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Editorial: White privilege and straw men: unpicking the Tory culture wars

TORY MPs on the education select committee have revived the claim that the “white working class” is being left behind — and blame the anti-racist movement.

The argument – based on comparisons of educational outcomes for children poor enough to qualify for free school meals – resurfaces with some regularity. It was making headlines when Labour was still in office, and again in 2014, 2016 and 2018.

Each time the chosen spin reflects ideological priorities. Select committee chairman Robert Halfon now takes aim at the concept of “white privilege.”

“You’re telling poorer white communities that they are white privileged, when all it does is lead to further disengagement from the education system,” he says. 

It’s not specified who Halfon means by “you,” but presumably he is calling out the shadowy elite – liberal, Marxist or, confusingly, both – whose insidious power has provoked a handful of brave billionaires and TV magnates to set up right-wing channel GB News in resistance.

For if the committee is ostensibly criticising the government, its report forms part of a wider Conservative culture war, erecting various straw men to knock down and daring the left to ride to their defence.

The Tories are blaming “white privilege” narratives for underachievement by working-class white boys because they want to hit back at Black Lives Matter and its success in raising awareness of the pervasive societal influence of racism.

Similarly, when the select committee took evidence, it heard that schoolboys should not be taught about “toxic masculinity,” since like white privilege the term implied that they were the problem. Academic Matthew Goodwin told MPs that “over the last 10 years our national conversation has become much more consumed with other groups in society” and that this was having a negative impact on the self-esteem of young white boys.

The implications of this reasoning are deeply problematic. Simply talking about racism and sexism (“the national conversation”) is somehow bad for white males. Yet as National Education Union (NEU) joint general secretary Mary Bousted points out, “it is deeply unhelpful to try to make it harder to talk in schools about racism.” The same applies to sexism, at a time when the sexual harassment of girls in school is at epidemic levels.

Actually, the underachievement of white working-class boys is more complex than presented, both because the metric used only applies to a minority of the working class (those eligible for free school meals) and because it is rarely mapped geographically: the concentration of the poorest ethnic minority children in larger cities with more job opportunities and cultural assets (libraries, museums and so on) while many of the poorest white children live in smaller, deindustrialised communities, where the lack of work is a powerful disincentive to study, seldom features.

The big problem is poverty, which affects different areas in different ways. As the NEU points out, our government’s miserly £50-per-pupil Covid recovery investment – the figure in the US is £1,600 – will hardly address that. And 11 years of Tory governments cutting youth clubs and libraries while exacerbating regional inequalities will have worsened the outlook for working-class children across the board.

This should inform our response. We need not fixate on “white privilege,” which is sometimes used to depict racism as a problem caused by all white people for which they need to make amends — an approach that divides working-class people and masks the role of racial oppression in capitalism. The problem is not that white male workers are privileged: it is that black and women workers are oppressed.

The Tories know how to divide and rule. They want to provoke the left into fighting on battle lines they choose, precisely to avoid a serious discussion of poverty and race and the conclusions that might be drawn, from the need for greater education spending to planned regional investment, reopening community assets and full employment.

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