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From The Socialist newspaper, 20 October 2005

Sleepwalking to segregation?

IS BRITAIN "sleepwalking its way to segregation" and US-style ghettos, as claimed by Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality?
HANNAH SELL argues that socialists should not ignore increases in the divisions between different sections of the working class, but play an active role in fighting to overcome them.

HURRICANE KATRINA brought the brutal reality of racial segregation in the US into the eyes of the world. The people who were left trapped in New Orleans were the poor, and they were overwhelmingly Afro-American.

The growing number of Afro-American celebrities and even the fact that Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice had made it into government, had given the impression to the world that the US was no longer divided on racial lines.

Now the truth was laid bare, while the black middle class has undoubtedly grown, poverty is the norm for the majority. In general, it is the working class that are affected but it bears down particularly hard on minorities.

Unemployment is twice as high amongst blacks as amongst whites; blacks are twice as likely as whites to die from disease, accident or murder at every stage of their lives. Around 24% of black families live below the poverty line, compared to 8% of the white population.

There is no doubt that ghettoes exist in the US. However, hard on the heels of New Orleans, Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), declared that Britain was "sleepwalking its way to segregation" and that US-style ghettos were imminent in Britain. Phillips particularly highlighted communities of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin in Bradford and Leicester.

Phillips' remarks have created a flurry of discussion. This is particularly so because he talked predominantly about Muslim communities, at a time when Muslims are facing dramatically increased discrimination and prejudice. He also said that the word 'multiculturalism' should be killed off because it "suggests separateness".

Class divide

Without doubt this gave the impression that he was apportioning a large part of the blame for increased segregation onto the 'choices' made by Muslim communities.

Since the July bombings the police estimate that there has been a 600% increase in racist attacks against Muslims. For the head of the Commission for Racial Equality to concentrate on the choices made by Muslims, rather than the racism and Islamaphobia they face, is profoundly mistaken.

His central mistake, however, which heightened the perception that he was blaming ethnic minorities for increased segregation, was when he said that "less than 10% of ethnic segregation is explained by economic factors, much more is down to history and to choice".

However, economic factors clearly play a role in where people 'choose' to live. Class is the greatest and most fundamental divide that exists; and in both the US and Britain the economic gulf between the mass of people and the super-rich is growing.

In Britain the growing gap between rich and poor is reflected in their increased geographical class segregation. Since 1997 geographical inequality surrounding a baby's chances of reaching its first birthday has increased. Meanwhile, rocketing house prices mean that a child born into more economically favourable circumstances is now set to inherit a minimum of £80,000.

Overall, ethnic minorities in Britain are amongst the most disadvantaged and discriminated sections of the working class. The communities highlighted by Phillips are the most oppressed of all. In 1999, for example, 28% of white families lived below the poverty line compared with 41% of Afro-Caribbean families and 84% of Bangladeshi families. The growing gulf between rich and poor inevitably hits these communities hardest.

Conflicting trends

IT HAS also been argued that Phillips was plain wrong when he said ethnic segregation was increasing. The truth is more complicated than either Phillips, or most of his detractors, have suggested.

It is true that the research Phillips based his speech on actually shows that the overall trend is heading in the opposite direction to that suggested by him. According to the 2001 Census, overall the indices for segregation fell between 1991 and 2001 for all ethnic and religious groups (apart from the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland where segregation increased).

Only 22% of people from ethnic minorities live in wards where their ethnic group forms more than 50% of the population.

The segregation figures have improved overall for a number of reasons. Partly there has been increased integration of some longer-standing communities, particularly Afro-Caribbeans. Additionally, there has been an increase in immigration from a wider range of countries than was previously the case. This means that areas which were previously dominated by one ethnic minority have now often become more ethnically mixed (although this doesn't necessarily mean that there is greater communication between different ethnic groups).

Finally, there has been an increase in the number of people from ethnic minorities who have moved out of the big cities.

Nonetheless, there are strong trends towards increased segregation in some parts of Britain. The simplistic answer given by some on the Left to Phillips that Britain is becoming "more integrated" is incorrect. The different reactions to the horror of the July bombings demonstrated the different consciousnesses that exist.

On one side, the multi-ethnic nature of London (and of the victims of the bombing) meant that few Londoners blamed all Muslims for the bombing. In fact, a majority of the population of Britain (57%) agreed that racism and Islamphobia were part of the reason why the bombers were driven to such a terrible act.

On the other side, racist incidents against all ethnic minorities increased dramatically in the wake of the bombing. Two-thirds of Muslims considered leaving Britain because they feared increased discrimination.

State repression of Muslims, and people who appear 'Muslim', has also increased dramatically. From 2001 to 2002 there was a 41% increase in 'stop and search' against Asians by the Metropolitan Police and the figures have rocketed again since 7/7.

