Race and the Undeserving Poor

From Abolition to Brexit

Robbie Shilliam

£65.00  |  $95.00
ISBN 9781788210379
£19.99  |  $30.00
ISBN 9781788210386
£19.99  |  $30.00
ISBN 9781788210393
192 pages   |  234 x 156mm   |  30 June 2018


"A milestone in political science and cultural studies ... Shilliam’s account of the racialisation of the ‘undeserving poor’ offers a systemic critique of how whiteness excuses politics from the difficult task of anti-capitalist internationalism ... accessibly introduces concepts that shed light on how whiteness is made by blackening. Each of these concepts packs an intricate but straightforward story about the internationalisation of British capital." – Elio Di Muccio, Capital & Class

"... a detailed and sharp analysis of the racialization of those deemed 'undeserving' in British society. It places the emergence of the 'white working class', which was such a dominant category in debates around Brexit, within the broader historical context of the British Empire ... this 'white working class' imaginary persists in spite of the fact that the British working class are not homogenously white, and notably, that those who su?er most under austerity are Black and minority ethnic communities ... provides an important analytical framework for us to begin to understand contemporary debates around nationalism and belonging." – Katy Harsant, Ethnic and Racial Studies

"Politically uncertain times require rigorous and judicious scholarship and, with this superbly argued book, Robbie Shilliam provides just that. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union has prompted a reconsideration of ideas of (national) belonging and of class. Shilliam eviscerates standard accounts that seek to locate the emergence of the ‘white working class’ in national terms and presents a brilliantly compelling account of why this emergence is better understood in terms of the postcolonial genealogy of British Empire. A vital, necessary book to make sense of our present." – Gurminder K. Bhambra, Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies, University of Sussex


Over recent years, tabloid readers have become familiar with the concept of the "white working class", those thought to have been "left behind" by globalization, including immigration. Such sentiments were weaponized by politicians on all sides to fuel the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Brexit campaign. And this racialized narrative has emerged repeatedly in mature democracies – in the political campaigns of Trump, Le Pen and others – and continues to gain traction in the guise of economic nationalism and populism. The need to understand the putative emergence of the white working class has become both intellectually significant and politically urgent.

In Race and the Undeserving Poor, Robbie Shilliam does just this. He charts the development over the past 200 years of a shifting postcolonial settlement that has produced a racialized distinction between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor, the latest incarnation of which is a distinction between a deserving, neglected white working class and "others" who are undeserving, not indigenous, and not white. Shilliam's analysis shows that the white working class are not an indigenous constituency, but a product of the struggles to consolidate and defend imperial order that have shaped British society since the abolition of slavery.


Foreword by Matthew Watson
1. Introduction
2. English poor laws and Caribbean slavery
3 Anglo-Saxon empire and the residuum
4. National welfare and colonial development
5. Commonwealth labour and the white working class
6. Social conservatism and the white underclass
7. Brexit and the return of the white working class
8. Conclusion: Brexit, viewed from Grenfell Tower

Author Information

Robbie Shilliam is Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. He was previously Professor of International Relations at Queen Mary University of London.

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