By Hassan Mahamdallie
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 301

Racism: A Boost for the Bigots

This article is over 16 years, 2 months old
CRE chair Trevor Phillips's recent talk of self-segregating communities is dangerous and false.
Issue 301

What a godsend Trevor Phillips has become for the right wing press and New Labour.

It began in April 2004 when the Commission for Racial Equality boss declared in the Times that multiculturalism should be ‘killed off’ – although he did concede that ‘people should be allowed to be a bit different. It’s a good thing that people are different in Yorkshire than they are in Cornwall.’ He went on to warn young Muslims that they should ‘work by the rules of British people’ and accept the common values of Britain, ‘democracy rather than violence’. The right wing applauded their new and unexpected ally, and no doubt Tony Blair, then as now engaged in a war against the wishes of the majority of the population, drew comfort from Phillips’s stance.

In his next intervention Phillips managed the feat of blaming the left and progressive teachers for the way our schools fail black children while simultaneously advocating segregated classes.

It is clear that Phillips’s further career prospects under New Labour now hinge on slaying the ‘evil’ dragon of multiculturalism and blaming the victims of largely government-driven racism for their own misfortune.

Domestic impact of Iraq

His latest speech, delivered in Manchester and again much trailed in the Times, ‘After 7/7: Sleepwalking to Segregation’, argued that multiculturalism had led to ghetto communities and that we were in danger of replicating the segregated US. He followed this by an article (at the start of Ramadan) in which he attacked supposed politically correct ‘special favours’ for minority religious groups. Phillips asserted, without evidence, that anyone who resented these ‘favours’ was silenced, and that this ‘tyranny of silence is now a breeding ground for far right extremism’. To top it all off, Phillips then delivered a speech to a fringe group at the Tory Party conference in which he questioned why councils printed information in different languages, effectively rehabilitated ‘coloured’ as an acceptable description for black people, and concluded that things are so bad we need a ‘highway code for multi-ethnic Britain, our unwritten handbook for getting on with each other’.

Phillips is proving a boon for a government that wants to divert attention from the domestic impact of Iraq by switching the focus onto the supposed ‘alien’, self-segregating and dangerous nature of Britain’s Muslims. Not only has Phillips encouraged every right wing newspaper hack, he has also provided ideological cover for liberal pundits who have been itching to tread the David Aaronovitch road of jettisoning their past by renouncing any principles they had, eager now to show that they too can stick the boot into poor immigrants – especially Muslims. So Polly Toynbee wrote a blow-hard column, ‘Why Trevor is Right’, attacking multiculturalism and demanding that Muslims ’embrace modern British values’. Deborah Orr wrote an extraordinary column in the Independent in the wake of Phillips’s latest speech headlined ‘Why We Should Bin Black History Month’, attacking multiculturalism as ‘feeble’, ‘stupid’ and ‘an excuse for tokenism, laziness, patronisation, ghettoisation, simmering resentment, poverty, alienation, fundamentalism and terrorism’. How powerful an ideology it must be to be responsible for all this!

But are Trevor and his allies right? Are we really sleepwalking to segregation? It pays to examine the facts, and along the way try to separate the crucial difference between cause and effect. The first thing to say is that the ‘alarm bells’ ringing in Phillips and his friends’ heads are not necessarily ringing in other people’s heads. Is it the case that we are dividing off into a racially segregated society, and becoming hostile to and unknowing of each other?

A couple of weeks before Phillips’s latest speech the pollsters Mori, commissioned by the BBC, ran an interesting poll. This found that, despite all the anti-Muslim and anti-asylum prejudice encouraged by the government and peddled by the media, the majority of people (62 percent) agree with the statement that ‘multiculturalism makes Britain a better place’. The poll also showed that nearly seven out of ten of the population disagree that ‘the policy of multiculturalism in Britain has become a mistake and should be abandoned’. Eighty six percent of people disagreed with the statement that ‘my area doesn’t feel like Britain any more because of immigration’. Nearly six out of ten people polled also believed that we should be ‘more concerned about ensuring the rights of ethnic minorities are protected’.

