Race and the Undeserving Poor: Response

This is my response to the commentaries graciously provided by Sara Salem, Naeem Inayatullah, Luke De Noronha, Rick Saull, and Lisa Tilley, who also organized the forum.

Sara’s contribution geographically extended my focus on British empire to an engagement with Dutch empire. I found it especially telling that her thoughts on the white-middle-class as the postcolonial container of the national subject implicated white degeneracy in the preservation of empire. My friend, artist Denise LeDeatte, wrote in her art-piece African Violet that the Achilles heel of white supremacy has always been white poverty. I find this observation even more telling after reading Sara’s exacting intervention. I wonder if it’s possible to develop a critique of white poverty that speaks across the diversity of European empires and their postcolonial legacies.

Naeem directed our attention towards the relationship (or not) between hierarchies of race and hierarchies of meritocracy. Naeem and David Blaney’s work on postcolonial political economy has been extremely important to me. What I am always struck by is their commitment to take the claims and logics of late eighteenth century moral philosophy deadly seriously in the formation of political economy critique. This commitment underwrites Naeem’s comments on my book. I think he is implicitly asking: where does it leave us, intellectually and politically, if it is indeed the case that race so exhaustively frames the most influential modern calculus of ethical concern? I provide a partial answer below.

Luke applied the deserving/undeserving distinction to mobility and settlement. I find his intervention arresting. Chapter four of my book focuses on post-war commonwealth migration and the problem, as e.g. Enoch Powell saw it, of settlement. Luke reminds us that the status of being “settled” is always dependent upon others having the status of “immigrant”. The history of settlement is never settled; deserving/undeserving distinctions are continually made through immigrant/settled dyads as much as – or, in intersection with – Black/white divides. Luke’s comments demonstrate the need to develop more capacious understandings of the ways in which sedimented demographics now (always did) structure the distinction between deserving and undeserving poor.

Rick drew attention to genealogies and trajectories of working class resistance against empire and racism. His critique focuses upon the need to account for the contradictions of working class agency when addressing the relationship between neoliberalism and far right forces. I’ll engage in more detail with Rick’s challenge below; but right now, I will just say that, to my mind, the urgency of his critique necessarily grates against the task of accumulating historical evidence, which is a core aim of my book. I can defend the reasons for writing the book as I did, but I can’t deny that his commentary is right to argue that the place in which my argument finishes injects an uncertainty into political action.

Lisa’s contribution is a beautifully understated yet profound critique of white feminism’s complicity in empire. I say understated because the level of her argument requires no grand protagonists to clarify the stakes at play. It is the “ordinary”, the “working class” woman who must – for right or wrong – comply or rebel against the preservation of imperial rule and its attendant racisms.  I think that, when it comes to intellectual work, it is this pitch of register and argument that will tilt the balance in the coming years rather than the high abstract, grand figure-style writing that comes more comfortably to the political economist’s pen. I do wonder where my book falls on this continuum.

All of these commentaries stand on their own as edifying contributions. All raise further questions about the contemporary articulation of race, class, gender and nation – at least as it pertains to Britain/Europe.  But I want to respond to three particular provocations.


Naeem, you ask me whether the logic of meritocratic hierarchies might be distinct to the logic of racial hierarchies. When I read your commentary, I was immediately convinced that no, these are not categorically different logics, or at least, they are both entangled in the same process of discernment. But I had to work hard to organize my thoughts as to why. I think this is because your commentary has forced me to clarify a consequence of the book’s argument that is so far somewhat submerged.

First, what I didn’t have so much difficulty over: you ask why I have only one sentence calling for the destruction of the categorical distinction between deserving and undeserving poor. My answer is that I was mostly concerned with the lack of historical consciousness regarding this distinction and its racialization.

One example, from the book. In 1948, the British National Assistance Act formally dispensed with the deserving/undeserving distinction as a criterion of conditionality for poor relief and what we would nowadays call welfare and social security. It would be trite not to admit that this was a significant advance on prior paternalistic moralities. Yet the deserving/undeserving distinction did continue to structure life chances informally, albeit structurally, and predominantly via its re-racialization as the deserving white worker vs undeserving (Commonwealth) Black and Asian worker. This racialization of the deserving working class as white allowed for Enoch Powell and then Margaret Thatcher to develop a populist nationalism that embedded social conservatism as the publicly-accepted moral calculus of neoliberalism. Despite their affirmation of “equality of opportunity” New Labour activated this calculus in social policy far more intensely than the Conservatives through the re-introduction of welfare conditionality via “workfare”.

