Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
I asked a few people in my constituency of Harlow what they thought about “culture wars” at the weekend. Not only had the term passed most people by, but one individual believed that it might be something to do with Game of Thrones.
But, just because most people are not focused on the “culture wars” in the same way that the “Twitterati” and the Westminster Village are, that does not mean we should not allow significant debate and discussion about terms like “white privilege”. Some proponents of concepts like “white privilege” seek to close down debate by accusing those who want to discuss this as racists.
Far from promoting racial harmony, using “white privilege” pits one group against another and does more to damage race relations than enhance them.
Following the recent publication of our Education Select Committee Report, The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it, it was noticeable how, with the exception of great Labour figures like Lord Blunkett, even discussing the subject of “white privilege” was according to the Left, a sin of sins. The subject was discussed over just three pages out of a 90-page strong report.
I have been told that I am a racist. My staff and I have received calls to my House of Commons Office to explain that we are racist individuals. It is interesting that this attack is coming from the Left. (As an aside, it is the Labour Party that produced a leaflet sent around to Muslim constituents in Batley and Spen showing and criticising the Prime Minister for shaking hands with Narendra Modi, the Hindu Prime Minister of India.)
Our Education Committee decided to highlight the issues caused by the term “white privilege” because its use is fundamentally wrong for three reasons.
First, the concept of “white privilege” implies collective guilt when it should be individuals who are responsible for acts of racism.
Second, if you use the words “white privilege” you are basically telling a poorer white community that they are privileged. You are saying to a single parent, who might live in a tiny flat, doing their best to bring up their child, that they have “white privilege”.
Third, the use of the term is factually incorrect. All of the data shows that, far from being privileged in education, disadvantaged white working-class students are doing worse than almost any other ethnic group. Just 17.7 per cent of white British pupils eligible for free school meals achieved a pass or above in GCSE English and maths and only 16 per cent go on to university.
There will be individuals who make intellectual arguments as to what “white privilege” really means. For example, the BBC posted a video to its website of John Amaechi, a psychologist and former NBA basketball player, explaining why he believes “white privilege” to be justified.
However, the problem is that people can make all of the intellectual arguments that they like, but disadvantaged white groups just hear two words, “white privilege”. It is a bit like the Ronseal advert, it does what it says on the tin. The use of the term just tells people that whatever their circumstances, whatever their background, they have “white privilege”. It is wrong.
The other argument that often crops up is that the term “white privilege” is irrelevant and is not being used. This is far from the case. Barnardos uses the term as a guide to parents on its blog. Councils have been introducing “White Privilege” terminology. (See page 16 of our Education Committee report.) Calvin Robinson, a former teacher and school governor, has written extensively as to how the concept of “white privilege” is being introduced into teacher training toolkits and much more besides.
I previously mentioned David Blunkett, the former Education Secretary. Last week, when writing about our Committee report, he said:
“I, for one, have always found it offensive, divisive and frankly irrelevant to making a difference to the lives of those from whatever background, who deserve our support…to put it bluntly, the last thing that young people facing disadvantage need to hear is anything about ‘white privilege’”.
He gave a warning to his party saying:
“If my party is not able to raise its voice in defence of its former political base of the white working-class, it will not have much chance of winning power in future”.
Blunkett has got it on the nail. Rather than properly reading the report and really examining why white working-class pupils struggle so much more than other ethnic groups in education, the critics choose to try to undermine the whole report based upon literally a few pages that suggested that the concept of “white privilege” was putting white working-class pupils at a further disadvantage.
I mentioned I asked people on the streets of Harlow about the “culture wars”. While they may not have come across this particular terminology, they did hear about our Select Committee report because of the intense media coverage. The overwhelming response has been positive. The silent majority know that white working-class pupils from free school meal backgrounds have been neglected for decades. It is time to right this wrong.