Trevor Phillips, chair of the government’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, hit the headlines a few years ago with an alarmist speech titled “Sleepwalking into segregation”
He painted a bleak picture of race relations in Britain, arguing that ethnic minority communities were shutting themselves off from the wider public and predicting the emergence of US-style ethnic ghettos in Britain.
These comments were seized on by both the right wing press and New Labour ministers to justify a new approach to questions of racism and immigration – one that rejected multiculturalism as “divisive” and stressed the importance of ethnic minorities “integrating into British values”.
There was a problem – the picture painted by Phillips was, in every significant detail, false. It reflected widespread myths that fitted the government’s policy agenda but had no basis in statistical facts – as several prominent sociologists, geographers and population experts pointed out at the time.
Now two of those experts – Nissa Finney and Ludi Simpson from Manchester university – have written a book that comprehensively debunks the myths of segregation. It shows how they arise from misreading the figures and ignoring the real problems of racism and rising economic inequality (see below).
Unlike most books written by academics, Finney and Simpson’s work is written in non-technical prose and structured into short, punchy chapters that tackle each myth head on. It also includes a wealth of material on how to interpret statistics about race, ethnicity and immigration – and how these figures have been used and abused in the past.
“Our aim was to write something in plain English that would get through to a lot of readers,” Ludi told Socialist Worker. “We also wanted to get through to the politicians and journalists who deal with the issues that the book addresses.
“Although I’m now a professor at a university, I spent the majority of my working life at a local council as a statistician in Bradford, which is where I still live.”
Bradford was hit by riots in 2001 that were triggered by racist thugs from the British National Party. But government reports in the wake of the disturbances laid the blame on the city’s Asian communities.
“Within a week of the disturbances in Bradford a report was out saying that the city was in the ‘grip of fear’ and that the tensions were caused by ‘self-segregation’. But I was living in the city and was very familiar with population trends there,” said Ludi.
“That sense of a city ‘gripped by fear’, of people not wanting to talk to each other or mix, just didn’t fit my understanding or experience.
“So since then I guess I’ve made it my business to find out why it’s so easy to misread Britain’s growing ethnic diversity and to try and explain what the arithmetic really shows.”
Ludi notes that all of this happened slightly before the September 11 attacks in New York and the subsequent rise in paranoia towards Muslims.
So while the “war on terror” has encouraged the political reaction against multiculturalism, the roots of that reaction predated all that.
“Government responses to the disturbances in northern Britain were already talking about ‘parallel lives’, ‘segregated communities’ and the need for ‘greater community cohesion’.
“That all fits a New Labour agenda of giving ‘responsibility’ to communities for their own future – which is also a way of saying if their areas don’t get better, it’s because they haven’t done the right thing.
“The 9/11 attacks added a whole new dimension to this – fear of Muslims, fear of terrorism. Of course, some of that latches onto real fears of real atrocities, but some of it is just pure racism.”
New Labour’s talk of community cohesion is just one aspect of mainstream opinion on race and immigration.
On the other side is the more virulent racism of newspapers such as the Daily Mail and Daily Express, or the constant tirade of anti-immigration propaganda produced by right wing think-tanks such as Migration Watch.
Ludi stresses that it’s wrong to see the spectrum from New Labour to the far right as all saying exactly the same thing about race and immigration, but he argues that there are common assumptions and myths that they share.
“There’s what we call a ‘litany’ – a whole string of statements that are repeated without any evidence. They include ‘we’ve got too much immigration’, ‘immigrants don’t want to mix’ and ‘segregation is fuelling tensions’.
“Some people focus on some of these claims, some of them on others, but they all hang together.”
One common trend uncovered by Finney and Simpson is how problems in the provision of public services such as housing or education get treated as “race issues” when the actual dynamics lie elsewhere.
Conversely, much of public policy these days ignores or downplays racism as a factor where it does actually exist.
“There is a move away from a focus on racism and inequality towards giving cultural interpretations of race issues. Structural issues about race get replaced by questions about the apparent incompatibility of cultures.