In the book I wanted to make clear that the stickiness of the deserving/underserving distinction is due to its various and continual racialization. Without this historical consciousness of social conservatism’s racialization, any call for the abandonment of such cruel and despotic conditionality would be – and will be – self-defeating at best. Currently, the political lexicon deployed by much (but not all) of the organized left tends to normalize a distinction between, on the one hand, an indigenous working class left behind by neoliberalism and deserving of security and welfare and, on the other hand, migrants, refugees, Muslims, Black peoples, disabled, and inner-city youths. As if migrants, refugees, Muslims, Black peoples, disabled, and inner-city youths cannot also be – and disproportionately are – working class.

The contemporary distinction made on the right and even the left between a deserving indigenous – i.e. white – working class and undeserving aliens and malignant others points me towards the relationship between racial and meritocratic hierarchies.  How is a subject that is classified as outside, as categorically opposed, as degenerate, granted a waiver for entry and on what conditions? How, for instance, are Black peoples allowed to live “as if” they were ordinary citizens, even just for a while? I want to propose – and this is the under-stated argument of the book that I mentioned above – that the waiver to be treated as if one is an ordinary citizen is a logic of white abolition. To put it more provocatively, meritocracy, as we know it now in (post)multicultural and culture-war times, has a genealogy spun out of early 19th century white abolition.

Let me tease out one strand of my argument concerning slavery and abolition. For white abolitionists, the enslaved African took on all the characteristics of an anthropos – a human possessing no competence to be properly human. Specifically – and I suspect that here white abolitionism gives the anthropos a distinctive late 18th century twist – the abolitionist bemoaned the condition of slavery in so far as it made the “slave” idle, dependent, licentious, and, above all, unable to govern himself as a free(d) labourer in an orderly fashion.

After legal abolition – and then emancipation – white abolitionism morphed into a humanitarianism that sought to induct the freed slave (the anthropos) into the communion of humanly competent humans (humanitas). With this incorporation, the freed Blacks would be able to learn the lessons of orderly independence from white Christian families. Yet white abolitionism was always an experiment in incorporation, and white abolitionists knew it. For example, white abolitionists looked to post-revolution Haiti to confirm or refute the possibility that Black slaves could indeed learn the first lesson of free(d) labour: orderly independence.

The results were inconclusive. The experiment continued, forever. And in this way, humanitarianism always cast an uncertainty on the incorporation of the anthropos into humanitas: the Black-human had to endlessly struggle against his base instincts, which the civitas might tame but never remove. The slightest sign of disagreement or resistance – signs of independence, no doubt, but of the disorderly kind – was proof that dehumanizing blackness could never quite be removed from the heart of the newly inducted Black-human. (In the book I spend some time showing how the Morant Bay uprising of 1865 in Jamaica broke this humanitarian experiment in British empire).

I’m suggesting – and I’ll need to do a lot more work on this in the future – that social conservatism is congenitally racialized, and that its genealogy, far deeper than neoliberalism, returns us to white abolition.

So, let me describe the logic of this racialized social conservatism. In order to be considered amenable to a meritocratic calculus, one has first to be considered competent enough to be human – that is, to understand that the pursuit of self-governance must proceed in an orderly fashion. In this respect it’s important to note that the actual calculus of meritocracy is congenitally unclear, incorporating behaviour, ability, education and effort. Historically, the clarity of the calculus has suffered from its imbrication in eugenicist concerns over family breeding. As I show in my book, even “liberals” such as William Beveridge and T.H. Marshall were eugenicists.

What’s more, under-girding any meritocratic calculus is the assumption that one possesses a desire for the pursuit of orderly achievement. This is the quality that makes a human humanly competent to participate in the first place. These days, we label this desire “aspiration”. But that is not how Walter Bagehot labelled it. Bagehot, the famous 19th century editor-in-chief of the Economist who introduced biological claims into political economy, was convinced that the formation of moral habits was itself an original act of will power that, in physically shaping the brain, provided a heredity to white races absent from contemporaneous “savages”.

I’m suggesting that, from the perspective of the anthropos, the meritocratic calculus of liberal lore (especially “equality of opportunity”) is not distinct from but nested within the racialized calculus of human competencies. This is why those who are conditionally incorporated into a meritocratic system of governance on account of their racialized humanity are the first to be given-up-on, cast out, disavowed etc. I would also argue (and this is the subject matter of chapter 5 of my book) that these disavowals historically herald a recusal of sympathy towards the poor siblings of white humanitas who have apparently demonstrated a collapse of will power and desire to aspire such that sanction – and social quarantine – is the only answer to the degeneration of the civitas.

