Let’s end the blame game on segregation

With the Casey Review on integration and segregation expected any day, the author of the last major government report on this subject describes reaction to his latest work.

Writing about segregation doesn’t win you many friends, as Louise Casey is about to discover. My latest article (with Eric Kaufmann) ‘Is Segregation Increasing?’ for Open Democracy, has been no exception. There are many on the left who are ready to pounce on any suggestion that segregation is a problem, or that it might be growing. They seem to believe that this is tantamount to accepting that multiculturalism has failed in some way, and I have even been urged by senior academics to just keep quiet about any problems.

Meanwhile, some on the right either want to heap blame on ethnic minorities who ‘do not want to be/aren’t capable of being British’, or to denounce anyone that has the temerity to suggest that integration involves white people too.

Even people on the centre ground tend to be uncomfortable with a discussion of segregation. Terms like ‘white flight’ and ‘self-segregation’ tend to imply blame, but even though Eric Kaufmann, my co-author, and I did not use such terms, it seems hard for most people to respond without some feeling of culpability, or the implication that racism is an unsaid undertone to the whole debate.

Actually our article made it clear that integration is generally improving and there are many parts of the country that seem to be successfully learning to live with difference. But beneath this general trend, there is a clear process of polarisation of white British and minorities in many of our towns and cities.

Why do we focus on the divide between the white British and minorities?

First, the history of post-war race relations has been built around this basic division. Race relations legislation from the 1960s onward was established largely to protect minorities against racism and discrimination from a white host community who were being asked to accept an equal relationship for the first time. In other words, racism was defined by this basic relationship. Of course, racism has been evident to some degree within and between all groups, but the primary divide has subsisted over the years – and still does.

Second, minorities themselves have generally accepted and supported this divide, even though it implies a degree of homogeneity and shared interest among minorities themselves that scarcely exists. This is embodied in the term Black and Ethnic Minority (BAME) which groups all minorities together and sets them apart from the ‘white community’.

Third, the current debate is clearly (and unfortunately) still framed around the white British majority and immigrants from across the world. The antipathy to large scale immigration has grown considerably over the last ten years or so and remains one of the most significant electoral issues. This is not a black vs white debate, as witnessed by the strong opposition to the (mainly) white migrants for Eastern Europe.

Immigration has been fundamentally about all minorities and notions of identity featured heavily in the Brexit debate, often under the banner of ‘give us back our country’. In the very real sense that this applied to limit migration of them, it did not distinguish particular migrants and indeed, the Government’s target is to reduce immigration across the board. And in the same way, the surge in hate crime following the Brexit referendum in June went across the many different ethnic and minority communities.

And our study did identify some clear – and yes, worrying – trends. We found that the white British communities had declined in large number in many towns and cities, including London and that when they re-located they seem to avoid moving to the more diverse areas. Minority in-movement generally replaced the white out-movement, leading to increased polarisation.

The pace of change was also surprisingly high. Some people have been very keen to suggest that this exposes the white British community as the villains of the peace – Yasmin Alibhai-Brown went as far as tweeting that ‘this might be the first time ever that the white ghetto mentality has been called out’. Our paper set out to establish the trends, however, not to attribute motives or blame. That research remains to be done. I suspect that when it is done, it will show a complex and nuanced picture – just as the increased clustering of ethnic minorities has many causes.

Indeed, I hope that our paper will help to develop a more sympathetic approach to the concerns – and fears – of all communities. Just as it may be the case that some ethnic minorities may feel safe and comfortable in areas where their community is dominant, so perhaps the white British may also feel that certain areas are ‘for them’ and also favour the amenities and support systems that reflect their needs.

But there is a very fine line between ‘ethnic clustering’ and exclusive segregated areas and it will take a refined and intelligent approach to support the former without bolstering the latter. And the way to avoid such a tricky operation is to try to understand why mixed communities are apparently less desirable to some people.

It is very easy to dismiss negative views as ‘racist’ or ‘ignorant’. It is more than possible that some will be exactly that, but it seems to me that the pace of change is a more significant factor – something that I argued in my review of ‘parallel lives’ in 2004 – and little has been done to help accommodate that change emotionally, nor to consider the impacts on personal and collective identity.

Resources are also seen as an issue with concerns that the growth in population has not been matched by growth in public services and facilities, perhaps especially housing. Competition can have a corrosive effect on communities but so too can just the perception of competition and unfairness: we need to do much more to determine the reality on the ground.

So in my view, there is a now a real need to both recognise the problems and promote mixed communities, by nudging and nurturing the process. And whilst there are negative views, actually many people are receptive already – the recent Pew Centre research shows more support for diversity in Britain than for many other nations.

Surveys also consistently reveal that people do not want divisive selection in schools, underlined by  a recent Populus poll  – but we all need the confidence to move towards integration. And confidence can only be gained by talking about these issues more openly, especially providing a narrative of why change is taking place and where it is leading for both minorities – and the ethnic majority. But most of all, developing a vision of what sort of society we want and making sure that the voices of hate and division do not prevail.


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Interculturalism - Community Cohesion