“If we could sweep that away – if we could get a little bit calmer about people’s differences where they are personal, cultural – then we’d be left with issues such as the inequalities in employment, housing, educational and the racial discrimination in our society.”
And ultimately Ludi sees the book as part of a wider struggle to inform people about the real issues surrounding race and society.
“The more people understand both the politics and the arithmetic of how Britain’s diversity is growing and will grow, the more these claims about segregation will be exposed for what they are – the politics of playing the race card under another name.”
MYTH 1: “Immigrants are a drain on public services”
Politicians and media commentators are quick to blame immigrants for the poor state of public services in Britain.
A high immigration rate is cited as the reason behind shortages in housing, healthcare and education. The welfare state just cannot cope with the “flood”, we are told.
The opposite is true. The vast majority of immigrants are here to work – and compared to the wider population, immigrants are younger, healthier, more likely to be earning a wage and less likely to be using public services.
Even asylum seekers – who are often thought of as “problem” immigrants or a “burden” on the state – are more skilled than average. Some 23 percent of refugees have a skilled trade, as compared to 12 percent of the British population.
The fact that most immigrants are here to work means they contribute far more in taxes than they use in benefits and public services.
For instance, in Manchester some 6 percent of non-British nationals are claiming out of work benefit – as compared to 20 percent of the area’s working age population.
The belief that immigrants are soaking up scarce housing resources is also untrue. The real reason for the housing crisis is that just 375 council houses were built last year.
More than 100,000 were built every year until the 1980s.
MYTH 2: “Ethnic minorities don’t want to integrate”
The notion that there’s a problem with ethnic minority communities not integrating into wider British society has become so commonplace among politicians that it is hardly ever challenged.
A succession of government reports and policy initiatives have encouraged the notion that “community cohesion” is under threat, and that the key problem is that ethnic minority communities refuse to engage, preferring instead to “self-segregate” and retreat into the ghetto.
This picture is comprehensively false. Friendship groups are becoming more mixed, not less. Most ethnic minority young people say at least half their friends are white.
Less than 20 percent of minorities born in Britain say they only have friends from their own ethnic group. If any group is ethnically isolated, it is white people – over half of white people say they only have white friends.
One index of increased integration is the number of people who say they are of “mixed” ethnicity. The “mixed” group accounts for 650,000 people in England alone and is one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in Britain.
Moreover, surveys of social attitudes going back decades show a steady increase in positive attitudes towards ethnic diversity.
MYTH 3: “White people will soon be a minority in Britain”
One of the most common refrains in the right wing media is that Britain is becoming peppered with “no go areas” for white people – inner city ghettos allegedly dominated by ethnic minorities.
The Bishop of Rochester recently advanced these claims, adding that these “no go areas” were also hotbeds of “Islamic extremism”.
His comments were widely reported – despite the complete absence of any evidence for his lurid allegations.
Out of over 8,850 electoral wards in England and Wales there are only 14 in which a non-white ethnic group makes up over half the population. In none does a single ethnic minority account for over three quarters of the population.
Of course, the very notion that there is something “wrong” with white people being in a minority in a particular area is in itself racist. But that aside, the projections of ethnic minority populations show an overall trend towards more diversity, not more segregation.
There is a “residential clustering” effect that sees large proportions of particular ethnic minorities in certain areas. Sometimes this reflects the fact that many ethnic minority populations feel vulnerable, and that living close to family and friends provides them with a sense security.
At other times local councils and lettings agents have pursued a deliberate policy of placing families from ethnic minorities only in specific areas.
It is also the case that ethnic minority populations are relatively young, and younger populations tend to grow faster than older ones because they have a lower death rate.
The related notion of “white flight” is also a myth. There is a trend for people living in inner cities to move out to the suburbs – but this trend is equally true of all ethnicities.
And in areas with the largest ethnic minority populations – such as parts of Leicester, Bradford and Lambeth – the figures show a net flow of white people moving in.
‘Sleepwalking to segregation’? Challenging myths about race and immigration by Nissa Finney and Ludi Simpson
Published by Policy Press, policypress.co.uk
Available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, for £14.99 – phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk