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How the working class became white



Brexit, Donald Trump, One Nation — across the English speaking world, people have pointed to the electoral success of the populist right as a result of the frustration and despair of the 'white working class'.

7 Eleven storeCharacterised as lowly educated, under- or unemployed, living in areas devastated by the effects of deindustrialisation and austerity politics, these sections of the working class are seen to be against the elites, against migrants, against cosmopolitanism, against 'political correctness' and against globalisation.

These electoral occurrences are seen to be the result of protest votes against all these things by people who have nothing left. Richard Seymour has written that the 'white working class' is couched in terms of having a lack of agency, where their whiteness is overpoliticised and their class position depoliticised.

How did the working class become 'white'? Jonathan Hyslop has shown that at the beginning of the 20th century across the English speaking world, such as Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, workers established organisations, such as trade unions and political parties, to protect their economic position, including the rejection of non-white people from many industries.

Migrant workers, as well as indigenous workers, were, in many circumstances, only allowed to partake in jobs on the periphery of industry, with poor conditions and low pay. Until the 1960s, labour organisations in Australia (as well as overseas) worked to actively prevent these marginalised workers from benefitting from the favourable conditions and pay delivered to white workers.

But in reality, the working class had never really been white. As Satnam Virdee, Kate Bagnall and Julia Martinez have argued, white and non-white workers have always worked together in some capacity, although their experiences were radically different.

In Australia, migrant workers from Asia, Africa, Europe and the Pacific had undertaken numerous jobs since the settler colony was established in 1788. Some, such as the Afghan camel men and the Chinese merchants, were self-reliant and provided services to the growing population that were sorely needed.

However, others, such as the Pacific Islanders in North Queensland's cane fields and the pearl diving South East Asians in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, were treated harshly and often served as indentured labour.


"Tackling racial discrimination in the workplace was not as readily embraced by the trade unions, who preferred a 'colour blind' approach to their membership."


While the White Australia Policy attempted to prevent non-white workers from living and working in Australia, people from across the globe continued to do both, although often at the margins of white Australian society. The organisations of the working class, the Australian Labor Party and the trade unions, were complicit in maintaining this racial divide until the 1950s. It was up to radical left-wing activists, such as those belonging to the Australian Communist Party, to agitate for solidarity between white and non-white workers against capitalism and Australian colonialism.

As the White Australia Policy started to break down in the 1960s with the post-war migration of people from across southern Europe and the Mediterranean, the hostility to migrant workers by the trade unions lessened and particularly the more militant unions became vocal critics of the remnants of the White Australia Policy enshrined in the Migration Act of 1958.

However tackling racial discrimination in the workplace was not as readily embraced by the trade unions, who preferred a 'colour blind' approach to their migrant worker membership. Pre-emptive steps to address racial discrimination were avoided by union leaders under the pretence of not giving 'special favours' to different sections of the trade unions — migrant workers were to be treated like 'ordinary' workers, even though they faced problems that white workers did not.

Like the rest of the global West, Australia has deindustrialised over the last 30 years and the manufacturing workplaces that provided jobs for many new arrivals to Australia have gone. Just as the Chinese merchants and Afghan camel drivers did in the late 19th century, many other migrants to Australia started their own small businesses, carving out their own spaces in the Australian economy and society, particularly in the service industries.

These have thrived, while the new jobs that have replaced the traditional manufacturing sector have become more precarious. Because of their low job security (and corresponding pay and work conditions), these are being taken up by a new wave of migrants, working in the 24/7 convenience stores, driving taxis or cleaning buildings. These workers, on the fringes of the organised labour movement, are part of the Australian working class, but are often not considered such.

They live in the same suburbs as the 'white working class' and feel the same socio-economic pressures, but are often dismissed by politicians and by the media as part of an ethnically determined community, with no overlap between these communities and the wider community they live within. They are accused of not integrating, but it is drummed into them that they are different from the rest of the working class.

