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Trevor Phillips’s groundless fear of racial segregation

This article is over 18 years, 6 months old
After a week of media hype over urban ‘ghettoes’, Joseph Choonara talks to people living in Leicester to sort out the myths and reality of ethnic diversity
Issue 1970

Trevor Phillips, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, gave a widely reported speech on Thursday of last week in which he warned that Britain was “sleepwalking its way to segregation”.

Using loaded language he claimed that some areas were becoming “fully fledged ghettoes — black holes into which no one goes without fear and trepidation, and from which no one ever escapes undamaged”.

One of the cities Phillips singled out was Leicester. Many people there lived in “what social scientists call ghettoes”, he claimed, where two thirds of people are from a single ethnic group.

But Phillips’s comments have sparked anger among many of those living in Leicester. They strongly disagree with Phillips’s comments.

Hanif works as a bookkeeper in the city. He was born in Malawi, of Asian decent, and has lived in Britain for eight years. “Some groups might live in certain areas, but there’s certainly no such things as ghettoes,” he says.

“There is no segregation. When people first move to Britain they often live in the cheapest houses — that’s inevitable when you move to a new country — but later they move out.”

Simon, a white post worker from Leicester, has a similar view. “We’re not sleepwalking anywhere, we’re wide awake,” he says. “We live in a mixed area — there’s poverty there, but it affects everyone and it’s certainly not a ghetto.”

He adds that the council did have racist housing policies in the past, but “even the ‘white’ working class estates are becoming much more mixed”.

Hanif and Simon are right. Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at Sheffield University, demonstrated in the Observer last Sunday that the figures cited by Phillips were simply wrong.

“For all ethnic minority groups… the indices of segregation fell between 1991 and 2001,” he wrote. “These are the indices to which Phillips referred in his speech. They fell fastest for people of black and ‘other Asian’ origin.”

Far from Britain become more segregated, the pace of integration is quickening — especially for black and Asian people.

Phillips also claimed in his speech that integration was unnatural and had to be imposed on people from above.

“Integration is a learned competence — like maths or driving a car,” he said. “It is not instinctive… If we all lived separately but knew, liked and mixed with people of different races and backgrounds, we might regard that as a tolerable compromise. But we know that human nature is not like that.”

Hanif rejects this unequivocally. “It’s quite natural to want to integrate really,” he says. His daughter, Shabana, who attends a college in Leicester, agrees. “My college is mixed race and I have friends of all different races — it’s just not an issue.”

Workplaces are one key area where people of different races and religions come together. “My workplace is totally mixed and the union branch looks just like the anti-war movement,” says Simon.

“We have a pool table in our rest area and we all play together. We share each other’s food and religious festivals.”

Ismael Patel arrived in Britain in 1976 when far fewer Muslims lived in Leicester. Although he did not speak any English at the time, he felt welcomed and was able to build a life here.

“Some groups of people might live in clusters, but when there is a general need we all act together,” he says.

“All the major workplaces are mixed, from the council through to local employers. In the place where I work there are six non-Muslims and three Muslims, including myself.”

Ismael is happy to see even more integration, but “it has to come from the bottom of society, not from the top,” he says.

“The people at the top of society can’t demand integration. And the government is creating more barriers. Most of us have always had friends of different races — but now we feel we have to prove it.”

Hassan Patel is a former student at Leicester university. He would like to see more mixing among school students.

“There should be more integration,” he says. “For example, the school where my wife works has mainly Asian pupils. They would like to have a football team that could go and play teams at other schools, but they don’t have enough funding.”

Phillips claimed that class was not a major issue because “less than 10 percent of ethnic segregation is explained by economic factors, much more is down to history and to choice”.

Certainly in towns such as Leicester there is a history of racist housing policies. But many experts also see economics as a major factor.

According to Danièle Joly, director of the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at the University of Warwick, patterns of Muslims living in the same area reflected their poor economic situation and the failure to give them “equality, dignity and recognition”.

Ironically, people from Leicester say one factor that has made integration more difficult is the government’s policies since 9/11 and the 7 July bomb attacks.

“People want to mix and interact. However, because the Muslim community’s rights are being curtailed, there is more suspicion about mixing,” says Hassan.

In that context he finds Phillips’s speech unhelpful. “I think Trevor Phillips’s comments were an attack on the Muslim community,” he says. “All of the cities he singled out to speak about were cities with large numbers of Muslims.”


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