Are We Becoming More or Less Segregated?

November 7, 2016

No one really contests that our neighbourhoods are divided by ethnicity – analysis of the census by the Integration Hub has revealed strong patterns of ethnic clustering. There is however a debate as to whether or not our ethnic minorities are becoming more or less segregated.

There are two schools of thought on the issue. The first is a network of academics under the umbrella of the Centre on Dynamics and Ethnicity (CoDE) based at Manchester University while the second focuses on the Integration Hub and the work of Eric Kaufmann and Ted Cantle.

For CoDE, segregation is declining and this is true for all ethnic minority groups, they claim. However, much of this decline is due to different minority groups spreading out and intermingling with each other rather than the majority population. If we look at the extent of residential integration between the minority population as a whole and the white British majority, we see increasing segregation. This is the view taken by the Integration Hub.

Key to understanding what is going on is an observation of what the majority is doing in areas with high levels of ethnic diversity. Put simply, they are leaving. In Newham, the white British population shrank between the census years of 2001 and 2011 from 33.6 per cent to 16.7 per cent. Places like Slough also saw remarkable declines from 58.3 per cent to 34.5 per cent white British and in Luton a decline from 64.9 per cent to 45.1 per cent.

It seems as places diversify, to the extent to which minority groups grow and spread out and at the same time increasingly mix, this goes hand in hand with a retreat by the white British majority, so much so that we have greater ethnic division than in the past.

The key statistic, provided by Eric Kaufmann, is that 44 per cent of non-white British ethnic minority people live in wards where less than half of the population is non-white British, sometimes a lot less, up from 28 per cent in 2001.

The problem with the discussion of segregation is that there has been both a discomfort about talking about the issue as well as a subtext of placing blame. Those on the anti-racism left (still influential in our universities) have either looked to explain this as the result of deprivation or white racism; majority public opinion on the other hand is more likely to blame the minority’s desire to live apart.

Segregation is a term which comes with a lot of baggage. Googling the word itself throws up images of Jim Crow America while in recent times media coverage has tended to focus on flash points in segregated communities such as Ferguson in the USA or on the Mill Town Riots of the early 2000s.

It is a word that is emotionally charged and tends to put people on collision courses with each other.

The other key point is that harms are difficult to pinpoint. Indeed, it is perfectly possible for ethnic segregation to persist without conflict. As the former Home Secretary, David Blunkett observed, we can all work together and rub alongside each other quite happily enough without there being too deep an integration between us.

However, lack of contact can breed hostility as well as suspicion which can flare up as was the case in the Mill Town Riots. Perhaps more importantly, wouldn’t it be better if there were greater mixing among Britons in its new age of unprecedented diversity? And how long can a society flourish without the social glue and trust that comes with regular contact?

The trouble is that the appeal of the familiar is strong. Put simply, people will tend to want what they know already and patterns of homophily – attraction to people who are like you – are well observed in the academic literature. More to the point, people will want to stick close to their families and friends, especially if they have children themselves and need grandparents to help with childcare. And there will be religious priorities that will pull people together, such as proximity to a mosque or halal butcher.

The point is that clustering will continue to some extent but what must not be allowed to happen is for it to turn into parallel lives (in the famous phrase from Cantle’s report on the 2001 Mill Town Riots). This is a free society and must remain so; the state cannot tell people where they are to live nor who they must be friends with. We need a coherent integration policy that can provide for greater mixing as well as reassuring the white majority population that greater ethnic diversity does not entail cultural loss.

Greater freedom of choice will often mean less integration. Government can however lean against this by providing leadership and stressing the benefits of integration by championing its cause and promoting a common but accessible British identity that is rooted in its best historical traditions. Recent polling has shown that just over half of Britons say there is not enough integration while research by Maria Sobolewska and Laurence Lessard-Phillips has shown that for most British people, integration means community involvement and mixing. A strong focus on promoting greater contact would do much to allay the concerns of the majority whilst also being good for isolated minority groups.

Dame Louise Casey’s review into integration may provide us with the ground work on which we can build a more cohesive society. It is expected to contain some uncomfortable conclusions to some but will also offer us a way to build integration policy. But central to this is that we stop apportioning blame and find a way from forward.

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