23 March 2008

Where do you draw the line between race and class?

In the first episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Will and Carlton are dressing up for a social function. Their clothes are very similar, leading Carlton to remark "We could be mistaken for brothers". Will’s reply is interesting, and says a lot about how class and ethnicity interact. "As if anyone’s going to mistake you for a brother". Privileged judge's son Carlton is less "black" than Will from the poor parts of Philly. The class culture clash is one of the main jokes of the show, and central to this is its interaction with ethnic identity. Though this is the best example in popular culture, there are plenty of others in both fiction and real life.

The myths of "Uncle Tom" and the "house nigger" – the black man who speaks for the white man and the slave who is less rebellious because of his privileged position – are the most pervasive collisions of race and class identity. What these basically show is people's interests and identity as a social class invariably trump their interests and identity as a race. Another notable example, also unfortunately from sitcom-land, is Bill Cosby's advice to Black America a few years ago. His comments, basically that poor blacks should be responsible for their own advancement, received a frosty reception. Poor people, for some reason resented being lectured by rich ones. Was it, perhaps, that they were so obtuse that they refused to listen to good advice, even from one of their own? Or was it that Cosby was so unbelievably arrogant to assume that a successful millionaire can speak for the no-prospects poor, simply because he shares their skin colour?

And what of racism? How many of our various prejudices can be traced back to simple economics. The "Jewish question" to start with, revolved heavily around Jews' perceived economic activities. Even recently, Ilan Halimi, a French Jew, was abducted, tortured and killed not because his attackers hated Jews, but because, Jews all being minted, he was a more profitable venture. The triangular trade gave itself legitimacy by arguing that their chattel had no soul, later, the racist myths of the 'noble savage' and the 'White Man’s Burden' justified Europe's rape of its assorted colonies. Today America's Middle-Eastern adventures and Israel's cynical land-grabs are more widely accepted because of our deep-seated and centuries-old distrust of the wily Arab.

However slavery, imperialism and Marx's suggestion of a tool to divide the workers do not explain the economic roots of racial prejudice, but simply point to its handy economic uses. It tells you why the ideas are disseminated, but not why they stick. However, many cases of racism, particularly in the immigrant-baiting West, are mirror images of class-prejudice. The flat cap has become the turban, the overall the sari. We associate immigrants with crime in the same way Victorian industrialists looked down on the "criminal classes", and why not? If, as consistently shown, poverty is directly linked to crime, it is not surprising that as immigrants are pushed further and further to the bottom of the pile, the "criminal classes" of our perceptions become darker and darker. The same can be said for the various ethnic groups in America – CVs bearing black-sounding names are left to one side, not necessarily because of open racism and belief in genetic racial characteristics, but because to be black is assumed to mean to have grown up in typically black poverty and in the culture of poverty associated with it. Having the wrong skin colour can often be as effective as tattooing 'inner city state school' on your forehead.

And even images of wealth can provoke this ethno-snobbery, the Negro as the nouveau riche. Compare these three images and the immediate associations: young black man in a smart suit and tie, young black man in tracksuit, hoodie, trainers and baseball cap, young black man blinged to the eyeballs. The first, an exception, we instinctively think – unfortunate black doctor or entrepreneur who probably can't even drive his hard-earned BMW without getting pulled over, but wholly respectable, and probably sensible enough to listen to Bill Cosby's advice. The other two begin to stimulate our nastier prejudices. The second is a petty criminal, either a victim of or a cancer on society, depending on one's viewpoint. The third is a serious criminal of some sort or another made good. Rich, like us, if not richer, but immoral and, worse still, with deplorable plebeian tastes. Hyacinth Bucket, made dark flesh and dropped a couple of rungs socially and many, many more morally. Of course, whiten the skin of all of them and the judgements do not change, we now simply have a white kid emulating blacks. Skin colour simply intensifies our prejudices.

This charges the immigration debate in Britain. Worries on immigration are understandable, and are by and large non-racial – overpopulation, strain on public services, and the very real problem of a large part of the population who exist outside of the system. The racism that does noticeably permeate the immigration debate, for example when British citizens born and bred are considered immigrants by skin colour, functions as a catalyst and not a cause. People are generally far more worried about the socio-economic effects of immigration that its racial aspect, but that does not mean that racism does not push these worries to the surface. Examine the rhetoric and its overtones, if not always its primary motives, are racial – we are becoming a "third world country", all immigrants are assumed to be Muslim and all but the most fanatical of anti-immigrant ranters admit that the white-skinned Poles are alright and "good workers". Even though Poles fit the basic political and material criteria of economic migrants – speaking a different language, having different customs and, most glaringly obvious of all, coming from a poorer country to a richer one to work – they don't quite look the part enough to get their full share of venom.

Not only do we direct our racism down the social scale, we also blame it on those below us. Partly thanks to the overt 'white trash' identity of skinhead movements and the KKK, racism is still seen as a proletarian quality. The white working class's defenders are quick to point out that their rates of interracial marriage are much higher than their rainbow bourgeois superiors. But this should not be surprising, the middle classes have always gone to great lengths to assert their moral superiority over both the working and upper classes. What is surprising is that both prejudices also mate and have children. We are often, strangely, quicker to believe and be outraged at stories of anti-white racism than anti-black. The myths of British Asian and especially Black American racism are incredibly prevalent, despite those interracial spouses the white working classes are so prone to having to come from somewhere.

On a global scale, the West kicked up far less of a fuss over the long-term, abject poverty of Venezuela's non-white population than it did over Mugabe's disappropriation of White farmers. Ahmadinejad's rhetoric on Israel (now, unlike before World War Two, Jews are generally considered white) is generally considered more dangerous than George Bush's rhetoric on Iran, despite the latter's habit of invading and carpet-bombing the olive-skinned. To claim George Bush's motives are even a little bit racist is, even for many hard-line left-wingers, unthinkable and counter-productive. Even to accuse the BNP of racism can be controversial. Yet the accusations of anti-White and anti-Jewish prejudice can be thrown at Zimbabwe, Iran and "certain communities" in Britain without hesitation. This white persecution complex partly stems from the simplistic logic that the plebs are generally racist, the "ethnics" are generally plebs and therefore the ethnics are all much more racist than we are. Bloody ethnics. But it also has a more direct, material cause: few would disagree that there is far more global power concentrated in white hands than in non-white hands. The powerful, having access to more and better means of broadcasting and publication, can shout much louder when they feel hard done by. Therefore we get a disproportionately large picture of anti-White racism than we do of pro-White racism, which further perpetuates the idea of it being more prevalent, which makes it all the easier to believe next time round.

And of course other forms of identity mix in too. In 'One Is Not Born a Woman', Monique Wittig defined gender and sexuality in clear economic term: reproduction is labour, therefore sex and gender are in fact extensions of social class. Sex and sexuality then intermingle with race. From Britain to the Shah's Iran, the upper classes are stereotyped as disproportionately homosexual, and the concept of 'a bit of rough' ascribes hyper-masculinity to working class men. In Iran this perceived gayness mixed with links to the sexually deviant West, in the West, the hyper-masculinity ascribed to the working classes mixes freely with that always ascribed to the phenomenally well-hung, violent, womanising Negro, especially whenever there is a hip-hop record to be sold. With race, how often is skin colour, either in fear and hatred, in solidarity or in prejudiced admiration, simply another way of perceiving social status?