So who exactly is Trevor Phillips speaking for when he steams into multiculturalism? Mori and other polls consistently show that the public do not necessarily, as Phillips judges, see multiculturalism as a conspiracy to undermine ‘white’ society. On the contrary, for most people it is a basic recognition that we live in a society that has more than one culture, that it is the richer for it, and that people should be treated equally. As such it is a general expression of anti-racism. This government, with Phillips’s help, is busy undermining support for multiculturalism in favour of ‘community cohesion’, which is nothing more than a New Labour version of the old Alf Garnett mantra, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ To do this Phillips has resorted to distorting the reality of inner city life, where we live and why.

It should have been an embarrassment for Phillips to quote a demographics expert in support of his theory of US-style ‘hard segregation’, only to have that same expert flatly contradict him the next day. Professor Ceri Peach, of Oxford University’s Centre for the Environment, wrote in to the Guardian to say that Phillips’s ‘alarmist picture’ was not borne out by reality. He wrote, ‘Let us be clear, there is not a single ward in Britain in which the population is 100 percent minority ethnic population. Tracts of 90 percent to 100 percent are common in the US. The proportion of individual minority ethnic groups in 2001 living in wards in Britain where they form as much as 50 percent of the population is 22 percent. There are several wards where, if one aggregates all minority ethnic populations together, they form the majority. However, 78 percent of the minority ethnic population do not live in such wards.’

Peach went on to write that analysis showed that between 1991 and 2001 there were ‘decreasing or stable degrees of segregation in English cities’. In other words, indicators are, if anything, going in the opposite direction to that argued by Phillips.

Phillips’s twisting of reality is shown up by the most authoritative study around. Dr Ludi Simpson of the University of Manchester has researched the notion of Muslims self-segregating themselves, looking specifically at Bradford, and concluded that ‘geographical analyses have become unnecessarily racialised to the point that it is not the geography but the analysis which is racially patterned’. In other words, it is not the case that the population is drifting apart on racial lines – rather it is commentators such as Phillips and his New Labour cohorts who are imposing a racial ‘spin’ on what is actually a different and more positive reality.

Ludi Simpson’s study picks out a few simple truths. He attacks those such as Phillips who want to confuse the cause with the effects. The reason why Pakistanis, for example, were originally concentrated in a particular area was not due to self-segregation, but a combination of closeness to the textile mills in which they laboured and discriminatory (mostly Labour) local government policies that acted to separate them off geographically from the local white population. For example, in 1991 the CRE found that Oldham council actively discriminated against Asian applicants by segregating them from white households. It is well documented that estate agents selected the properties on offer according to the colour of the customer who walked in the door. So who has been segregating who?

Simpson also points out that for self-segregation to take place an ethnic group would have to be shown to be migrating into an area – in other words buying property where everyone else from your ethnic group lives. But there is no evidence of this as a major factor in where people choose to live. What is the case is that in some areas there is a growing population of a particular ethnic minority group – but that is not because people are moving into the area, it’s because people, especially with growing young families, don’t have the means to move out. Far from Asians wanting to live in ghettoised ‘comfort zones’, most people would like to move away. Simpson quotes a Bradford study by Deborah Phillips and Peter Radcliffe that concluded, ‘[We] found that most Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis would be happy to live in areas where both Asian and white families live, although many have reservations about living in all-white neighbourhoods because of fears about racism.’

Segregation, Simpson argues, has more to do with poverty, aggravated by racism, than any other factors. What are needed are government policies to give working class Asians a way out of poverty so they can have choices presently enjoyed by the more affluent in society. But instead New Labour has created a society where the gap between the rich and the poor grows bigger, where social mobility is deteriorating, and where less working class children of all backgrounds are able to enjoy decent higher education.

None of this is mentioned by Phillips, yet it is a scandal of massive proportions. As Gary Younge wrote in the Guardian, ‘Bangladeshis have the highest rate of unemployment, reaching just over 40 percent for men under 25. These people are not segregated – they are alienated. If they need to be integrated into anything as a matter of urgency, it is the workforce and the education system. A decent job with a decent income is still the best path out of the crudest forms of racism and fundamentalism. Polls and studies show a link between wealth and the propensity to integrate.’

