“In a neoliberal context, policy making has contributed to maintaining the status quo in which a post racial society remains a myth, and covert and overt forms of racism and exclusion continue to operate at all levels in society; in short, white identities are privileged and remain protected at all times.”
That’s the key message from Kalwant Bhopal’s overview of white privilege in Britain, and to a lesser extent America. In neoliberal thinking, society is organised around open markets, and institutions value profit and efficiency. That should in theory be more democratic: everyone has access, free of state control or class and caste restrictions. In reality, those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are consistently disadvantaged – paid less, more likely to be in poverty or substandard housing, at higher risk of being excluded from education and more likely to be prosecuted and sentenced.
The book describes this disadvantage chapter by chapter, looking at schooling and higher education, employment, housing, etc. The inequalities are striking – black university graduates earn 23% less than white graduates, for example. Almost 18% of black people live in overcrowded conditions in Britain, a figure which is just 3.4% among whites.
These are not wholly unfamiliar facts to those who read the news, but Bhopal connects this inequality to neoliberalism in ways I hadn’t considered before. For example, neoliberalism prizes consumer choice, so parents get to choose a local school for their children rather than being assigned one by the local authority. That sounds fair, except that if you’re from a poor background you probably live in a part of town with substandard schools, and fewer resources to move somewhere else. Richer families will have a choice of much better schools, reinforcing life opportunities and privilege for another generation.
This creates “racism without racists”, in that it doesn’t require anyone to purposefully block black and minority ethnic children from a good education, and thus set them back in their careers and average incomes. It’s just baked into the system, and institutional racism is a slippery concept. There’s no-one to point the finger at, and it can look superficially as if there is no racism. Whites don’t realise that they’re in a privileged position, and people who say they’re being discriminated against can be dismissed as troublemakers or attention seekers.
Indeed, the book has some case studies of exactly that, and I found them very helpful. After lots of facts, figures and policies, the case studies ground the book in real life experiences. They bring a change of pace, with ordinary people talking about their lives and how race affects them.
The book is not comprehensive. I was surprised that of the ten chapters there were two on education but no dedicated chapters on policing, prisons or the justice system, nor immigration and citizenship. And most of all, I’d have liked more by way of solutions and responses – in a 200 page book, there are a mere four pages on how we move forwards. For more on that, you’ll have to read elsewhere, but this is a good introduction to the problem of white privilege in Britain.
- is published by Policy Press and is available , and .
- Feature image by