During the seventies and into the eighties, it would fair to describe many residents of Bermondsey, South London, as racist. I have distinct memories of white, working-class locals taking active pride in keeping “them” out of the area. One method, used by some, was for a resident in a flat above a “coloured” household (almost everyone in Bermondsey lived in social housing at the time) to run a pipe through a hole in the floorboards, attach it to a tap and let the water flow. The resulting deluge would render the flat below uninhabitable (this would also be used for other residents that weren’t liked for some reason, or as a result of a personal conflict). This went alongside verbal and physical attacks, and, indeed, the Afro-Caribbean and Asian population of Bermondsey was far lower than neighbouring areas. This was in part down to genuine, brutal, unacceptable, racism, of the vilest kind.
Fast forward to now, and Bermondsey is a very different place. It’s proximity to central London and the Canary Wharf financial district accelerated gentrification, and it now has a very different feel. Whilst the sprawling social housing estates are still there, there are now interspersed with newer and much more expensive private developments. So it’s now partly populated with the kind of urbane, well-qualified, quasi-lefties that have now occupied cities across the developed World. Recently I was exchanging messages with an old friend. She said, and I quote:
“Personally, as a white woman, I’m constantly challenged to reassess my own subconscious racist beliefs (the first step for me a while back was to accept that just because I don’t consciously think of POC as inferior doesn’t mean I don’t hold subconscious prejudice)”
That is quite a difference. Whilst my friend is not from Bermondsey, she has lived there, or nearby, for some time. She is also, and there is no other way of saying this, from a very different class.
So why does this contrast exist? Why is it that people in the same space, separated by time and class, can hold such radically different views?
To understand this I think we need to understand the history behind this small area of London, and so, by association, many similar areas around the World.
Bermondsey started out as farmland, just beyond the city limits of London. As Britain’s power and wealth grew in the 18th and 19th centuries, so did the need to expand its dock capacity, as shipping was the lifeblood of empire. The logical expansion was east, along both sides of the river Thames, areas which then attracted industry and extensive railway infrastructure. As these developments grew, they attracted labour, with people migrating in from the English countryside and famine-struck Ireland. As is often the case with migrants, and difficult for us wealthy moderns to comprehend, many of these people were fleeing terrible situations to arrive at almost equally terrible situations, but with just a small dash of hope. Even if that was a hope of mere survival. Certainly, the life of a 19th London docker was almost unimaginably tough, by any standards. A report during the 1889 dock workers strike described their plight:
“The poor fellows are miserably clad, scarcely with a boot on their foot, in a most miserable state …
These are men who come to work in our docks who come on without having a bit of food in their stomachs, perhaps since the previous day; they have worked for an hour and have earned 5d. [2 pennies]; their hunger will not allow them to continue: they take the 5d. in order that they may get food, perhaps the first food they have had for twenty-four hours.’”
And remember they were doing back-breaking, physical work, manhandling heavy cargos out of the dark, fetid, holds of ships.
This is where this historical story starts to intersect with my own. My dad was a pastor of a “Medical Mission”. These were set up in the Victorian era by what was to become the Shaftsbury Society (Google “7th Earl of Shaftsbury” to read about a true hero for social justice). Before state healthcare, these were permanent charitable “missions” that sought to provide for both the spiritual and medical needs of the urban poor. Before that, and in same multi-annexed building in which I grew up, the mission was a “Ragged School”; a charity funded school from before the time of state education. It is eye-opening to read some of the colourful descriptions from that time. The children are described along the lines “like Arabs [Arabs before oil money, clearly], beggars, dirty and in rags, without shoes on their feet”. As surprising as the content is the tone; this is someone describing a foreign land, and a foreign people. Even though the writer likely came from just a few miles away in the Home Counties, they were clearly describing an environment that was alien to both themselves and their audience, even to the extent of using racial analogies.
As late as the nineteen-twenties my grandfather remembered seeing hordes of barefooted children, but it seems that the missions, better housing, and the coming of state education began to have an effect; it appears life in the East End of London did improve somewhat during the 20th century. But it still wasn’t easy. The back-breaking nature of dock and factory work hadn’t changed. And even if wages rose, the possibilities of buying property or a car were unimaginable. The height of material success in the twenties was a simple gas cooker. London’s appalling air pollution hardly helped (you can still find older Britons who refer to London as “The Smoke”). The combination of naturally humid air, mist from the Thames, and coal smoke billowing from every chimney led to the first use of the word “smog” (the combination of smoke and fog). It can only be imagined how many cumulative years of life were lost to this toxic air.
