This year’s general election will see the British National Party try and exploit divided communities in towns and cities across the country. Charlie Baker, who has worked for regeneration cooperative URBED in cities across northern England, looks at the causes of prejudice and segregation in Britain’s racial hotspots.
Following Trevor Phillips’ claim back in 2005 that we were “sleepwalking towards segregation”, there was a flurry of research to argue the contrary. It is quite convincing. The research says that on the whole things are better than they used to be, that this “sleepwalk” has no statistical evidence beyond a piece of research by academic Mike Poulsen which creates this picture by moving some statistical goalposts.
I lack the academic credentials to challenge either side, but I wonder if the issue is not one of statistics but perception. Won’t people see an area as Asian if the pubs shut, if all the shops are run by Asian people, if there are mostly brown faces on the street? Is that segregation or a lack of integration, or just something that happens?
URBED is a regeneration cooperative that’s worked in many of the northern towns of England that at various points have had issues (or been accused of having them) regarding integration: Bradford, Burnley, Blackburn, Accrington, Colne, Oldham, Rochdale. There is no doubt that while nowhere in this country suffers the kind of 80-100 percent segregation that some US cities exhibit, in enough of our towns there is perilously little integration between the communities.
This lack of integration means the sharing of experiences and accumulation of common assumptions that bind communities together does not happen. That alone would be bad enough, but worse, it allows perceptions to go unchallenged. These layer up to create walls of assumption that not only divide communities but create a sufficient level of ‘otherness’ that people can vote BNP because they genuinely believe that the ‘blacks are taking all our houses, the Asians have got all the jobs’. And not all the bricks in these walls were laid by one side. Sweeping generalisations and destructive stereotypes work both ways.
Enormous progress has been made in tackling racism in this country, but the economic circumstances of many people in the UK means resources are scarce for them, not helped by the demise of the industries for which employees from the Asian subcontinent were originally invited to work. The ‘otherness’ is then used to differentiate in the struggle for these resources. If race is the differentiator, then the person using it is a de facto racist.
In the work we did on a new vision for Oldham in 2003, where those resources were felt to be most scarce, hundreds of the responses we got to our consultation met that definition. I was surprised at the willingness of some of those attending our consultation events to express clearly racist views. The fact that my MEP (Griffin, BNP, Northwest), a racist by any logical definition, was voted in suggests that Oldham isn't the only place where racism is alive and kicking.
The racist in most Brits is now buried beneath a 44-year campaign to make it socially unacceptable to say it, but that can do little to stop people thinking it. It squeezes out through the edges in places like housing allocation. The “I've worked hard for this country but I can’t get a house” line is too often code. Even the “well they smell, don’t they?” school of bigot is below the radar of workplace and housing discrimination that can readily be legislated against. In some areas, I found that once people trusted that you were not going to tell them off, too many were prepared to volunteer surprisingly offensive points of view.
To make matters worse, the conflation of race and culture has made debate about integration such a minefield that is has been avoided, meaning that we as a nation have failed to actually tackle racism once it vanishes below the radar of anti-racism legislation.
So the decision of immigrant communities to keep themselves to themselves is entirely understandable. Where there is hostility or the perception of it, the reaction of the migrant communities is bound to be one of safety in numbers and has been for millennia, no matter what the race or culture.
This separation is then exacerbated by the cultural differences in not just Muslim/Christian societies but urban/rural and illiterate/educated, and of course language barriers. Some of these communities are so self-contained that there are people who have been here for 40 years who still speak no English.
How do you have a debate which separates a need to avoid the bigots from a desire to maintain the traditions of the old country? Or is that a logical reaction to the circumstances - a self-conscious demonstration to create a feeling of something familiar inside the community because the reality outside is too much? My experience is that the hijab is much more common than it used to be, while the traditional short trousers and long shirt worn as a badge of identity by kids born here is not just hankering after a time when things were more certain but rebelling against their demonisation.
The international situation has added the icing to the cake. The gulf in perceptions widens as one side blames a religion on which the other side relies, to varying degrees, for the definition of its identity. And this creates a line of separation between the communities from the Asian subcontinent. The Christian West hasn't bombed any Hindu villages for some time now but dead Muslims are on the TV far too often. It’s hard to fault a desire to turn toward those who share your understanding of what’s going on when some little wide-boy has told you he’s going to kill you and the pictures on the TV suggest his country is doing it too.
To criticise this lack of integration would make me hypocritical in the eyes of many readers, coming as I do from a culture where, when faced with a foreign language, English visitors to other countries just speak English louder and more impatiently and bemoan the lack of a decent pie - decades after they moved there, if southern Spain is anything to go by.
But that does not prohibit me from saying it, in the context of the northern towns of which I speak. This is a problem. It may not be segregation as such but it is similarly destructive.
Who can blame white people in a working class Rochdale neighbourhood for giving up and leaving when the culture of their neighbourhood changes so much that they are actually excluded. The pubs all go, the shops change to sell produce that in some places becomes entirely Asian in stock, the schools become 95 percent brown, playground priorities shift. Sadness and even anger at this kind of thing, if you lack the resources to get out or change it, is understandable. Is it possible to express anger at this situation without it being de facto racism? The inability of society as a whole to validate this anger is what then allows the BNP its foothold.
Then there is class. The Mirpuri exodus to the northern towns emptied an area of a rural small scale agricultural population. In the small dealings I have had with the Indian population of Leicester and the Punjabi population of Southall there is a difference in vibe. In both cases, one with a large Indian and Hindu element in Leicester, the other mainly Sikh but with a significant Pakistani element in Southall, the class origins are more, if not middle, then mercantile. Is the issue here the class of the white people, the class of the migrant and the less exclusive nature of the cultures (music, dancing and drinking being areas of more common ground), or are northerners more bigoted than southerners? Clearly not the latter.
To conclude, in many of the towns that I‘ve worked in up here there is very little integration, but integration is a politically charged term. It has expressed itself as expected in schools, in housing choices, in workplaces. But you cannot force integration. And should you if you could? In a healthy society plurality and diversity enrich life – why would you want to homogenise? It would be ridiculous to crush the myriad of differing identities.
But polarity is another matter. When difference is used to explain lack of access to resources in order to create a focus for discontent, then we are in trouble. History suggests that further waves of immigration will remove the polarity - which can only work with two opposing poles after all. Once there are many different cultures sharing a place, what is the basis for division then?
The influx of eastern Europeans is crystallising this. While mainly white and Christian, they are still ‘other’ – but this shifts the indignation off the Asian population. Will Asian people who have been here for many years share common cause with the white British population and accuse the Poles and Lithuanians of coming here and stealing their jobs?
Sad though it may be, it becomes a shared experience, and those are what bind communities together.
Charlie Baker is Project Manager for URBED