Ludi Simpson’s conclusion is a devastating reply to Phillips’s loose and dangerous talk: ‘In 2001, the phenomenon of racial self-segregation gained the status of a legend. It was coined in a review of race relations in Bradford, repeated in government reports, and passed from one news item to another… The legend uses racialised language. “Flight” is the term used to describe white movement, while self-segregation is reserved for other groups (including a government minister’s complaint of “Muslim isolationism”)… The evidence does not support this legend… The legend of self-segregation can now be seen as a myth.’

Institutional racism

However, this is not an excuse for complacency on the part of anti-racists opposed to what Phillips is doing. We are all aware that in a third New Labour term, far from things getting better, they can get worse. The government’s attacks on Muslims and asylum seekers, combined with policies that favour the wealthy and powerful, have the potential to make Phillips’s picture real. If the government succeeds in driving a wedge between black, Asian and white by branding all Muslims potential terrorists, then we could see racism and all its consequences on the rise.

It is indicative that Phillips mentioned 7/7 in the title of his talk, and yet had nothing to say about his New Labour friends’ bloody imperial adventures and their domestic blowback, for which no one but Blair and his supporters are to blame, or the witch-hunting of Muslim organisations and individuals across the spectrum, including Yussuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens, the very moderate Muslim Council of Britain and modernist Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan. Behind Phillips’s pronouncements hide an unwillingness by New Labour to even acknowledge the pervasive institutionalised racism that really does blight society and destroy lives, let alone combat it.

As some commentators have pointed out in response to Phillips’s speech, there are forces acting to exclude and isolate members of an ethnic minority group – not Asian Muslims, but African-Caribbean boys. This blows the biggest New Labour totem out of the water – the idea that the closer you come to the ‘British norm,’ the more likely you are to be integrated into society and reap the rewards. Today black Caribbean young men are likely to be more poverty-stricken than their fathers and grandfathers. The black male unemployment rate is at the same levels today as it was in the days of the 1948 Windrush generation. Yet where are the high level ‘alarm bells’, the brave and determined government declarations, the morning press conferences, the urgent task forces and legislation to crack this situation?

As Professor Danny Dorling from the University of Sheffield wrote in the Observer, ‘There are shocking statistics concerning segregation that Phillips does need to address. In some areas African-Caribbean boys are up to 15 times more likely to be excluded from school than are white boys, and up to 12 times more likely to be incarcerated in prison in Britain. Children and young people are being segregated out of classrooms and disproportionately into prisons by ethnicity in this country.’ Dorling went on to point out, ‘Cut up Britain horizontally rather than by neighbourhood, and you do find minority-majority areas. For example, above the fifth floor of all housing in England and Wales a minority of children are white. Most children growing up in the tower blocks of London and Birmingham – the majority of children “living in the sky” in Britain – are black.’

Stafford Scott is a well respected and longtime community activist on the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham. He wrote in the Guardian that 20 years after the riot against the police on that estate ‘almost nothing has changed. While outwardly Broadwater Farm may look different…for most young people there the issues are exactly the same as they have ever been. The key issue is institutionalised racism and its impact, whether through bad policing, education or a lack of jobs… Things are still so bad that even now we are being described by service providers as “hard to reach communities”. It is an odd term that means very little, because some service providers, such as the police, always know where to find black people when they need to.’

Phillips’s attacks on multiculturalism and complicity with the government’s agenda are obscuring the real burning issues around race, class and the destructive impact of New Labour’s imperialism. The tragedy is that many people who generally support multiculturalism will feel undermined, confused and demoralised by the constant attacks by Phillips and his ilk. They will feel unable to defend progressive unifying ideas and anti-racist struggles, while the bigots will feel puffed up that a black man is articulating their prejudices.

All politicians, Trevor Phillips included, should be judged by Paul Foot’s incisive and remarkably contemporary maxim from his 1965 book Immigration and Race in British Politics: ‘Politics can drive the knife home or remove its menace… No one can underestimate the danger of that choice. The tiger of racialism, once unleashed, knows no master. It devours its liberators and its prey with equal ferocity.’

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