White alienation may bring us darker days

16th February 2007 at 00:00
It should be no surprise that, as recent TES reports suggest, the attainments of ethnic-minority children are catching up or exceeding those of indigenous children. We know parental ambition influences a child's success. Migrant families are, by definition, aspirational. They have uprooted and travelled many miles to find a better life, so they must be people of courage and vision.

Lacking social and economic contacts in their new country, they knew qualifications were vital to their children's success. Only barriers of discrimination could prevent them achieving highly. Those barriers seem to be weakening, though it is still unclear whether academic success delivers a corresponding career success to the ethnic minorities. Perhaps all those anti-racist and multicultural initiatives in schools had something to be said for them after all.

The plight of poor white children is a different matter, however. Their test results are beginning to lag badly behind everybody else's. There are disturbing similarities with poor American blacks, who have seen successive immigrant groups (including black Caribbeans and Africans) overtake them, leaving them still at the bottom of the social ladder. Note that the father of Barack Obama, tipped to become the first black US President, was a Kenyan goatherd, not a black American cotton worker.

No liberal politician or journalist likes discussing this subject. To suggest white working-class families lack aspiration sounds patronising; to suggest ethnic minorities have benefited from more resources risks sounding like the British National Party. But the truth has to be faced. Migrant families experience poverty, discrimination and disappointed expectations.

For most, however, life is better than it was for previous generations.

Older family members can recall the struggle to eke out a living in Bangladesh or Jamaica, or to establish themselves in a Britain that was more hostile than it is now. They feel they are on an upward curve. That is not so for the white working classes. Their economic circumstances may be similar, but their trajectory is in the opposite direction. The industries in which their forebears worked - mining, printing, steel-making - have declined, and skills that were once highly prized are now worthless. Their culture has been all but destroyed and their trade unions have been de-fanged.

A certain strand in the white working class always rejected social climbing, preferring the values of family, comradeship, neighbourhood.

Anyone who opts for such a lifestyle now is seen as a failure. From school onwards, we measure success on a single dimension. Alienated Muslim youth - and the ethnic minorities - still have their own problems, but can fall back on devout religious faith. Alienated white youth doesn't have that.

Given the sometimes catastrophic results of the former, perhaps we should be glad. But if we continue to ignore the deteriorating position of poor whites, we may reap another, more terrible, whirlwind.

Jobs for the boys: Research, page 30

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