In all these respects, Naeem, I have a strong suspicion that racial and meritocratic hierarchies are nested, imbricated, entangled etc, rather than distinctive and autonomous. When it comes to issues of political economy, I would place the logics of liberalism at almost all times within the social conservatism of white abolition.


Lisa, I want to turn to your footnote concerning the politics of citation. The reason I’m focusing on the footnote alone is that this issue has come up before in commentaries on my work, albeit not directly with regards to citation practices.

As you know, I have an intellectual and political commitment to retrieving the relationality between knowledge traditions that colonial lore has presented as disparate and provincial. This commitment is entangled with another: exposing and rectifying the exclusions and hierarchies that affect some knowledge traditions more than others, even within the already marginalized.

In the forum on my last book, The Black Pacific, Ponipate Rokolekutu challenged me to account for my relative neglect of the blackness lived by “Melanesian” peoples rather than “Polynesian”. To those unfamiliar with the colonial mapping of Oceania, the latter, in the colonial schema of colour, are considered lighter, less “negroid” and more amenable to civilizing influences than the former. My response to Ponipate was to acknowledge the efficacy of his critique and at the same time to argue that the global hierarchy of colour had little tangible benefit to so-called “Polynesian” peoples living in Aotearoa New Zealand and suffering from racism and inequitable colonial logics in that locale.

To put the point across, I made a comparison: to claim that African American thought and politics tends to marginalize other Black thought and politics on a global level in no way need infer that such dominance meaningfully and structurally benefits African Americans within the USA. I made this argument even as my book, The Black Pacific, demonstrated the significant influence of African American thought and politics on Black thought and politics in Aotearoa NZ and Oceania more broadly.

Well, here I am again. Lisa, you challenge me to engage with “intellectual sisters”, e.g., Angela Davis, Hortense Spillers, already working for a long time at the intersections that my book is invested in. I want to point out that these figures are known predominantly through the American academy, and they by and large expose and analyse a North American problematique of gender and race.  They are well known to scholars and students of gender and race in the British academy. In my experience, they are valorised far more than Black women intellectuals whose (cognate) work arises out of and responds to Britain’s imperial past and its Commonwealth legacies.

Lisa, I think I do engage with my intellectual sisters, but with those less-valorised ones, working through and on these British pasts and legacies. The argument of my book cites – and in crucial parts is dependent upon – the work of these intellectuals, especially Joan French, Amina Mama and Denise Noble. I engaged with these Black women intellectuals a) because their work is more salient and instructive to the context of British empire, and b) because the general salience of their work is often shaded by those from the North American context whose work is usually presumed to be without question of general salience.


In this respect, my citational politics comes out of a longer learning journey I have made, especially with the work of Jamaican novelist and social theorist Erna Brodber. My commitments derive from my own upbringing in 70s and 80s England. My family does not have Caribbean genealogy; it was, though, only the Caribbean tradition that saved me and taught me that my blackness was not a stain on humanity but a light of the world.

In making clear my position, I don’t mean to artificially manufacture intellectual “camps” amongst already marginalized scholars, and pit ones against ones. I don’t think that anyone whose work I have cited would support that kind of politics. Neither do I want to deny the strong resonances across the works of all critical Black women intellectuals. “My tipuna (ancestors) taught me to whakapapa (relate) to the world”, as one of my Māori sister intellectuals taught me.

Yet that world is knotty. My sense of relating is about finding out how we are already related, explaining and confronting those practices and ideas that disavow such relations, and pursuing an ethics that figures out how we want to or should be re-relating right now. Therefore, here’s the difficulty: commitment and accountability to distinctive constituencies (intellectual, heredity, political, spiritual etc) is part of relation; and retrieving distinctiveness (some call it self-determination) and relating to the world (some call it solidarity) are not sequential pursuits, nor hierarchical principles – they all happen at once, necessarily. A constantly woven pattern.

Lisa, I’m aware that I’m using a trope of deflection: “yes, but..”; I’m trying but not quite succeeding to present the argument as “yes, and..”. Your comments are making me reflect on my citation strategies. I wonder if I could find a better way of writing the ethos of relation that I am invested in.


Rick, you claim that my argument lends itself to a homogenization or essentialization of the English (white) working class. It could be read like that, I admit. But I am also clear at the beginning of the book that this is a story about political domination and elite manufacture. There is only one part in Race and the Undeserving Poor (in chapter 6) where I directly make claims on working class sensibilities and subjectivities – and that is via a very cautious and limited use of recent ethnographic data concerning residents of predominantly white council estates.

