of particular measurable behaviours. To be meaningful any study of “white privilege” would need to also examine class privilege.

Huge strides have been made in the equality agenda over the last 30 years. We now have a Muslim mayor of London, openly gay MP’s, women CEO’s, our TV screens are more ‘diverse’ than ever… and yet almost all of these minority ‘role models’ have one thing in common, they are almost all of them middle class, many of them educated privately.

A young black man and his white mate from a sink estate both face huge barriers to fighting their way to economic and social ‘success’; and the principle barrier is not their skin colour, it is their class – their education, their accent, their vocabulary, the way they dress, the entertainment they like to watch… even their names (Dwayne, Jermaines, Jordan etc…)

After 12 years of austerity, millions of people across the UK, of all races, creeds, genders and sexualities, are suffering genuine and profound economic hardship. Millions have no job security, no security of tenure, no savings and live hand to mouth, week-in, week-out, for years and years with little hope of change.

Is it any surprise that so many white people in this situation react with violent rage to being called ‘privileged’, when they see all around them middle-class people of colour living actually privileged lives?


About I Am Not A Number

I Am Not A Number is written by Chris Jury. For 30 years Chris Jury was a TV actor, director and writer best known for playing Eric Catchpole in over 60 episodes of the BBC’s antique classic, Lovejoy, and for directing over 50 episodes of Eastenders.
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3 Responses to Poor Lives Matter: Class and Identity Politics

  1. Sean Will says:

    great article – some interesting points. I remember just how racist (and sexist and homophobic) the UK in the 80s and this country has completely changed, and is a lot more accepting. While the UK is not perfect and a lot of things still need to change (e.g. policing), it is worth remembering the positive change that has happened over the last 40 years,

  2. Andrew Reeve says:

    Great article and totally in agreement. I’ve been subjected to the assessments used to determine previous qualification for Personal Independence Payments and Employment Support Allowance. When that was suddenly taken away WITHOUT notification (I received the letter 10 days afterwards), I was immediately threatened with homelessness. Fortunately someone came to the rescue with a room. As the BLM protests quickly developed into seemingly deliberate confrontations orchestrated by Trump, the division between the haves and have-nots became clear. The absurd injustices black people have been subject to has now, more visibly so, become entrenched in the lives of all living in economic hardship. The police/polis have become guardians of property more than citizens lives – as evidenced in how the authorities exercised their power through weapon deployment and aggression- and therefore the working* class have little choice except to gather in numbers to force through necessary changes for the simple act of living.

    *Working – not sure what this would mean given the incredible numbers of unemployed, and zero hour contract workers.

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