It appears that the Great Depression didn’t hit London quite as hard as some other places, but for the working class of Bermondsey it was yet another thing that made a hard life harder. Yet it does seem that by the late thirties, life in the area was better, at least more survivable, than in generations before.
Then came the war. And then came the Luftwaffe.
Have you ever seen a single 250kg (551lbs) bomb explode, in real life? I have; even from a safe distance, the blast shakes your bones, the sound pressure makes your ears pop, lethal debris is thrown across a large area. Obviously, anything nearby, any building, any person, will be destroyed. Now imagine trying to sleep, knowing that one of those bombs may fall nearby. Or on the shelter where you slept. Imagine that going on all night, with thousands of impacts, and every night for a week. Then imagine waking up the next morning, and picking your way through the rubble to do 13 hours of hard, physical work, on a belly aching for more food. And imagine that routine being more or less constant for more than 8 months, and then sporadically after that. If you can imagine all that, then you can imagine living through The Blitz in London. And it was East London, areas with the docks, factories, and railheads, that were the prime target for the Germans, so Bermondsey and areas like it took the brunt.
It was only during the post-war period that life in Bermondsey really began to move away from the Hobbesian “nasty, brutal, and short”, and even then life was fraught, as it still is for many. Life has been difficult for so much of humanity, both historically and now. It is actually unusual to have a life that is free of regular mortal risk, hunger, untreatable sickness, and pain.
But let us jump out of this story to do something important; let’s talk about you. Here is a question for you: what is your recognition structure? Are you, for example, a university graduate? If so, you have walked up to accept your diploma, in front of your peers, your family, and friends. That is very affirming on its own, but you also have something recognised around the World. If you have a degree from a recognised school, as most in North America and Western Europe schools are, it will be acknowledged from Sapparo to San Jose. This a key part of your recognition structure. What is more, you’ve probably had choice in life, and those choices are not dictated by needing to avoid hunger and untreatable disease. You’ve probably always had access to vehicles and mobility, affordable electrical power, telephones, television, and now the internet. You therefore have unlimited access to information, have the literacy to exploit it, and have had it for a while. You are highly literate and numerate, and you will expect that everyone you meet is much the same as you. That mutual expectation is part of your recognition structure. What is more, your parents and the rest of your household have probably had the same recognition structure. Your recognition structure is global, and you are enculturated into such a structure, to the extent that you don’t know much else.
What if none of those things were true for you? Would you still need a recognition structure? Would you find one elsewhere? Or would one find you? When you have no access to communications technology, no mobility (physical or social), little money, no assets, and no institutional affirmation, who are your peers? Where does your recognition come from? Well, from the only place possible; from those in the immediate neighbourhood. This is how cultures and communities are formed, and the longer those factors exist, rolling crossing the generations, then the stronger that culture becomes.
For the people of Bermondsey, their status in society strongly reinforced this view. Even in the eighties, I was told that putting an SE1 or SE16 postcode on a job application would count against me. Others would get work, but then be told they would have to move home if they wanted promotion. Even in 2013, a survey revealed that people still didn’t trust those who spoke with an inner London accent.
It’s undeniable that crime levels in Bermondsey were high, and had been high throughout its history. Tough lives breed tough people, and there was little chance that men like dockers wouldn’t drink like hell and fight like hell. Generations of poverty were always going to breed a criminal class. So a degenerative feedback loop develops; the culture that events have created, becomes the culture that turns outsiders against you, leading you to rely more heavily on that culture for recognition. One of the pillars of Bermondsey culture has been, since 1910, Millwall Football Club. Their unofficial fan motto summed up the spirit of the area:
“No one likes us, and we don’t care!”
This is defiance in the face of marginalisation.
But we are certainly not talking about some idyllic, kibbutz-like, pleasant community, of the type imagined by socialists. When I was growing up there was an almost weekly act of drama in the square where we lived, be it a noisy domestic, a fight, or a fire. But then there were selfless and heroic acts as well. I have distinct memories of the occasion when a women, who was black if I remember rightly, ran out onto the communal landing after catching herself on fire in the kitchen. A neighbour, a white guy, beat the flames out with his bare hands, getting severe burns himself in the process. He seemed to think his own injuries were funny, laughing as he showed his blistered and peeling palms.