Migrant workers are often depicted as competition for jobs and access to services, and as a cultural threat. This allows the 'white working class' to define itself by its whiteness and manifest economic insecurities in a racialised manner. They are pandered to by these same politicians and sections of the media, who argue that their 'concerns' about immigration have to be taken seriously. At the same time, these new migrants, as well as many of the second and third generations of previous migrant waves, who live in the same neighbourhoods and under the same socio-economic conditions, are swept to the sides.

What is the effect of this on our political discourse? Hierarchical (and often conservative) ethnic community organisations become the primary political outlet for the grievances of those who inhabit the various migrant communities around Australia, while the mainstream political parties fawn over the 'white working class' as the 'forgotten people', 'battlers' or 'working families', whose politics are determined down the pub (hence the 'pub test').

While it is reductionist to argue that capitalism drives racism to divide the working class, nearly 40 years of neoliberalism has encouraged a fragmentation of the working class and for ethnic/cultural identity to be seen as the defining characteristic, rather than class position. In 2016, it seems that this has manifested into the electoral victories of the populist right and while we are not on the brink of a fascist coup, many people of colour in Australia (and around the world) are worried about the future.


Evan SmithEvan Smith is a Visiting Adjunct Fellow in the School of History and International at Flinders University, South Australia. He blogs at Hatful of History and tweets from @hatfulofhistory.

This is the latest article in Eureka Street's ongoing series on work.

Topic tags: Evan Smith, working class



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Existing comments

Yep its reductionist but there's a grain of truth we shouldn't forget.

Shane H | 26 October 2016  

Thanks Evan. One group I thought of reading your article is the voice on the phone, "Hello is that Mr Breen? My name is James/Martin or whatever. I am calling you about..." The poor bastard is bound to get enormous numbers of rejections. Who would want that kind of work? Yet the accent suggests it is the preserve of a particular ethnic group. I pity them. And isn't it wonderful to hear from the pub right, "These people are taking our jobs and are draining our welfare resources". Funny how they never seem to see the contradiction. But there is no logic with prejudice, is there?

Michael D. Breen | 27 October 2016  

One feels threat & danger, fight-or-flight instinct kicks in, support for Brexit, Hanson & Trump by many is the result

Black Dog | 27 October 2016  

I just want to add that in Canada, the USA and the UK (and maybe the rest of the English-speaking world?!), trade unions in the last 20-30 years (depending upon industry/sector) have become much more diverse and representative of the working class - and progressive. Also, in Canada and the UK during the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s, being white and working class was not automatically seen as racist or conservative. That, however, can be attributed to the rhetorical success of the populist New Right, which has positioned itself as the 'spokesperson' for the 'underdog' or 'little guy', and the equation of bureaucracy with socialism and unions, and popularized by right-wing mass media. White working-class people were often seen in the late 1970s as progressive, not regressive, in my experience. However, there is a longer, recent history of the US New Right's appeal to conservative workers, with Spiro Agnew's 'silent majority' and Richard Nixon's presidential campaign in 1968 or 1972, with appealing to 'hard-hats' beating up hippies. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) very explicitly opposed racial segregation of workers in Canada and the USA (vs especially traditional craft unions).

Herbert Pimlott | 27 October 2016  

Oh those dreadful whites! The Wikileak documents have been revealing. Like the one where Clinton campaign chairman, John Podesta, lamented that the San Bernardino gunman who murdered 14 people, was not white. Had he been white, this would have suited the narrative of the Clinton campaign which has an aversion to associating terrorism with any aspect of the Islamic religion. If the shooter had been white, it would have also suited the current Leftist narrative which sees whiteness as a synonym for everything “evil”. It’s all the rage in the USA, where “Whiteness Studies” now flourish in academia. Even an elite Manhattan school is teaching white kids as young as 6 that they’re born racist, and they’re made to feel terrible about their “whiteness”, while “kids of colour” are taught to feel proud about their race. Hilariously, white teachers at the 2016 White Privilege Conference, who usually try to outdo each other with ethno-masochistic virtue-signalling, were accused of being white supremacists. As for the Communist Party only wanting “solidarity between white and non-white workers”, former blacks like Manning Johnson left the Party once they realized they were being used effectively, because of their colour.

