The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

September 25th, 2005

To fight segregation, first you stop trying

How late it is, how late. At last Trevor Phillips of the Commission for Racial Equality has dared to point out the obvious: we are sleepwalking towards segregation.

The British have prided themselves on good race relations, at least in most places and particularly in London. But the truth is rather different, as the recent bombings have forced us to understand, and as the Burnley, Bradford and Oldham riots of 2001 and the Cantle report might have made us appreciate sooner. We are not as different from the United States as we like to imagine. We may be becoming more like them.

As Phillips said last week, there are walls going up around some ethnic communities, particularly those of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origins. More generally there is surprisingly little contact between different ethnic groups and maybe less now than previously. Last year the commission found that 54% of white Britons could not name a single good friend from a different race and fewer than 10% could name two.

More strikingly, young people from ethnic minorities were twice as likely to have a circle of friends exclusively from their own community. This year the figures show even less mixing. The well-worn idea that children are colour blind and will mix quite naturally at school is mistaken. Research suggests that children are slightly more segregated in the playground than at home.

Regardless of the unintended consequences of misguided housing policies, which have flung people into ghettos, it is natural for people to want to live with their own kind. At last it is beginning to be possible to admit this obvious fact without being called a racist, because it is clear that it is not only white people who like living with their own kind, whatever that might mean. Everyone tends to. White people may choose leafy ghettos in suburbs, while according to Saira Khan, the young businesswoman star of the television series The Apprentice, the “guilty secret” of her (Pakistani) community is that “so many of us live in ghettos not because we have to but because we want to”.

I don’t think there’s any guilt attached to living with people you want to live with, and a great deal to be said against forcing people to live somewhere else. Ghettos only matter when they present problems. However, when living with your own kind turns into apartheid, when it means ignorance and mistrust and resentment of other kinds of people, then it is dangerous and can even be explosive.

By now even left-liberals admit that all this has been made much worse by official multiculturalism that encouraged segregation, separate values and even separate languages. British society has become alarmingly fragmented alarmingly quickly. The question is what, if anything, should be done about it.

I passionately believe that “doing things” — at least in the sense of government and quangos and councils actively doing things — is usually a large part of the problem. Playing with Fire, a play by David Edgar that opened last week, makes exactly this point. The subject is the complex causes of some race riots much like those of 2001. In the plot heavy-handed Whitehall interference in the running of a Yorkshire council, with intrusive targets and grants and ethnic manipulation, does a lot to inflame resentment and to light the touchpaper of the riots.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that over 25 years the race relations industry has exacerbated race relations in this country. The answers to segregation, if there are any, lie not in doing things but in stopping doing things, as far as officialdom is concerned. Phillips’s proposals to tinker with school populations and university entrance are just more of the same old mistakes — almost certain to make things worse.

My modest proposals start with the suggestion that we should stop worrying about race and racism. Crude old-fashioned colour prejudice is not usually the problem any more; when it is, there are laws to protect its victims. All the anti-racist audits and outreaches and targets and ethnic bean-counting generally should stop at once, leaving public servants to get on with providing frontline colour-blind public services. Even if the hydra-like growth of initiatives to ensure perfect numbers of ethnic representation, right down to questions about ethnic parking (like one I received from my council), were practicable — and they aren’t — they are counterproductive. They make everyone hyper-sensitive about race. They inflame grievances where few exist.

It also seems entirely obvious that we should stop creating new faith schools in the state sector. Mixed schools can do something, if only a little, to bring children and parents together in a community; schools segregated by religion promote segregation and cultural apartheid. This is unfortunately more true of Muslim schools than of others. The chief inspector of schools commented in January that some Muslim schools failed to provide pupils with the tools they need to live in modern Britain.

Yet Tony Blair is proposing to allow the number of state-funded Muslim schools to grow along with other religious schools. At the moment there are five, but there are about 100 private Muslim schools that the government wants to help move into the state sector. It intends to make that easier by temporarily relaxing certain standards. This is subsidising segregation. The solution is to create no more state religious schools at all.

When it comes to how people feel about each other, which is what counts, official solutions rarely work. If anything can be done, it will be from the bottom up, simply from people getting to know each other, recognising how important that is.

Last week the mosque nearest to me in North Kensington, London — it is also an Islamic cultural centre — invited local people for a discussion on community cohesion, followed by lunch. The centre is close to the estate where two suspected bombers were arrested in July so more community cohesion would be welcome.

We the guests found ourselves discussing all sorts of local concerns and projects and in the process getting to know some local Muslims. It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of little events like this, unexciting though they might sound. If it is not too late to make a difference, then this — slow and informal though it may be — must surely be one of the best ways forward.