Are we ‘sleepwalking into segregation’? Panellists discuss at ‘Integrated Britain?’ event

Mark Rusling, Cabinet Member for Children and Young People in Waltham Forest, suggested that the UK is in danger of ‘sleepwalking into segregation’ at an event examining the topic of integration in British society last night at the RGS-IBG. The event, the latest in the series of ’21st Century Challenges‘ discussion meetings for public audiences, saw distinguished panellists take to the stage to discuss whether we should be doing more to support integration of different cultures in Britain.

Professor Ted Cantle, founder of the Institute of Community Cohesion, examined how integration was understood by policy-makers before the year 2000, and how this understanding changed progressively through the first years of the new Millennium. Prior to 2000, integration was perceived as a gradual process of change, with the expectation that minority communities would gradually integrate into majority communities over time. In 2001, with riots in Northern towns in England between white and ‘Asian’ communities, Professor Cantle was commissioned to write a report which concluded that communities were in essence leading ‘parallel lives’. Lack of contact between different communities led to a lack of understanding, fear and apprehension about others. The concept of ‘community cohesion’ that Professor Cantle developed brought an understanding of the need to bridge cultures to break down these barriers.

Since 2005, the focus of policy around integration has shifted to the Muslim community, with an associated fear of extremism. A climate of suspicion has been created around Muslim communities. The emphasis now is on fostering a sense of ‘shared Britishness’, based on an understanding of ‘British values’. From measuring degrees of integration between communities based on residential segregation, to segregation in a wider range of settings (schools, faith, community organisations and activities), integration debates now focus on a value-laden agenda.

Professor Cantle identified two major trends in society: the first is the growth of areas that are more mixed, with every major city in the world, and cities across the UK, becoming ‘super diverse’. Diversity is the ‘new normal’ for many people. There is greater acceptance of difference in society – from ethnicity to gender, sexual orientation and faith. Yet the second trend is that at the same time, areas that are segregated are growing. In England, segregation is most apparent in the North, with the South of the country least segregated. Areas that were dominated by minority groups have become more so, whilst areas with a majority of white British residents have become more diverse. Professor Cantle suggested that the reasons for this finding are disputed, and that it isn’t clear whether ‘white flight’ from cities has been motivated by racial reasons or economic factors.

Mark Rusling gave examples from Walthamstow to illustrate how everyday segregation manifests itself in communities, highlighting how residents from different ethnic groups use different shops, occupy different workplaces and send their children to different schools. Mark suggested however that it is social class, rather than race, which is the major fault line in British society today and that those from the same faith group may have more, in fact, in common with others of a similar economic standing to them, than with those with whom they share a religious heritage. The Social Integration Commission has identified that the biggest gap in terms of integration/ segregation is actually between those from social classes A and E; this gap is greater than between any two ethnicities.

There is no doubt, said Sunder Katwala, Director of British Future, that society is changing and more quickly than in the past. He stressed the need to have ‘a conversation’ across society about the pace of change, allowing people to express views that they may feel anxious to, for fear of being labelled ‘racist’. He criticised policy-makers, economists and others who, when challenged about high levels of immigration, refer to figures detailing the economic benefits of highly-skilled migrants to the UK economy. The narrative about how ‘migrants are good for us’ is still a story about ‘them and us’, said Sunder. Instead the conversation needs to move towards focusing on ‘the new us’ and be couched in language that people can understand. ‘Cohesion’ and ‘integration’ means little to people. Instead of abstract ‘policy speak’, which is a way of evading what can be seen as difficult conversations, decision-makers need to listen to people’s concerns about how society is changing.

The theme running throughout all of the speakers’ talks and subsequent discussion was that integration is a choice. It is a choice that each citizen must make but it is not enough to simply leave this to people’s whims. People need to be helped to integrate. In some cases this might be intervention from the Government to shut down wholly segregated schools, for example, forcing them to combine. Mark Rusling suggested that Ofsted could be instructed to examine what schools are doing in terms of fostering integration, which would incentivise schools to take this issue seriously. The notion of an individual’s contribution to society as an important component of integration was also highlighted. Omar Salha, PhD Nohoudh Scholar in the Centre for Islamic Studies at SOAS highlighted that people of all groups must consider their duties as citizens to the societies in which they find themselves. Positive examples can be found from his community initiatives, Ramadan Tent Project and Football Beyond Borders, which bring people together through volunteering, food and football.

Overall, the speakers’ view was that integration must be about recognising the commonalities, rather than the differences, between groups of people, understanding the common humanity and values that unite, rather than divide us.

A complementary event, the RGS-IBG 21st Century Challenges: Policy Forum examining ‘Europe’s Migration Crisis?’ will take place on Tuesday 22nd March. Find out more.

Image: Saturday Market Walsall. Ian Halsey, Flickr.