But it wasn’t that it was the best community in World, but it was all that Bermondsey people had, and what their parents and their grandparents had, so they would defend it fiercely, and identify with it. The upper middle class, of which the modern commentariat largely consists, have historically made an error in their thinking about the working class; they seem to think the working class are like them, a homogenous block. But the recognition structure for the upper middles is global, but in these working-class communities it’s very local. Bermondsey is just two miles across, but a “Bermondsey Boy” is, or at least was, an identity, even an aspiration. I believe that such communities were, or are, for all their flaws, a genuine and distinct good for the people within them. A lot of policy decisions since the war, from both left and right, have failed to acknowledge and support this good. Without understanding this, it is impossible to understand people from these roots. When I was growing up, the culture of Bermondsey was, to an extent, breaking up. The combination of industrial decline and urban decay (find “Ghost Town” by The Specials on youtube), and new economic opportunities in the service sector, meant Bermondsey people had new incentives and opportunities to leave the area.
But that is all a bit academic, let’s put some flesh on those bones, let’s meet a Bermondsey Boy from the nineteen eighties.
We will call him John, and we’ll describe him as he would describe himself. John is in his mid-twenties. His dad had a job at the railway yard and John would’ve followed in his steps, but the yard has now closed, so he works for an electrical wholesaler. He did some boxing when he was at school but wasn’t good enough to go professional. But he does ok for cash; his boss lets him work extra hours, and he does a bit of trading on the side, if you know what I mean *wink wink*. John has got a bit of form (a criminal record), but nothing serious. He is trying to stay straight, but when he’s out with his mates they can get a bit large (rowdy, aggressive), and anything can happen. He can hold his drink, but after 9 pints, who knows what can happen? In the pub, or just about anywhere really, he carries himself well; he holds the swaggering stance of someone who can look after himself and wants you to know it. He has a pint glass in his hand, a cheeky look in his eyes, and the next wisecrack is on the tip of his tongue. Just because he works with his hands, that doesn’t mean he can’t brush up well. The designer jeans are matched with a perfectly pressed shirt, and he looks the bees when he goes out. No point dressing well if you don’t have a decent motor (car). So he drives something flash, but old enough to be cheap, a Rover V8 or a big Ford (with the Ghia trim, and the largest engine). John writes “Church of England” on application forms, but only really goes to Church for the occasional weddings and, more frequently, funerals. And once a year for Christmas, when his mum drags him to a carol service, where he sits uncomfortably at the back, not unlike a man expecting to be hit by lightning. His devotion to Millwall Football Club is far less abashed. The last trip “up west” (West End of London) with his mates involved an encounter with some Chelsea supporters. The resulting confrontation resulted in a trip to hospital and twelve stitches, but you should have seen the state of the other bloke… His mum put him on the housing list when he was sixteen, so he’s now got his “own” flat on the Tabarb Estate (a social housing project). But he can park there without fear; the kids won’t touch his motor, because they know he is mates with some “tasty geezers” (gangsters). John probably has kids, but he doesn’t know how many. His current bird (girlfriend), Sharon, has kind of hooked him, and they will probably settle down together. He might get promoted to supervisor, or do his courses and become a ‘sparky’ (electrician). In which case he and Sharon might move out to the suburbs and buy a place. But since his dad died of lung cancer a few years ago, he needs to be around to look out for his mum, who also lives on the Tabard. Like his dad, when he was alive, she has never had a driving license, or a passport, and doesn’t know much else apart from South London. But she’s proud, and “won’t take no shit off no one”. She gives John a good tongue-lashing on a regular basis, but she’s his mum, and if anyone touches her there will be hell to pay.