Ross Howard | 27 October 2016  

Great article - it frustrates me that no politician will argue this - too intellectual - can't put the right spin on it for the commercial 6pm news. There is an apathy amongst all politicians to denounce the simplicity of parties like One Nation - for the major parties it is seems comfortable to have them in the political conversation. Its awful that the ethnic working class are targeted as the reason for the white aussie battler's lot.

Mark Dowell | 27 October 2016  

Yes reductionist but truth lurks. "40 years of neo-liberalism" is a wake up call. Time for deeper analysis from all sides as to the effect and impact this has had on our common humanity. What lies at our disturbing lack of care for our fellow man?

Pamela | 27 October 2016  

I am old enough to remember the time when to rise above a base position in Federal and State Public Service you had to be WHITE, ANGLOSAXON AND A MASON. Now anything goes but I have suffered from lack of the above and racism is still strong in Australia, even though I was born in Sydney.

Maria Fatarella | 27 October 2016  

Evan, I agree with most of what you have written. However may I point out that many low skill minimal education jobs in the blue collar/labor intensive industries like manufacturing have now gone off shore to low wage and poor workplace conditions countries in Asia. These are now being followed by service providers such as call centres for banks and other businesses . The problem here is that we have failed to stop this happening under neoliberal governments, as big business mostly multinationals, chase profit before moral and ethical behaviour . It is called Globalization and Free Trade. Sadly many of us in Australia have shares in these companies courtesy of our compulsory Super Funds so we are complicit in this development. Meanwhile recent immigrants are prepared to do the lowly paid menial jobs that we distain, leaving the more poorly educated 'whites' and our young people (whites) out in the cold. No wonder there is a move by desperate voters to the quick fix policies of One Nation and Trump .Sadly mainstream political parties, for so long complicit in this development have no answer and are seen by voters as bereft of any solution.

Gavin | 27 October 2016  

Brexit, Trump and One Nation are accidents of structural change. Make the jobs appear and the accidents will go away. As will this banging-on about white racism which is getting a bit old.

Roy Chen Yee | 27 October 2016  

Thank you for this incisive analysis of such an important issue impacting on the lives of the most exploitable in our Society.

Ann Laidlaw | 27 October 2016  

A compelling analysis, Evan, thanks to ES for the generous space allowance! Another factor triggering the rise of Hansonism, and which is missing here, is that the export of industrial manufacture, as an explanation for the rise of the White working-class Right, is that such a thesis has been superseded by non-unionised agri-rural workers on low pay, often unemployed or underemployed, who view seasonal workers from developing countries as the cause of their economic, social and political decline. By way of evidence for this: in the arc of parliamentary seats surrounding Brisbane, from the Lockyer Valley to Hervey Bay, the spectacular increase of One Nation's vote, at great cost to the Queensland Liberal National Party, demonstrates that it isn't the traditional working-class ALP seats around Ipswich and elsewhere that are under threat by Pauline, but a more conservative, uneducated and impoverished sector of the regional Queensland vote, once loyal to old-style Country Party policies of protectionism, and whose falsely-conceived 'white privilege' is now under attack by neoliberalism and globalisation.

