The East End of London has a long history of working-class community. It has been a place of industry, where the river Thames and the river Lea have provided work for many people. The area attracted many immigrants, including workers from Africa since Tudor times, sailors from China, former slaves from America, French Protestants facing religious persecution in the 1600s and Irish weavers working in the textile industries. There have been Jewish communities in the East End for centuries, too. The twentieth century saw an increase in immigrants from the former British colonies, including South Asia, particularly Bangladesh. Not only has it been a place to seek a livelihood, but it has also been a place of refuge.
One side of my family hails from the East End and North East London, so I have a strong personal connection to this part of London. My ancestors worked in the local industries and on the river. We might not technically be ‘Cockneys’ (in that we weren’t all born within earshot of Bow Bells), but we are Cockney by nature. Family gatherings would include a raucous ‘knees-up’ (dancing and singing) and traditional local fare of jellied eels. We’re a working-class family who have lived in East London for generations.
So I was interested when I came across a recent short BBC documentary called Last Whites of the East End. I was disturbed by the title, which suggested that white people in the area are somehow endangered – an odd idea and potentially a racist one. This racism was confirmed when I watched the show. The documentary focused on residents of Newham, one of the poorest working-class boroughs in England. The filmmakers interviewed a number of working-class residents about their experiences of living in the East End and the decisions of some of them to leave the area. The majority of the subjects were white, though they also included one man of Bangladeshi background and one man of white and Afro-Caribbean heritage.
The narration of the documentary presented a racist agenda, describing the neighbourhood as at ‘tipping point’ with the ‘lowest white population in the UK’. It also noted a ‘dwindling cockney community’ who were in danger of disappearing in the face of increased immigration. Some of those interviewed were moving outside of London, to places like Essex, so they could live in areas with larger white populations. Some described themselves as ‘traditional East Enders’ and lamented the loss of the old community. They spoke of local services being shut down and the closure of the local pub. The film presented the interviewees as embodying white racism and a fear of the other, highlighting their reluctance to build bridges due to perceived differences. As one young white woman explained, they wanted to ‘stay with their own’.
But there were many contradictions in the documentary, too. It included an elderly white woman, who was preparing to leave her home and move out of London, not due to her fear of her Muslim neighbours (as implied by the narration, despite the fact that she was obviously upset to say goodbye to her Somali neighbour), but because she was elderly and alone and wanted to move closer to her daughter. Like many of her neighbours, she had once been a new arrival to the neighbourhood, moving there from the north of England. The two people of colour in the film both spoke of their connections to the local area and their identification as East Enders. Like their white neighbours, they pointed to the changing environment, but I’d suggest that the changes they were criticising were not tied to the latest influx of new immigrants.
Instead, they are matters of class. Gentrification and austerity are disrupting the lives of the working-class residents of the East End, not immigration. Housing has become too expensive, and government funding cuts are squeezing local schools and health services. Interviewees complained about the closure of a club which wasn’t just a local pub but also a community centre that elderly residents relied on for social events and to reduce isolation. Some white people are leaving, but, as I’ve seen with some friends and family members, that’s for financial reasons. They can purchase bigger properties if they sell their London homes, or they can pay less rent by moving to areas outside of London with smaller populations and less pressure on local services. And of course, not all of those leaving London are white.
The documentary downplays this part of the story. It also downplays the working-class solidarity that connects residents despite their differences. Residents of the East End share the experience of hardship and struggle, and this shared struggle has a very long history. The East End has a tradition of political radicalism and collective action. East Enders have looked after each other during tough times and shown a united front against hostile external forces. Famously, in 1936, the local community stood up against a group of anti-Semitic fascists who wanted to march through a Jewish area. The confrontation, known as the Battle of Cable Street, was won because the community put their bodies on the line to keep the fascists out. The same community rallied during the Second World War and looked after each other during the bombing raids of the Blitz. More recently, local people have been supporting each other and engaging in collective action in the face of forced evictions as local public housing is sold and redeveloped for private profit.
If the ‘traditional East End’ is disappearing, that isn’t because some working-class white are moving out of London. Working-class communities are not made up of just white people, and I’ve certainly never known a London that was mono-cultural. Yes, there are racist white working-class people. But the East End of London is a diverse and dynamic place, and always has been. It has also been a place of solidarity and struggle. The filmmakers chose to emphasize division instead of showing how East Enders act collectively, and it cast immigrants as a threat, when the real threats facing this community are austerity and gentrification.