Now, I know that there will be people from other working-class communities who will get riled-up as they read this. They will tell me that John isn’t special, isn’t so tough. They will want me to know that the “Johns” from their communities in Liverpool, Manchester, Boston, Fairview, Quebec City, Sydney, and so on ad infinitum, are just as tough, or tougher than Bermondsey Boys. I won’t argue these claims, because Bermondsey people are clearly better and tougher than anyone. But, and joking aside, this is one of my main points. People like this have intensely local identities. There is a lot of talk about “white nationalists”, but that isn’t these people’s principle identity. They are not primarily “nationalists”, they are “localists”. Indeed, the people of Bermondsey treated the institutions of the United Kingdom as “other”. Local and national governments, the police (for obvious reasons), and outsiders of any kind (especially if the outsiders were “Posh”, i.e. middle class), would all be seen as threats. Threats to what? Threats to the one solid good that they had; their local recognition structure, their community. And it appears this is true in thousands of communities across the World. It is only really the people who Jonathon Haidt describes as WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic), who sit outside these localist structures. By constantly labelling localists as “white nationalists”, and setting themselves against them, parts of this elite are actually creating the “Nationalists” they fear. Indeed, they are creating “internationalists” as well; across the English-speaking World people from different communities are connecting with like-minded localists. They are finding common cause as they face a common enemy. At a national level, this could allow political opportunists to flourish. I’ve always maintained that American progressives should count themselves lucky they’ve only had Donald Trump. It’s a lucky escape that he is not an ideologue.
Now, I also know there is another question hanging in the minds of some, a question that is oddly unnuanced, but appears to have become the question around which all society revolves; was John a racist?
The simple answer is yes. Yes, most likely someone like John would tell you he didn’t want black people around. His mum would be most likely even more resentful to having a black family move in next door.
But this isn’t the full story. People in Bermondsey were hostile to ANY outsiders. Whilst there were some lovely people in Bermondsey, wonderful when you considered the suffering they had endured, there were others who went out of their way to make life hard for outsiders. I know this for a fact, because my family were outsiders, and received all sorts of trouble because of it. The sides of our home and my dad’s van were often pelted with eggs or stones. My mum would often be cold-shouldered in the street, and be given pointedly poor service in stores. Us kids were constantly bullied in school. The only black boy in my class actually had a better time of it than me. He was an outsider because his race, but at least he wasn’t seen as being from the oppressor class.
Would John and his mum still be racist? That is more important, seeing as we don’t live in the past. Well, things become ingrained, especially over generations. But I believe most working-class people have taken great strides in dealing with their racism. The anti-racism message has been exceptionally well broadcast, and most people want to do the right thing. And if some have an internal struggle with it, then we can at least celebrate the battle is largely won.
Let me illustrate that point with an anecdote: Recently I was standing in a transport yard in the East End of London. I was with another truck driver, a senior driver’s rep, and we are watching a rookie driver trying to practice reversing. I say “trying” because, even under supervision, he was making an utter hash of it. And this rookie so happened to be black. As we were discussing this, this other chap, about 60 years old and local by his accent, says to me “I don’t want to sound racist, but…” (this what people say when they’re about to say something racist) “I don’t think black blokes can drive as well”
But then, without prompt or hesitation, he says “but then my mate Frank, he’s black, and he drives that”, gesturing towards an equally large truck, “and he’s one of the best drivers on the fleet”. Should this man have this internal belief about black drivers? No, he shouldn’t. Does he know he shouldn’t? Yes, he does. Is he dealing with it? Yes he is. Will the lives of black people around him be harmed? No they won’t. If anything, when this man gives black job candidates a driving assessment (one of his roles), he would be more deliberately fair and gracious. This would be like how a recovering alcoholic is much more likely to be sober than you.
All of this, the historic localism of working-class communities, the generations of deprivation and subjugation experienced by such communities, and their efforts and successes in embracing anti-racism, these all make a mockery of current views of race relations. The zeitgeist of this is that injustices rendered unto someone’s bloodline, should be compensated in the present. And the means we must use to decide who should compensate whom is the melanin content of people’s skin.
