Performing anti-racism: on liberal and middle-class ‘activism’

Disclaimer: the intended audience of this piece is not the Black community but white anti-racists. Links to further information & Black voices can be found at the end of the article.

The murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police sent shockwaves across the world. People have taken to the streets to protest against police brutality and racism in all 50 U.S states – with the international community standing in solidarity – and it’s clear that something is different about the response to yet another case of state-sanctioned murder. The outrage is no longer confined to the Twitter feeds of left-wing commentators or expressed during a one-night vigil; it has struck a chord in the majority, and politicians, lawmakers and the public alike cannot avoid it.

In fact, many white, middle-class liberals – who are more likely to be seen congregating at Pret a Manger than at a riot – are now speaking out about the many victims of police brutality. Once prone to rolling out the ‘not-all-police-are-bad’ rhetoric, they are (quite rightly) starting to become vocal about the shocking inequalities within the justice system and the racism that underpins it. Few on the so-called ‘radical’ left, who have shit-talked policemen since time immemorial, are upset by this. We know that without anger and education across all social classes, the political landscape is unlikely to change.

As awareness rises in white liberal spheres, however, it becomes increasingly evident that the connection between race and class is rarely made. Reading lists featured across platforms such as Instagram, put together for those who have recently discovered the realities of racial inequality, often fall short of militant Black activists such as Angela Y. Davis, who has written about class, prison reform and race since the 1980s.[1] Instead, eager-to-learn anti-racists are pointed in the direction of more moderate ideas; ideas that don’t require the complete overhaul of a capitalist system that upholds the oppression of Black people.

Elsewhere, some late-to-the-party white commentators have reacted with caution to the destruction of private property and looting that has ensued throughout the U.S. Existing within a system where our value as individuals is usually derived from the financial assets that we can accrue, it is naturally difficult for us to watch Black communities ‘destroying themselves’ – as it has so often been put. Yet as Kimberly Latrice Jones points out in an impassioned video, few questions have been asked about why people in poor Black communities are looting, and what they are ‘destroying’:

Let’s ask ourselves why […] the financial gap between poor blacks and the rest of the world is at such a distance that people feel their only hope and only opportunity to get some of the things that we flaunt and flash in front of them all the time is to walk through a broken glass window and get it […] When they say ‘why did you burn down your own neighbourhood? Why did you burn down the community?’ It’s not ours. We don’t own anything![2]

Kimberly Latrice Jones – How Can We Win
David Jones Media

Race and class

For many Black Americans, poverty is an inescapable reality. In Minneapolis – where George Floyd lived – the median household income for white families in 2015 was $67,000. In the same year, the median household income for Black families stood at $30,300; up from $27,015 in 2014 (an increase that has been attributed to temporary employment as opposed to ongoing job security).[3] The state’s official poverty line is just under $25,000, and 1 in 10 Minnesotans live under it. This is, experts say, a result not only of under-education, but of racial bias in hiring processes.[4] As a result, most Black people have been consistently and systemically kept in a cycle of poverty.

As Herbert J. Gans says of the U.S in his paper Race as Class, ‘in a society that likes to see itself as classless, race comes in very handy as a substitute. The darkest people are for the most part at the bottom of the class-status hierarchy. This is no accident, and Americans have therefore always used race as a marker or indicator of both class and status.’[5] He continues to state that after the abolition of slavery, many Black people became ‘farm labourers, sharecroppers, de facto indentured servants, really, and thus they remained at the bottom of the class hierarchy.’ The paper concludes:

The African American middle-class continues to grow, but many of its members barely have a toehold in it, and some are only a few paychecks away from a return to poverty. And the African American poor still face the most formidable obstacles to upward mobility. Close to a majority of working-age African American men are jobless or out of the labour force. Many women, including single mothers, now work in the low-wage economy, but they must do without most of the support systems that help middle-class working mothers. Both federal and state governments have been punitive, even in recent Democratic administrations, and the Republicans have cut back nearly every anti-poverty program they cannot abolish.

In the UK, there are similar barriers to social mobility. Statistically, Black people are more likely to be in poverty, have a lower weekly income, and have less capital invested in assets. They are more likely to experience overcrowding and suffer housing deprivation, are less likely to own their own homes, and are more likely to experience homelessness. They are also more likely to experience unemployment, and are less likely than white people to be paid the national minimum wage.[6] In 2014, around 1 in 10 Black and ethnic minority workers in the UK were considered to be in temporary employment; a situation not far removed from the Black residents of Minneapolis.

White, liberal anti-racism falls short in its analysis and ‘allyship,’ then, if poverty and class are not considered. The attempts to destroy stereotypes, call out racism on social media and diversify the curriculum are superficially helpful, but avoid centring an issue that runs much deeper: that the majority of Black people in both the U.S and the UK are poor or working-class, and ‘solidarity’ – a word now co-opted by the liberal anti-racism movement – cannot exist on the grounds of race alone. Class is the overarching issue that many white middle-class protestors simply lack an understanding of, or choose not to recognise and address.

