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Who are we? Census 2011 reports on ethnicity in the UK

Posted by Vicki 11 December 2012 : General ,

Today's post is written by our head of policy, Dr Omar Khan

Every ten years the Census provides us with multiple insights into the state of modern Britain. In today’s release of the 2011 Census, we find that the Black and minority ethnic (BME) population has reached nearly 8 million – roughly the population of Scotland and Wales combined.

Overall, the BME population is now 14.1% of the overall total in England and Wales, rising from 7.9% in 2001. This doesn’t include the significant ‘White Other’ population which is now 2.5 million, or 4.4% of the overall population. Much of this growth has been through immigration, and many will assume that the ‘White Other’ population is primarily Eastern European. However, this population also includes White French, White Australian, White Argentinian and White American people, which explains why this disparate ‘group’ is now some 12.6% of the population of London.

Combined with the 40% of the population that is Black and minority ethnic, a minority of London’s residents are now ‘White British’ (46%). While this is indeed a striking development, it masks an arguably more significant development – the greater dispersal of ethnic minorities across the UK. Contrary to much received wisdom, Britain is becoming less ‘segregated’ every year.

Between 2001 and 2011, the regions whose BME population has grown the fastest are those that had the fewest ethnic minorities in 2011. So Wales, the North East and South West have all doubled their proportion of BME people (from just over 2% to over 4%), while London and West Midlands, which had the most BME people in 2001, have grown the slowest. There are more BME people living across the UK, including in villages and the countryside, and this phenomenon can be expected to continue.

One of the striking findings of the census is the reduction in the overall number of ‘White British’ people by over half a million people. So one reason the BME proportion of the population is rising is because the White British population is shrinking. In most regions of England and Wales this decrease or growth was actually quite minimal (with the White British population growing by more than 2% over the decade only in the South East), but London was notable because there were 600,000 fewer White British people living there in 2011 compared to 2001. This clearly points to the phenomenon of White British people leaving the capital, and explains much of the rise in London’s proportion of BME people.

In terms of specific ethnic groups, the Indian group remains the largest. The ‘Other Asian’ category – containing such different populations as Sri Lankan, Filipino, Afghani, Thai, Vietnamese and Iranian – grew the fastest, more than tripling in size to some 830,000 people. Black African and Black Other were the next fastest growing groups.

It’s also worth highlighting the two new ethnic groups in the census – Gypsy and Traveller, and Arab. Around 60,000 filled in the former category, while some 230,000 ticked the ‘Arab’ box. We will need to analyse the geographic distribution and other outcomes for these new groups, which will shed much light on the nature of racism against Gypsy and Traveller people, as well as adding greater texture to our understanding of the experiences of Muslims in the UK.

Inevitably much coverage of the census will focus on the rising ‘Mixed’ population, which now is the second largest, at some 1.2 million people. While the rise in the number of people categorized as mixed has been quite remarkable, so too has the overall BME growth, meaning that the ‘Mixed’ population is only 1% more (15.6%) of the total BME population than it was in 2001 (14.6%).

The ‘Mixed’ population also indicates two further important aspects of the census – its role in outlining how people identify, but also – and perhaps more significantly – their social experiences and outcomes. Unlike France and other countries that refuse to enumerate the number of ethnic minorities in their population, we not only know how many ethnic minorities live here, but how well they are doing in terms of education, employment and income, as well as how far this varies by local authority and indeed ‘output areas’ as small as a few hundred households. If this is indeed the last head count Census, we may be more like France and other countries in guessing in the dark about the nature and experience of our ethnic minority and indeed other populations.

On most social outcome measures, the ‘Mixed’ population shows enormous variation, with Black Caribbean-White and Black African-White people more likely to have outcomes similar to Black people generally. In other words, rather than viewing the ‘mixed’ population as a single group with shared social experiences, we should rather focus on the continued salience of race, and in particular how the racial background of parents affects the social outcomes of children.

In terms of identity, it is also doubtful that a Brazilian-Chinese, Irish-Caribbean, Indian-Jewish and Somali-Pakistani share a common ‘identity’ or are a coherent ‘group’. This applies, of course, to other groups, too, most notably the various ‘Other’ group. We have already explained how the ‘White Other’ and ‘Asian Other’ population contains disparate groups, and the same is obviously true for the residual ‘Other’ group.

It is also significant that many of these categories have large and growing populations. This raises the final important question – how identity shifts over people’s lifetimes and indeed across generations. While the overall share of Black people within the BME population remained about a quarter, there was a sharp decrease in the proportion who identified as ‘Black Caribbean’. However, the ‘Black Other’ group saw the steepest rise, suggesting that some children of Black Caribbean parents are happier with this ethnic identity.

Depending on how identity and social experiences change, we might expect further development of the current census categories. For example, the children of White Polish parents may plausibly identify as ‘White British’, as many of the grandchildren of Irish and Italian migrants now do, while many ‘Mixed’ people may rather identify as one of their parents. Here it’s worth emphasizing again the importance of social experiences and social outcomes in understanding race and ethnicity. That Barack Obama self-identifies as African American rather than ‘Mixed’ has probably little to do with a rejection of his mother’s heritage or a radical kind of separatist politics. Rather, Obama’s identity is informed by his social experience, and the reality of racism is evidenced not simply in his experiences in the 1970s or 1980s, but in the continued focus on his place of birth and by the fact that over 90% of White American voters in Mississippi and Alabama voted for his opponent.

So while it is important to understand self-identification in thinking about race and ethnicity, people cannot simply choose an identity of their own making, nor can they escape the views and prejudices in others in navigating the world. In the UK, the unemployment rate for Black young men is now 55%, Chinese graduates with better results have lower earnings than their White colleagues and Black and Asian women face such difficult experiences in the labour market that some of them change their names on their CVs.

With the BME population now constituting 1 in 7 of the overall population (comparable to the likely share of the vote that went to the Liberal Democrats at the last election), politicians would do well to respond to these matters, not only if they wish to ensure the quality of our democracy, but also if they wish to win a majority in Parliament and grow our economy. And if this is the last full Census, they must accept the consequence of knowing less about how our population is changing, and where we need to direct policy and resources to offer equal life chances to everyone regardless of their ethnicity.

The Runnymede Blog

The Runnymede Blog is a space for us to explore issues relevant to race and ethnicity.

We also seek to provide updates of race equality-related issues within the Westminster village.

The blog is written by members of the Runnymede staff team or external contributors, where stated.

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