Socialist Worker

The only way is Essex? White flight myths and the East End

A BBC documentary this week says that “Cockney culture” in London’s East End is dying out—and that Muslims and migrants are to blame. East End resident Tomáš Tengely-Evans sorts the fact from the fiction

Issue No. 2505

The Last Whites of the East End, the BBC’s new programme, whips up racism against Muslims and patronises working class people. Relying on anecdotal assertions it claims that Newham’s “Cockney culture” is dying as white people flee to nearby Essex.

The programme comes after a barrage from the right wing press scapegoating migrants, and reinforces that racism.

Nadia Sayed, who studied at Newham Sixth Form College, told Socialist Worker, “It’s going to be really disruptive and intensify divisions in the community.

“Saying that ‘Cockneys’ have been driven out specifically plays to Islamophobic prejudice.

“A bill is already going through parliament and Muslim students are being told that they don’t know about ‘Britishness’—whatever that is.”

The programme presents immigration, and Muslims in particular, as a mortal threat to “white working class culture”.

Tahir Talati is chair of Muslim Engagement and Development (Mend) in Newham. He told Socialist Worker, “They always say that Muslims don’t want to integrate, but when we move to a community they say white people are leaving.”

National census figures show that Newham’s ethnic minority population has gone up by 122,700—128 percent—between 1991 and 2011.

The “White British” population, only measured as a distinct group since 2001, has gone down from 34 percent to 17 percent. But it remains the largest single group and more people report a British or English national identity than before.

The increase in Newham’s ethnic minority population doesn’t mean that the borough is segregated. But the BBC presents this false image and doesn’t challenge people’s misconceptions.

In the programme Peter Bell, secretary of East Ham Working Men’s Club, said, “I can’t believe what’s happened here, it could be Baghdad.

“I don’t think the Muslim community want to be part of the traditions here.”

Bus driver Tony Cunningham, whose father was a Jamaican immigrant, said, “Most of the Muslims stick together, their children stick together. If you are an outsider, they don’t want anything to do with you whatsoever.”

Leanne and Amy Oakham, who we’re told are from one of the “oldest East End families”, discuss how they wouldn’t date someone who wasn’t white.

But this supposed segregated nightmare clashes with both people’s actual experiences and the figures.

There was no tension or hostility. In my groups of friends, there was a Nigerian, a Jewish person and two others who just thought of themselves as English—and that wasn’t unique.

Nadia Sayed, former Newham Sixth Form College student

Nadia said, “There was no tension or hostility in my college.

“In my groups of friends, there was a Nigerian, a Jewish person and two others who just thought of themselves as English—and that wasn’t unique.

“Even if it wasn’t socially, everyone would talk in the classroom and no one was reluctant to do so.”

Ethnic mixing has actually gone up in Newham since 1991 according to national census figures.

Almost every ethnic group measured in the census became more evenly spread in the 20 years to 2011.

Eight out of the ten most ethnically diverse wards in east London boroughs are in Newham.

Diversity and mixing isn’t just true in terms of wards in Newham, but also within households.

Across east London the proportion of people living in households with more than one ethnic group has gone up.

In Newham, discounting one person households, 34 percent are mixed compared to the national average of 12 percent.

Those recorded as “mixed ethnic” has gone up by 65 percent between 1991 and 2011 and account for 5 percent of the total population.

That’s not to deny the racist attitudes that people can express, but that’s hardly surprising in the context of a right wing assault on migrants and refugees.

But racist attitudes aren’t static and can change through struggle and people’s experience of living with one another.

I remember when I moved to Newham there was only two or three ethnic minority families on our street. “Some families who’d lived there for years had moved. “Initially it felt strange living there and they were not happy, but after living together and mixing that’s changed

Tahir Talati, chair of Muslim Engagenent and Development (Mend) in Newham

Tahir said, “I remember when I moved to Newham there was only two or three ethnic minority families on our street.

“Some families who’d lived there for years had moved.

“Initially it felt strange living there and they were not happy, but after living together and mixing that’s changed.”

But the notion of “white flight” is itself spurious.  Paul Watt, a reader in urban studies at Birkbeck, University of London, spoke to Socialist Worker. He said, “The move to Essex and the Home Counties is due to long term pressures and it isn’t exclusive to east London.

“The London County Council built large estates out of town in the before and after the Second World War, such as Becontree and St Helier’s. This helped drive working-class suburbanisation.

Paul explained that suburbanisation is not exclusive to white people.He said, “Asian people in inner east London are moving to Redbridge for example”.

Paul said, “My take is that there have been elements of white flight in 20th century suburbanisation, but social housing shortages are an increasingly important aspect.

“Working-class people relied on council homes and they’re no longer being built and people can’t afford to live in Newham and other parts of east London.”

He added, “Unfortunately perceptions of urban decline are often filtered through a migration lens, instead of people looking at how urban change is linked to political economic factors”.

The BBC and the right have again raised a mythical image of the East End’s working class—precisely so it can divide it.


Poverty and racism trap

Racism and poverty reinforce one another and can trap people in certain areas. Tahir said, “We’re sometimes densely populated in certain areas, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to live alongside white people.”

Newham is one of the poorest boroughs in London and deprivation affects all ethnic groups.

In its 2010-27 local economic forecast Newham Council noted, “Deprivation has increased in the domains of income, barriers to housing and services and living environment.

“The deprivation in the barriers to housing and services domain has increased dramatically, and is primarily due to low incomes.”

The assessment found the highest poverty rates among Asian Bangladeshi and Asian Pakistani households who had poverty rates of 61 percent and 59 percent. That’s compared with 33 percent among “White British” households and 22 percent among Black Caribbean households.


‘There have always been immigrants’

The Last Whites of the East End is based on the racist premise that ethnic diversity is a bad thing. It presents a mythical image of East End working class communities, where everyone looked after one another before the “outsiders” came.

Berlyne Hamilton, a retired Ford car worker, has lived in Newham since he emigrated from the West Indies in 1960. He told Socialist Worker, “It’s just another way of camouflaging racism. “Thank god Newham is not like it was then,” he said. “When I came, black workers couldn’t get decent jobs at Ford and you had a racist union.

“But I was the first black person elected onto the Works Committee and helped change that.

Thank god Newham is not like it was then. When I came, black workers couldn't get decent jobs at Ford and you had a racist union. 

Berlyne Hamilton, retired car worker, who's lived in Newham since emiigrating from the West Indies in 1960

“You’d then have some people say, ‘It would be alright if only they weren’t all Jamaican. But apart from my Dominican accent, what was the difference when I was walking down the street? “We’ve now got multicultural schools. Where my granddaughter goes there’s all sorts of different kinds of teachers and children.”

Immigration is not a new phenomenon. The working class is always changing. As Berlyne said, “There’s always been different people coming. When I came from the West Indies, it was mostly Irish people.”


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