MLF | 27 October 2016  

Excellent analysis! It is, however, such a great pity that Humanity is so flawed and really interested only in self. Brexit Trump and Hanson are born out of tapping into the selfishness of people and fear of the loss of cultural heritage. I reckon it would be a very safe investment to back Trump as next President just as it was to back Brexit and Hanson to be elected.

john frawley | 27 October 2016  

Gavin and Evan, "I agree with most of what you have written. However may I point out that many low skill minimal education jobs in the blue collar/labor intensive industries like manufacturing have now gone off shore to low wage and poor workplace conditions countries in Asia. These are now being followed by service providers such as call centres for banks and other businesses . The problem here is that we have failed to stop this happening under neoliberal governments, as big business mostly multinationals, chase profit before moral and ethical behaviour ." It is a real pity that our political discourse is governed by the public's desire for "infotainment" and the media's intent keep us fed with half truths that ensures the voting public remains fearful of change.

NameTerry Cobby | 28 October 2016  

At the core of all this, lies the endemic national colour prejudice. Most of the migrants referred to are non-whites. And this is where the Anglo-Celtic colour prejudice kicks in. It's less strenuous as well as convenient to blame others for one's lack of drive to employment. Particularly, as those whom we accused of taking "our" jobs are not like us, that is, not White like the rest of the "legitimate" population. I remember Howard's embrace to the victimised White farmers of the old Rhodesia. No such magnanimous gesture to the largely Middle Eastern asylum seekers. The White Australia Policy might have gone, but our national prejudice towards non-Whites remains since the birth of this nation.

Alex Njoo | 28 October 2016  

I'm not sure if the divide is white / non-white so much as Anglo / non-Anglo. What I see happening (in all English-speaking countries) is that people who are either non-white or non-Anglo are motivated to move through the class divides from "poor" to "working class" to "middle class", to do so as rapidly as they can, and to regard such as aspiration as noble. Meanwhile, on the other hand, those who are both "white" and Anglo somehow feel that they are expected to remain in the class in which they were born, and are expected to regard with contempt the person from their background who seeks to improve their social and economic lot.

Bob Faser | 28 October 2016  

I had always felt, in decent, multicultural Brisbane, we were all getting on quite well till some bastard set fire to a Sikh bus driver in Moorooka yesterday- a suburb close to where I live. The bus driver is dead. The bastard is in hospital under police guard. We, as yet, have little information on the bastard. He may well be crackers, like Martin Bryant. We will see. It was a very sad and totally undeserved end for a lovable, decent young married man. This sort of thing, like the Bendigo mosque and the Hanif affair, makes me sit up and think.

Edward Fido | 28 October 2016  

Man is created by God not man, for man to do what he likes to the dark skinned man. It is against the Divine Law. That 'almost nothing' that happened some 200 years to the Aboriginals is everything. The first error is making man a part of nature. The second error is making Australia's human history a part of natural history. The white supremacy led to hate of the dark skinned man in this case the Aboriginals seen as a level of means, just a piece of furniture to be discarded at will. It gave complete power to the whites. It is a violation of the law of justice that every man deserves his due. It reoriented the white conscience in every aspect of society, political, moral, social, religious. The battleground is white conscience in Aus which has never been properly informed. We need to implement the full Magisterium Teachings that each man, every man no matter the color has "equal worth, equal dignity". This is where we, practising Catholics, get opposition from those in power.

Jackie | 05 January 2017  

Dear Evan, I enjoy reading your article but overhere in Indonesia.Jakarta, we have a different situation. We do not have the so-called labor party, Our labor spread across diverse political spectrums. sometimes, I got shocked when the red labor as the ruling made a protest over salary increase. Or I refer to my experience, as a university lecturer for over 30 years, they could exercise their power by changing your status (and your number as a civil servant) to be labor (without the support from labor because we do not have labor party. You could ban your institution, take over your intellectual property rights and treat you as 'labor', meaning your employer could take over your intelletctual 'property rights". I think it is more about power politics , rather than race and social class thta creates discrimination. At least , if I refer to my case. I might be wrong. They put you in the green zone, with no destination/support from the green labor or environentalist. Therefore, in my case, i'd rather be a lecturer than being a labor.

Reni Winata | 07 January 2017  

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