Not racist, just resentful

Published 20 May 2015 / By Ben Gidley

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In continental Europe, governments, civil society and academics are increasingly likely to repeat the mantra that integration is “a two-way process” involving both migrants and receiving society. All too often, though, governments place the emphasis on only one point side of the equation: on the duty of migrants to fit in. Similarly, integration scholars relentless scrutinise migrant and minority communities. The Open Society Foundations’ At Home in Europe programme wanted to address the other side of the coin: what about ordinary members of majority populations, those amongst whom migrants are enjoined to fit in? In particular, what about marginalised members of majority populations – those who might feel dislocated or left behind by the processes of change that migration has come to stand for?

This group – conventionally categorised as “the white working class” – is a constituency often spoken for in the migration debate. In an early COMPAS Breakfast Briefing, Ben Rogaly and Becky Taylor describe this as the discourse of the “beleaguered natives”. British politics has since provided no shortage of illustrations of this discourse. In 2011, David Cameron, talking about “a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods” created by migration, invoked the image of “the chat down the pub” to signal which kinds of neighbourhoods he meant. In 2012, David Goodhart wrote of “certain places, like the working class suburbs of south London… where the liberal tolerance of metropolitan Britain was not embraced”. In 2014, immigration minister James Brokenshire claimed that “a wealthy metropolitan elite” of “middle class” households have benefited from immigration while “ordinary, hard-working people” have suffered. In April, Dulwich College-educated former banker Nigel Farage claimed that UKIP “represent[s] the interests of working people… We are speaking for these people. They have got nobody else to speak for them.”

In short, lots of people speak for the white working class when it comes to migration. But how often are white working class voices themselves heard in the debate? Daniel Silver and Amina Lone of the Social Action and Research Foundation, in research presented to the May COMPAS Breakfast Briefing, set out precisely to listen to, record and communicate working class voices.

Higher Blackley

Daniel and Amina’s research took place in Higher Blackley in North Manchester. This is a mainly working class, mainly White British neighbourhood, where voter turnout is low but where the BNP took over a quarter of the vote in the late 2000s. What is behind that BNP vote? Are the white working class a beleaguered tribe of racists?

Daniel described a kind of triple marginalisation experienced by areas such as High Blackley. As a site of post-industrial unemployment (an ICI factory used to employ a large proportion of the area’s breadwinners), it experiences economic marginalisation; feeling neglected by the mainstream parties, it experiences political marginalisation; stigmatised in the media as feckless scroungers, it experiences social and cultural marginalisation.

Daniel cited the work of Tracy Shildrick and colleagues for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on the “no pay, low pay” cycle in post-industrial communities (which more recent JRF research found affects one in five workers in the UK) to explain the dynamic in High Blackley. This cycle of insecurity affects people’s well-being (Dan presented a shocking chart showing the dramatic rise of prescriptions for anti-depressants in Greater Manchester since 2009).

Community resilience

But Daniel also argued that the media and politicians too often frame communities such as Higher Blackley as a “problem”, erasing the rich web of community support amongst families long-resident in the area.


Daniel reported that the research team did not ask residents explicitly about immigration, but it always came up in the research. “We’re not racist, just resentful”, was how one resident framed the issue; “We’re just very, very worried”, said another.

Housing allocations – and a perception that migrants and minorities are somehow jumping the queue for scarce housing – were a key source of tension.

Such perceptions are allowed to fester, even though demonstrably false, because, as Dan put it, there is a lack of space for debate.  Residents see their grievances dismissed as racist by what they call “do gooders”.

This finding in particular resonated with my own ethnographic work in South London, including the work I’ve done with Ole Jenson in Bermondsey. When grievances and contentions become taboo in the public sphere, they resurface in local networks of rumours and gossip and are animated by the dog whistle politics of irresponsible national-level entrepreneurs of fear such as Nigel Farage.

The new landscape

In the discussion after the breakfast briefing, a number of people asked about the migrant and minority experience in Higher Blackley. Are they experiencing the same thing as the white working class? It was also noted that non-white people – including long-settled minority ethnic people whose family histories trace back to the former British empire in the Indian subcontinent or Caribbean – share many of the grievances as marginalised members of the majority ethnic population. (This is something I first noticed about a decade ago, doing research in Coventry at the time of rising migration from both Europe and a diversifying range of other source countries.)

The hanging question for me is how these kinds of grievances can be allowed back into the public sphere in a healthy way, and how solidarity can be rebuilt in a context of multiple marginalization.

The briefing text is here, the powerpoint presentation is here, and the podcast is available here. Follow Dan on Twitter @DanSilverSARF. The At Home in Europe Manchester research report is here. To listen to voices from Manchester click here. At Home in Europe is a project of the Open Society Initiative for Europe. It has worked on Muslims in Europe and Somalis in Europe, as well as the white working class in Europe. For an introduction to the white working class work across Europe, read or listen to this by Nazia Hussain and Daniel Silver. Follow the work on Twitter at @HomeInEurope.

For more information on our Breakfast Briefings, see here. In June, we will focus on how local authorities provide services to migrants with no recourse to public funds.