Rather than being willingly class-blind, we must listen to what Black people require in order to shape self-sufficient communities; gain long-term, stable employment; improve education and opportunities; and possess their own capital unwaveringly, without threats from outside institutions, police and, well, us. We need to listen to how they want to respond to police brutality, which may be the abolition of the police as we know it. Without acknowledging these things, many of the white people on the streets supporting Black communities risk becoming ‘optical allies,’ by refusing to break away from the systems of power that maintain oppression.[7]

Addressing liberal ‘goodness’

In the UK, middle-class, liberal ideas on race are often presented as the superior form of anti-racism. Northern and Midlands working-class communities with predominantly white populations are seen as inherently racist, whereas London-dwelling white liberals are considered ‘woke’ where racial issues are concerned. White liberals on both the left and right of the political spectrum won’t be seen as openly racist in public spheres, but often harbour underlying prejudices about Black and poor communities. As tokenistic ‘allies’ they show their solidarity by buying books authored by Black people, but will quickly cross the road if a group of Black men are walking towards them in their not-yet-gentrified-enough borough. Blackness, in a similar way to class, is more comfortable when it exists only within the pages of books on a bedside cabinet.

Shannon Sullivan addresses this ‘good’ white liberalism in her book Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism. ‘One of the main ways that white class hierarchies operate is through the production and display of white middle-class moral goodness,’ she says. ‘This is achieved by establishing the moral badness of poor and lower-class white people.’[8] White middle-class individuals take pride in not being the same as white working-class people, who, they believe, are often more vocally racist. As Steve Biko comments: ‘Instead of involving themselves in an all-out attempt to stamp out racism from their white society, liberals waste lots of time trying to prove to as many Blacks as they can find that they are liberal.’

Sullivan also quotes sociologist Sarita Srivastava, who says that white women in particular tend to ‘become mired in self-examination and stuck in deliberations on morality and salvation.’ An easy scapegoat for the evils of racism, they often turn to lower- and working-class individuals, who are deemed unintelligent or unenlightened and allow them to cement their self-perception as ‘good.’ ‘With their disdain, scorn and even hatred of lower-class white people, good white liberals often use their guilt and shame to exploit class differences amongst whites, which allows them to efface their own complicity in white racism,’ Sullivan concludes.

Though the focus of the BLM movement isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the ‘white working-class,’ it must be pointed out that anti-racist white liberals often feel comfortable voicing disdain for poor white people; many of whom are in similar economic, educational and political positions to those in Black communities. If white liberals are willing to act in this way – unconsciously or not – then their motives in the BLM movement must be questioned. As Sullivan mentions, ‘white trash’ may be seen as inferior because they fail to live up to ‘proper’ whiteness, and share elements of speech, behaviour, diet and lifestyle with Black people, subsequently breaching ‘white social etiquette and [threatening] the boundary between white and non-white.’[9]

The same issues that disproportionately affect Black communities: political alienation, economic insecurity, under-education and a fall in – or lack of – status, have also been attributed to the increase in white working-class individuals across the UK joining far-right groups, though this is rarely discussed amongst white liberals.[10] ‘Cancel culture’ is the preferred medium of liberal ‘activists,’ who would rather avoid addressing the fundamental causes of racist movements with high white working-class memberships. Of course, this is not to say that we should show empathy towards alt-right individuals, but rather that we must uncover the reasons why far-right groups can so easily recruit disenfranchised white working-class members.

Authentic solidarity, informed by class

At this pivotal time in a worldwide movement against racism and police brutality, white people have the opportunity to educate (or re-educate) themselves on the intersections of race and class. The ‘allyship’ and classism shown by white, middle-class liberals won’t change the racist views that have infiltrated many white working-class communities; instead, the work needs to be done to form a deeper understanding of the intricate issues from which it arises. This is the only viable solution for those who seek to eradicate racism and far-right political groups from our streets, the members of which quite clearly hold an unfounded fear that people of colour and immigrants pose a fundamental threat to their existence.[11]

Elsewhere, middle-class white liberals who aren’t aware of the often-crippling poverty suffered by Black communities, yet characteristically insist on dominating the narrative, must educate themselves on the uncomfortable reality beyond their Instagram stories. They will also need to understand when it’s time to move aside, so that Black people can vocalise their needs without being constrained to a movement dictated by the white middle-class. As a result, the changes within the coming months and years will hopefully stand as a lasting and true reflection of the demands of Black communities everywhere.

Resources on BLM/advice for arrests:

[1] PDF link for Angela Y. Davis’ Women, Race & Class for those with limited funds.







[8] Sullivan, S (2014) Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism. New York: State University of New York Press.




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