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Johann Hari: Jaded contempt for the working class

By any tangible measure, the white working class is the least racist part of British society

Monday 22 January 2007 01:00 GMT

With the silent, echoing eviction of Jade Goody from the Celebrity Big Brother asylum, the British people have shown that we know how to deal with racism - and that we have no idea how to deal with a parallel bigotry: our deep, and deepening, snobbery.

The headline in one right-wing newspaper summarises how the row between Jade and Shilpa Shetty in the Big Brother asylum has been debated: "Class vs Trash". Jade has been held up as the archetype of the white working class, a symbol of all that is wrong with her kind.

Andrew Neil on the BBC said she was only one of "a bunch of Vicky Pollards" and "thick bitches" cluttering our screens, while Richard Littlejohn called her "the high priestess of the slagocracy" and Simon Heffer said Jade's problem was "hating her social superiors". On a BBC phone-in, Jade was called "just another chav, the estates are full of them", a comment that made the host laugh and suggest "hosing them down".

I'm proud that Britain is a country that finds racist abuse despicable. But I'm ashamed we had to fight this prejudice with another prejudice. While we find generalising about Asian and black people loathsome, we have shown we have no compunction about doing the same with the white working class. No - we glory in it.

Base generalisations about the white working class are so frequent that we just don't hear them any more. Words such as "chav" and "pikey" have become mainstream, and Vicky Pollard is waved as a dystopian poster-girl for 21st century Britain. Like Jade with her racism against Shilpa, many people really don't realise they are doing it.

Late last year, Jonathan Ross was interviewing Jamie Oliver on BBC1, and they were discussing "bad parenting" - in particular, mums who smuggled pies to their kids through the school gates so they didn't have to eat polenta. (My indissolubly working-class mum would have joined this Pie Liberation Front, and I'm proud of it.) Ross said: "Well, do you ever think that some people shouldn't be allowed to be parents? Like people from council estates?" The audience cheered.

If Ross had said Asian people shouldn't be allowed to breed, there would - rightly - have been protests outside Broadcasting House and demands he lose his fat fee. But the same slur against the white working class? Nothing. It's normal. We cheer.

In the Five Minute Hate of the past week, nobody has pointed out that in fact, by any tangible measure, the white working class is the least racist part of British society. White working-class women are 12 times more likely to have a baby with a black guy than the rich white women who jeer at their "racism". I'd say having sex with black people is a pretty unequivocal act of anti-racism.

In reality, the Big Brother format has, for seven years, shown the tolerance of the majority of British people when it comes to race or gender. Among the 147 people who have lived in the Big Brother house, racism has never emerged as an issue before: a score of three out of 147 is to the credit of any country. Through the programme, refugees and transsexuals have been made into national icons by us. Gay people have been totally accepted there: Anthony Hutton was famously a sweet, straight, working-class man so totally devoid of homophobia he let a gay contestant, Craig Coates, all-but molest him - and won because of it.

Yet Jade Goody has stabbed a knitting needle into the subconscious of the British people, allowing the last socially acceptable prejudice to ooze out. Ever since she first walked into the Big Brother house four years ago, there has been a national glee at her supposed stupidity that has a hungry, vicious quality. We wanted a Jade. We wanted to be told the "underclass" were uneducated imbeciles who think there is a foreign country called East Angular.

Why is that? I think the cult of Jade Goody is a subtle symptom of our anxiety about becoming a grossly unequal society that is calcifying into economic castes. Go to any place that has massive income inequalities - say, Venezuela, or South Africa, or the Deep South in the United States - and you will find that the rich have convinced themselves that the people born and stuck at the bottom are inherently inferior. It's not good luck that you are rich and they are poor. You are clever, and they are thick.

Jade became a phenomenon at a turning point in Britain's history. From the 1950s to the 1970s, Britain enjoyed a golden age of social mobility, when it became easier than ever before for hard-working poor people to lift themselves into the middle class. But - as the recent LSE study showed - this social mobility stuttered to a halt under Thatcherism. The escalator that carried the poor into the middle class stopped. The LSE evidence shows the new reality: while we boast of our "classlessness", if you are born poor in Britain today, you are almost certain to die poor. If you are born rich, you are almost certain to die rich.

Ordinary people can sense this - and they don't want to believe it. They want to think their higher social status is earned. So they look to Jade, and reassure themselves that Britain is a meritocracy after all. Look at the poor. They are imbeciles!

But slowly it has been becoming clear that Jade is not an imbecile. In fact, she is pretty smart. She turned coming fourth on a reality show into a multimillion pound brand-name business, selling perfume, diet books and memorabilia. The reason she appears stupid at first, as we learned in her brilliant, tender autobiography, is because she didn't go to school. Instead, she stayed at home to look after her disabled, drug-addicted mum, making sure she would dress and cook and not fall over. She was taught how to roll a joint at the age of four. Suddenly the anxiety about meritocracy was back - so we have now seized on Jade's casual racism as a life-raft for our self-esteem. The poor may not be stupid - but they are racist! Sigh. We have earned our superior status after all.

Snobbery is a more toxic force in Britain today than racism. Where I live in east London, there are children - white, black and brown - who don't have a bedroom but instead sleep on the kitchen floor. There are families of six crammed into damp two-bedroom flats, with mildew climbing the walls.

These children will die, on average, six years sooner than the children of the wealthy. The torrent of raw snobbery we have seen over the past week helps make it possible to tolerate this, because it lets us convince ourselves the "stupid", "racist" working class are not like us.

Before we start lecturing Jade Goody on her prejudices, we need Big Brother to play back the tapes of our own Jaded prejudices against the poor, displayed so blatantly over the past week, and ask - did I really say that?

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