books human rights race

White Privilege: the myth of a post-racial society by Kalwant Bhopal

“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.


  1. I saw this quite topical article in The Conversation:

  2. I think the concept of ‘white privilege’ is divisive and wrong. It is divisive in that it’s racist in itself,treating people as nothing more than skin coloured groups. It’s wrong that in the UK working class white people aren’t better off in wealth or opportunity than their BAME peers.

    It’s also a risky path in that it’s terminology is offensive, implying as it does that an unemployed middle aged white person in Nottingham has society designed around them and so they are better off than a 30 year old BAME lawyer in London. This unfair and self interested idea is going to cause resentment and while we are a (neoliberal) democracy you need to be able to count. The UK is going to be majority white for the 21st century so a resentful majority isn’t something I want for Britain. I fear where reaction would lead.

    As to the solutions. While the book doesn’t seem to have many from the points raised its fairly clear they aren’t going to liberal since choice seem ‘neoliberal’. Racially motivated top down restrictive policies really are not going to end well.

    1. I grew up as a white child in Africa, and the idea that white privilege isn’t a real thing is laughable. I was privileged in all sorts of ways, whether I looked for it or not. And yes, it is racist, but it’s the flipside of discrimination – there is a group that is discriminated against, there is a group that is favoured or protected. If we recognise that discrimination occurs, even unwittingly, then we should recognise that there is also privilege. I don’t see why that’s controversial.

      White privilege is much less visible in Britain than in post-colonial 1990s East Africa, but statistically observable in many fields, as the book points out. That’s an injustice, and it’s never acceptable to gloss over it because we’re not affected by it.

      While I’m here, can I suggest you rephrase or clarify this sentence in your comment? “It’s wrong that in the UK working class white people aren’t better off in wealth or opportunity than their BAME peers.”

  3. To clarify the phrase I meant to write ‘Its wrong to suggest that in the UK working class white people are better off in wealth or opportunity than their BAME peers’. The perils of writing on a tablet at 11pm.

    There is always going to be the case that a society that evolved with a fairly homogenous ethnic culture is going to suit those of that culture better than others who don’t have that cultural fit. Japan fits Japanese people better than British immigrants but we wouldn’t talk of ‘Japanese Privilege’. BAME people are a very diverse group. Hindu Indian, Chinese and West African immigrants to the UK do far better than African-Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi migrants and often outstrip white British. Why? That’s hard. If its structural racism why isn’t it holding them back too? It could be cultural, it could be class related. Jumping straight to racism might assuage middle class white guilt but isn’t the full story and as I say has risks. Focusing of race, particularly with the motte and bailey offensive language of ‘White privilege’ is divisive and alienates the vast majority (85% of the UK).

    Famously Hillary Clinton’s campaign website had pages for Blacks, Hispanics, Women, Gay people and many other minorities. It had nothing for white men. So the majority of white men, and those who loved white men, voted for the other guy. That worked out well.

    1. All of that is explored in the book, as the issues are complicated – including the idea of ‘doing far better’. In what exactly? In educational attainment? Places at top universities? Overall career income? Life expectancy? Representation at board level or in politics? All of these show variations, and we should be careful not to generalise.

      There shouldn’t be anything inherently offensive about the language of white privilege. Nobody would argue that whites are privileged in explicitly racist systems such as Apartheid or segregation. It’s only logical that a context of institutional racism would privilege some over others. As the book says, that could be unconscious or inadvertent, so there’s no reason to be defensive and avoid a grown up conversation about it. Why white people find white identity so uncomfortable is a whole literature in itself, but we need to find language for talking about these things if we’re going to address them as a society.

      The book is actually very good, and very detailed, on the interplay of race and class in Britain. It in no way jumps to the conclusion that it’s all about race, and the white working class can be ignored.

      1. I think why white people find white identity, or least talking about it, so uncomfortable is that there is a growing risk that to do so in any terms that don’t denigrate it as racist is to invite a storm of bad faith criticism. You get accused of ‘white fragility’ (another insulting motte and bailey term), to suggest anything positive (and any good faith discussion would include positive as well as negative) in white culture is ‘white supremacist’. Speaking in good faith risks your social position, job or even physical threats.

        If you think I am exaggerating just today the very talented Roger Scruton has been sacked because of a social media storm of bad faith partial quotations where he was accused of ‘using the language of white supremacists’. Not the substance but just the ‘language’. Nigel Biggar has been ostracized by many colleagues and attempts have been made to have him fired for wanting to research both the bad and good of the British Empire. These are just some of those who have suffered. Many others don’t speak out from fear.

        I agree we need to find a language to speak of this but there are many extremists who will use language such as ‘white privilege’ to close down debate and push a extreme position. This it why white privilege is a motte and bailey phrase. Your definition is a reasonable one, the bailey of a castle. But many radicals who want to ‘destroy whiteness’ have this as a wider term that white people must be punished for this ‘privilege’ . This is the indefensible motte that they retreat from when challenged, claiming only to hold the reasonable ‘bailey’ view, moving back to expounding their extremist ideas when free of challenge. Just look at the the Sokal squared hoax papers that were accepted by academics suggesting ‘western astronomy’ be replaced by interpretive dance or white privilege in class rooms should be met with experimental reparations where white students be silenced or have their feet bound.

        This may sound crazy but now in fashionable Democratic Socialist circles in the US they operate the Progressive Stack where straight white people can only speak last.

        So I am not against discussion but I think you will find a good faith one difficult.

  4. I agree, the media and twitter in particular can turn very nasty on this over the tiniest of perceived infractions. And yes, sometimes it can get a bit silly at the liberal fringes. But if we decide that it’s all too contentious and we’re better off not using terms like white privilege, the ground is immediately ceded to the extremes. The injustices persist. White supremacists end up speaking for white people everywhere because everyone else is silent.

    I’d like to think that this book, and this review of it, is an example of reasonable debate on the subject.

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