As Lisa intonates in her comments, I also gesture to a genealogy of resistance, including all those considered and cast as undeserving. I had to do this at a minimum. As I explained in the intro to this forum, in writing the book I felt it politically necessary to clearly demonstrate that the “white working class” was a manufactured constituency of Britain’s imperial and postcolonial order. Yet in truth, as might also be appreciated from my intro to this forum, I am incredibly uncomfortable in only – or even mainly – telling stories of domination. Basically, I hear a lot of my own self-critique in your comments, Rick. (Which is kind of annoying but don’t tell Rick I said that).

You are concerned with the “autonomy of working class political agency”. It seems to me that you are absolutely right to claim that within this agency can be found traditions of resistance to racism and racialization as well as complicities to racism and racialization that are not, as you put it, “reducible to elite interference and propaganda.” These are the agencies, genealogies and trajectories that have been almost entirely eclipsed by contemporary Brexit politics which are predicated, as Lisa argues, on presenting the deserving working class only as a reactive, reticent, servile and in-bred constituency. I hasten to add, it is on the left and not only the right that this representational eclipse has taken place.

I am aware that in critiquing the welfare state as a eugenicist project I might be (unfairly) misinterpreted as making an argument against public goods rather than an argument for (the struggle for) public goods. But I remain unapologetic about this. Because the challenge, as I see it, is not to commit to a struggle for the welfare state, but to research, retrieve, reflect upon and commit to the struggle for an anti-eugenicist welfare state. I think that there might be a world of difference between those two struggles, a difference that has contemporary political import. It is as simple and as challenging as that.

I get your frustration, Rick: if not now, when? Your own work has for some time been concerned with the complex imbrication of the far right and neoliberalism. But, from the perspective of your work, I would suggest that we are presently witnessing a terrible non-alignment: on the one hand, a resurgent desire for social justice accompanied by a political language of renewed publics; and on the other hand, a persistently (re-)racialized delimitation of that public which has proven widely resistant to critique. (I’ve made this claim elsewhere, with regards to the neoliberalism of higher education.)

Sometimes I hope, despite myself, that the “public” could be won first, regardless of means or motive, so that the de-racialization of that public could subsequently proceed through the enaction of social justice. But I also know that, historically, race was the lever by which neo-liberalism up-ended the “public” in the first place. Or, in the language of my book, it was the racialization of the distinction between deserving and undeserving that did – and still does – preserve the principle of conditionality through which a once unconditional right to welfare and social security has become conditional for all.

I don’t want to dismiss the urgency you inject into the matter. My own sense of urgency concerns a presumption on the organized left that the key contemporary challenge comes in the form of a demographic fiat: reach out to the white working class because they are the majority. Yet I am convinced that right now we need to confront the operation of power: cut the social fabric at its weakest to then tear the whole thing apart. There is a reason that the neoliberal project projected through the EU (if not originated by it) has crashed not into a wall of working class resistance but rather populist nationalist opportunism over extra-EU immigration (as well as the EU’s long-standing inner-other-migrant – the Roma).

All this is a problem for Corbyn. I entirely sympathise with the predicaments he must navigate. I doubt that even the most gifted politician could smoothly navigate them. I do worry, though, that Corbyn would prefer not to navigate, but to drift (away) from the issue in the hope that no confrontation will be ultimately required. He has and continues to strategically defer debates over Brexit. He must be aware that those debates will bring to the fore the issue of immigration, which will lead to the defence of Englishness and the white working class, all of which will put him in an unsustainable position with his membership and his party’s voting bases. Implicitly, or by inaction, this strategy accommodates an old leftist pretence: deal with class first and then race will automatically be sorted.

I am disturbed by some on the left who claim that criticisms of Corbyn’s non-engagement with Brexit are made on behalf of and in the service of neoliberalism. That might be the case when it comes to the relics of New Labour. Yet there’s a much deeper and cantankerous and uncomfortable conversation that needs to be had on the organized left when it comes to immigration and labour. I would even argue that that debate for the socialist left is far more divisive than the current splits in the conservative right between a neoliberal Europe and a neoliberal “global Britain”.

I do take your intervention seriously, Rick. Because I affirm that strategizing for electoral success is crucial: 2016 told us this, if nothing else. But surely these strategies must be guided by principles. And I am convinced that one principle has yet to be cemented: we must apprehend class as race.








One thought on “Race and the Undeserving Poor: Response

  1. Pingback: Race and the Undeserving Poor | Robbie Shilliam

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