Take Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility”. For starters, it has no bearing on race relations in the UK and Europe, which have quite different racial histories compared to the US. But even in the US context it is ridiculous. The book liberally uses the phrase “white people”, but at no point does this actually mean all white people. Instead, she is clearly only talking to WEIRD upper middle-class people. She talks about “white solidarity” and “a shared culture”, where most white communities see anything but solidarity and common culture. She talks about how being “white” means “I belong in these settings”, when she is in the company of the powerful and educated. For most “white people” this is simply not true. People like John the Bermondsey Boy would feel much less uncomfortable in a black Pentecostal Church than he would at a meeting with Harvard alums. We all know this is true, don’t we? This is obvious, isn’t it? There aren’t Appalachian coal miners mixing freely at Greenwich Village dinner parties, are there…? DiAngelo goes on to say, “racial bias is largely unconscious”. Is it really? For the man in the East London transport yard it is the bias he is most conscious of, and the one he is most invested in dealing with. On the other hand, it appears that the WEIRD crowd do indeed have extensive unconscious biases, which they are not dealing with. Mention Trump or Brexit supporters, and watch their subconscious rise to the surface. And DiAngelo explicitly acknowledges these biases. In chapter 5 of her book, she describes, in detail, the typical perceptions of her group:
“In other words, racists were mean, ignorant, old, uneducated, southern whites. Nice people, well intended people, open minded middle-class people raised in the enlightened north, could not be racists.”
So here we see that old, uneducated (one wonders how that is defined…), lower-class, “whites”, from the South, are explicitly associated with “meanness”, ignorance, and racism. And middle-class, educated northerners are associated with niceness, open-mindedness (oh, the irony…), and enlightenment.
Yet DiAngelo’s takeaway from this isn’t that these middle-class, northern, enlightened ones should address their biases about those in the South, but it’s that they should examine themselves for the last vestiges of “racism”. She is asking people to deal with the specks in their own eyes, whilst ignoring the logs in their own eyes.
Blindness to working class communities continues throughout the book. At one point she says “white people do not exist outside the system of white supremacy”. But so many “white people”, throughout history, have not only not been supreme over others, but they themselves have been crushed by those who were supreme over them. Surely she’s familiar with Dickens? Or Orwell? Or Karl Marx? The whole basis of Marxism flowed from the exploitation of a large number of whites by a small number of whites. On page after page of Kapital he documents the privations of the British working-class. He details how harsh work environments generate congenital defects that are passed on to successive generations. Far from emphasising the effects of exploitation on one race, he says “Being an economic category, slavery has existed in all nations since the beginning of the world.” How the hell are we going to arrange the reparations for all that?
Truth is, we can’t. There is no possibility of auditing our position in life according to the disadvantages of our forebears, there is no way of doing this accurately or justly. All we can hope to do is ensure that we treat people well as we find them, and give them recognition as compatriots and human beings. It’s ironic that the woke left fail to do this with such a large swarth of the population.
John the Bermondsey Boy did eventually move out of the inner-city. He did complete his courses, became a Sparky, and moved to town in Essex. He got a house, paid his taxes, had kids, and, without becoming in any way rich, managed to have many of the things his parents could only dream of. More importantly, he came to feel more recognised as a Briton, not just a boy from Bermondsey.
But then, later in life, the snobbery he felt as a young man slowly began to return, just in a different form. He had learnt to welcome the newcomers to Britain, to treat them as equals and friends. But that was rewarded by the country opening the floodgates, bringing people from every point of the globe. The Great Britain that he had worked so hard to be part of was changing rapidly, and without the consent of anyone he knew. He had never been particularly religious, but why was a religion that was so very alien to British life being given so much support and leeway? It was almost as if the powers-that-be were poking him with a stick “go on, be racist again! Sin, so that we may judge you!” Everything he did began to be wrong. People who flew in private jets were telling him to “lower his carbon footprint”, and taxing his failure to do so. The car he drove was wrong, his holidays suspect, there were even people who scorned the meat he put his table.
In short, it felt like the ruling classes had come to resent that they had ever given John recognition as an equal, and were now looking to find new ways of judging him inferior. He had done everything that was required: worked hard, built a family, contributed to society. But that wasn’t enough.
And the worst thing he could do was say anything. He had a vote, for sure, but there was no political option that recognised his plight. Then, almost by accident, there came an opportunity to vote the way he felt (the same thing was happening in the United States, in a different form). So he did, and, you know what, it won! So maybe democracy did work well for John, maybe recognition would be returned to him.
No. The ruling class fought to have it overturned, fought like people possessed by something, fought tooth and nail. Those with great power fought with all their might against those with very little power, they fought against John.
So this is where people like John find themselves. For a brief few decades, he was allowed to have a modicum recognition. But now the snobs have returned with a vengeance, and appear to want pay back for that time where we were all a little more equal.