Race Matters

Segregation isn’t where white people are a minority

Many ethnicities living together isn’t segregation simply because white people are no longer the majority, writes Dr Omar Khan

If someone tells us a neighbourhood is ‘segregated’ the first images likely to pop into our mind are areas with large numbers of Black and Asian people and few, if any, white people. And for many of us, that’s not a good thing, either for white British people who feel uncomfortable or unsafe in those neighbourhoods, or for minorities whose constrained social networks curb their opportunities and income.

But the debate on segregation isn’t just about numbers or opportunities. It’s also about belonging, a feeling or understanding that’s typically more grounded in neighbourhoods and human relationships than in national stories or values. Yet while it’s important to recognize the psychological and emotional dimensions of the debate on segregation, it’s just as important to understand what segregation is – and what it isn’t. 

Confusion about what segregation actually means may have been behind recent statements by Labour’s Chuka Umunna and professor Ted Cantle to talk up the extent of communities living separate lives.

According to the most widely accepted measure of segregation, Newham and Brent in London are in fact the most diverse and least segregated in Britain and probably in Europe, with many communities from very different backgrounds. The white British population (17%) is still the largest ethnic group in Newham, but what makes it less segregated is that no single ethnic group is very large, and everyone who lives there has to learn to get along with others.

In such areas people may buy their paper from an Indian shopkeeper, get their vegetables from a Turkish greengrocer, drop their child at a nursery with a Ghanaian manager, and buy roses for their partner from a White British florists. No group here is a majority and everyone has to interact with someone from another ethnic group not only for important economic relationships, but in schools, on buses and in the workplace. And although the numbers are generally smaller outside London, all ethnic groups are dispersing outside the capital with areas including Manchester, Milton Keynes, Nottingham, Norwich and Reading now also having significant numbers of a wide range of communities.

In other words, more people of colour in the neighbourhood doesn’t necessarily make for segregation. Underpinning the myth of segregation is the idea that ethnic minorities are fundamentally different from white people, and that conflict will inevitably ensue wherever they live together. The fact that Enoch Powell’s most incendiary prophecies have been proved so comprehensively wrong has not stopped the siren voices of inherent cultural difference from issuing dire warnings of unrest dressed up as academic analysis and concern for community relations.

Alarmist concerns about segregation don’t tally with findings from the 2011 Census, where no single ethnic group (except for White British) constituted more than 47% of any local ward in London, while in the areas with the highest ethnic minority population there are typically a wide range of diverse groups. Instead of seeing such areas as diverse, analysts instead apparently look at all the non-white groups as an undifferentiated whole in contrast to the white British population. If my family move to an area that used to be 50% white British the implication is that we’re contributing to creeping segregation.

If segregation is the topic, shouldn’t we also discuss middle class people moving out because they want local streets and schools to be whiter than the demographics of the area? While there’s a bit of a myth of ‘white flight’ from London, it’s probably true that many white British people are surprised or concerned about becoming a ‘minority’ – even if they are still the single largest group in every local authority and nearly every ward.

In some ways critics are perhaps right that we don’t talk about this enough and it’s obviously true that there can be spoken and unspoken tensions in diverse (or indeed ‘homogenous’) neighbourhoods. The recent BBC programme ‘The Last Whites of the East End’ suggested that white British people are far from comfortable with increasing diversity. This followed a number of families in Newham who were upset at the number of ‘foreigners’ who had moved in. Rather than celebrate diversity they wanted to be ‘with their own’. The programme concentrated on white working class ‘cockneys’, but concern about ‘too much diversity’ is even more common amongst white middle class, and is based on a belief system about how white their street or local school should be, regardless of the local population demographics.

Those who are most agitated about ‘self segregation’ and ‘ghettoes’ in Britain would not often object to white British parents in London acting on a preference for a school to be 60% or 70%+ white British, even though less than 50% of primary school children in the capital are actually white British. It’s not just the Cockneys in Newham who fail to comprehend that they are only a minority because they chose to lump all non-whites together regardless of how diverse they are from each other.

Yet we should be careful about how we frame this, and not only by questioning innumerate claims that someone could possibly walk 20 minutes in Newham – with a white population of 29% and the shining Westfield Stratford – without seeing a white face or that no one speaks English in Lincolnshire where 93% of the population is white British. In a few decades one in five Black and Asian people will live in rural or semi-rural parts of the UK, with significant and diverse populations in areas including Sheffield, Swansea, Wokingham, Stone-on-Trent and Cambridge.

A British Bangladeshi should feel just as able to identify personally with her local area as her white British neighbour, including in connecting with the area’s history. We should be building a sense of Britishness that is inclusive not only at the national level of values and access to rights, but also in terms of participating locally in an area’s cultural and economic life.

In perhaps 10-15 years Black and minority ethnic people will constitute the majority of London’s population. Yet they are relatively evenly spread and becoming more so: Black people moving from Lambeth to Croydon to Bromley, and Turkish people moving from Hackney to Haringey to Enfield. Most white British people in London are not overly troubled by this phenomenon – after all Sadiq Khan just won a decisive victory as London’s mayor – though it is probably true they don’t realise the extent of the capital’s diversity until they visit primary schools for their children.

If we see inherent problems wherever white British people are a minority then London has already passed the point of no return. And yet it is not only the wealthiest part of the country, but also the most creative and where people of different backgrounds get along best. We shouldn’t be complacent about the significant barriers to people living together and working towards common ends. But the greater danger is to emphasis a white grievance of being a minority and a siege mentality that gives rise to fear of difference, racism and self-segregation, and ignores the continuing reality of racial inequalities in 21st century Britain. Rather than pitting a white British minority against all non-white neighbours we should focus on what unites us, including challenging racism and all forms of injustice.

The real story of places like Newham is how both white and ethnic minority people - some of whom once lived in separate lives in homogenous communities - are now part of the new Cockney, neighborhoods where many cultures and backgrounds come together to form one proud and strong local community. This is also Britain’s future, and one which we should see as an opportunity for all of us.

Dr Omar Khan is Director of the Runnymede Trust and tweets at @omaromalleykhan

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