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The myth of segregated Britain

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Politicians argue that multiculturalism has meant migrants are ‘self-segregating’. Author Stephen Jivraj spoke to Socialist Worker about a new book demolishing that claim
Issue 2460
Electric Avenue, Brixton
Electric Avenue, Brixton (Pic: Matus Benza)

The rows over migration are based on a series of stereotypes about people who come to Britain and their descendants.  

We’re constantly told that migrants and particularly Muslims choose to “self-segregate”.

Racists and fascists from Enoch Powell through the National Front to the British National Party, English Defence League and Ukip have pushed these myths. Mainstream politicians echo them too. 

But a new book, Ethnic Identity and Inequalities in Britain, demolishes the argument. It bluntly states, “Increased ethnic diversity has not been accompanied by greater segregation in neighbourhoods.”

This is just a starting point. The book uses information from the 2011 census to celebrate Britain’s diversity and give a riposte to the racists.

Co-editor Stephen Jivraj told Socialist Worker, “Ethnic minority groups are still very clustered.

“Now there are more places where you see a lot of non-white faces and people assume that means there is an increase in segregation, but the data doesn’t show that.”

It’s true that many migrant groups live close together, but this is partly because they tend to live in poorer areas. 

Many councils in the 1950s and 60s also kept black people out of council housing and later segregated it. 

Bosses have put people from different backgrounds on different shifts to try and set them against each other.

New migrants often live with other people from a similar background, partly for mutual support.Both racism and the struggle against it have shaped the map of Britain’s inner cities.

Yet prejudice still undermines serious analysis of why people live where they do.


David Cameron chose the first day of Ramadan to claim that many British Muslims “quietly condone” extremism. 

Meanwhile the right wing press has worked itself into a frenzy about migrants camped at the French port of Calais.

Muslims being painted as an alien force is now commonplace even in liberal newspapers such as the Guardian. Last week it ran a feature on Bradford which stated Muslims “have little to no interaction with British life.” 

Its evidence was that “pockets of Bradford have become ever more monoethnic. Little Horton…is 57 percent British Asian, overwhelmingly of Pakistani origin, compared with just under 20 percent in Bradford as a whole.”

Stephen said, “It’s not that people from minorities went to live in the Lake District then said, ‘I don’t like this, I’m heading back to an ethnic enclave’.”

Populations in such areas tend to be young, “so they have largely increased because of people having children.”

This is mostly accompanied by a slow drift out to the suburbs. But this is slower than in the wider population, “because of the disadvantages that minorities face.”

That doesn’t mean that everyone mixes in harmony, but areas like this are less “monoethnic” than majority white areas. 

Instead we see a growth in “plural” cities—local authorities where “more than 50 percent of its population that are not from one ethnic group”.

These are very diverse. In very few of these areas does one group dominate. The facts don’t back up politicians’ claims about immigration causing social problems. 

Class divides ethnic minority groups and the poor suffer—and it’s only made worse by racism. Migrants are often blamed for the bad housing and low wages that they have.

Stephen said, “Ethnic inequality has fallen off the radar. The differences are still there but policy makers don’t talk about them anymore.”

Ethnic minorities and particularly those of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin are among the poorest in Britain. 


The book notes that this often continues despite the fact that ethnic minority children have more qualifications than their white contemporaries. 

A person with a “foreign” looking name has to send twice as many job applications to get any response than those with otherwise identical forms. 

Women from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds are still the least likely to be working. But they had “the highest rise” from 17 to 40 percent in participation in the workplace between 1991 and 2011. 

The real problem with where people live is not segregation, but that housing is becoming more insecure.  

Stephen said, “Some of the more long established groups were able to buy houses when they arrived, but that’s just not the case today because the increase in house prices over the past 30 years has been astronomical.

“There is also much less social housing and access is more difficult now for everybody.

“The Pakistani group has a high proportion of people who bought their own homes 30 or 40 year ago. They tend to live in more deprived parts of the country. For example places like Rochdale, Oldham or Burnley. The housing they bought tended to be run down stock.

Stephen said, “Many of those groups are stuck. Newer arrivals are also stuck in insecure private rentals. Housing policy shifts have affected everyone, but hurt migrants most.”

In the 1980s the Lib Dem-run Tower Hamlets council ran a “Sons and Daughters” housing policy. 

It didn’t affect much who was housed as there was hardly any new social housing. But it divided white against Bangladeshi in fighting for those existing resources rather than demanding more.   

Britain remains a deeply racist society. Whipping up racism against migrants tries to shift people from seeing racism as a problem to seeing a problem created by migrants.

The book is in part a follow up to Sleepwalking to Segregation?: Challenging Myths About Race and Migration which used data from the 2001 census. 

It’s sad that it has to take on many of the same myths. 

Ethnic identities aren’t static but shaped by social change

Ethnic identities have evolved. The biggest shift is in different groups coming to share spaces. 

Stephen said, “Living in diverse areas has meant minority groups have borrowed from one another and the majority culture to form new identities.”  

There is also an interaction between social change and the establishment’s perception of identity.  

So “Mixed” and “White Irish” were added to the census in 2001. 

And the divisions are not simply along lines of colour or religion. 

The groups of migrants who have suffered the greatest disadvantage have tended to be the Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities. Yet the “White Gypsy or Irish Traveller” group is the most disadvantaged in terms of health.

Stephen said, “How disadvantaged they are is quite stark.”

One in eight households now has “people from different ethnic groups living together”. 

Far from people keeping apart from other groups, there has been a significant increase in mixed relationships. 

Muslims are not excluded from this process. The book notes that even on the census where people can define their identity, “More than half of Muslims describe themselves as British only.” 

“This sole affiliation to Britishness is higher than any other religious group, except Sikhs.”

Stephen said that all groups, apart from “White Irish” and “White Other”, mainly identify as British. 

He said, “No one seems to worry about these if they are white South Africans or white Americans, but they worry about British Muslims.

“Diverse groups are growing fastest and such people find it hard to identify with one group,” Stephen said. 

“If you’re of Turkish descent you might sometimes think you’re Asian. But another time you might say Other White.” 

As Britain becomes more diverse people can feel they belong to more than one ethnic identity. And that means they don’t know what to put on a form.

Read More…

Ethnic Identity and Inequalities in Britain—The Dynamics of Diversity

Edited by Stephen Jivraj and Ludi Simpson. Policy Press £19.99

Sleepwalking to Segregation?: Challenging Myths About Race and Migration 

by Nissa Finney and Ludi Simpson. Policy Press £15.99

Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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