This has inevitably led to an increase in the feelings of isolation and alienation from British society that already existed amongst many Muslims as a result of both international factors and the discrimination they face in British society. For instance, one in seven of economically active Muslims are unemployed, compared with one in 20 for the wider population.

Even higher education does not overcome the obstacles Muslims face. One-quarter of Muslim graduates are unemployed at a time when overall official unemployment stands at 4.5%.

And, while ethnic minorities do not live in ghettoes in the sense that they exist in the US, there are often strong elements of segregation, especially for young people, with some streets and districts being for whites and blacks and others for Asians, with abuse and the threat of violence if the borders are crossed.

After the 7/7 bombings the media interviewed countless young people from Leeds, from all ethnic backgrounds, who explained that this was their experience in an area which, on the surface, was relatively integrated. In other areas, particularly in some North-West towns where industry has been destroyed, segregation has gone much further.

Trade union unity

IN ANSWERING Phillips, Lee Jasper, Ken Livingstone's director of policy on equality, has argued that "culturally distinct communities can be hugely positive and beneficial".

It would, of course, be completely wrong to argue against the right of different minorities to live in 'clusters' or that there are positive aspects to doing so. However, what is beginning to exist in some parts of Britain are white and ethnic minority communities who have very little contact with each other, and where fear and distrust is growing.

The Oldham Independent Review, commissioned by the government after the Oldham riots in 2001, concluded that: "Whether in school or out of school there are few opportunities for young people across the communal boundaries to mix within Oldham. Except where people have significant contact in the workplace this is the case for adults too."

Historically, it has been common work, and in particular the role of the trade unions in uniting different sections of workers to fight together for improved wages and conditions, that has helped break down racism between different sections of the working class.

In Oldham, according to the same government report, this never happened to the same degree as in some other communities, partly because of a conscious policy of divide-and-rule by the mill-owners who kept Asian workers exclusively on the night shifts. And, unfortunately, there was a failure by union leaders to overcome that.

And, the collapse of manufacturing industry has curtailed the limited contact that existed in the past. It has also inevitably led to an increase in poverty and alienation. On average people in Oldham are 28% more likely to die prematurely than in England and Wales as a whole.

Poverty is particularly acute for the Asian population (eight out of ten children live in poverty in the two wards with the highest Asian population).

The council's policies have also led to increased segregation and racism. Historically, the council segregated Asian applicants for public housing into one area with particularly low-quality housing. More recently, Asian families have on some occasions been allocated housing in other areas but have had to move out because of racist abuse.

The council has also failed to employ Asian workers. Whilst for the white population the public sector is a major employer, only 2.6% of the council's workforce comes from ethnic minorities.

Schooling in Oldham is almost completely segregated, which undoubtedly exacerbates the divisions that exist. At the time of the 2001 riots, less than 5% of pupils came from ethnic minorities in six of the secondary schools, whereas in two schools they made up 97% and 77% of pupils. The situation in primary schools was just as stark.

The main reason for the level of segregation in schools was not the existence formally of 'Asian' or 'white' schools but the segregation that exists in society. Nonetheless, the government's plans to use City Academies as a means to break up local authority schooling and bring private companies and charities into education will over time further lower the quality of education for millions of students, and could lead to a huge increase in the number of religious schools, thereby increasing the segregation in schooling.

Oldham is particularly acute but the same processes are taking place in many other towns and cities. Fundamentally, the responsibility lies with British capitalism, which is increasingly incapable of providing decent jobs, housing and education for working-class people in Britain.

Both Tory and New Labour governments have presided over a drive by big business to restore its profits at the expense of working people. The result is insecure jobs in the service sector, low pay and privatised public services for most of us, with super profits for the billionaires.

Social divides

INCREASING POVERTY and insecurity are leading to increased social fragmentation, including increased racism.

This is not only related to the attacks of British capitalism, but also the weakness of the labour and trade union movement in fighting against it. In the 1950s and 1960s it was the trade union movement in Britain which played the key role in cutting across racism.

Also, in the past the Labour Party, while it had a capitalist leadership, nonetheless had a working-class base and gave voice, at least partially, to workers' struggles to improve their conditions.

It also played a role in cutting across racism. This was instinctively understood by Muslims in the past, when they supported the Labour Party. Whilst realising its limitations they rightly saw it as "less racist in both attitude and practise than other parties".

Today, New Labour is an out-and-out party of big business and is spearheading attacks on the working class. As a result there is no mainstream party nationally and very few voices explaining the reality of working-class life, never mind articulating how to change it.

In a letter to The Guardian, a Canon Chivers accurately responded to Phillips' remarks. He stated the rarely uttered obvious when he said that in his town of Blackburn segregation and racism against ethnic minorities was already an increasing reality.

He went on to say that "behind it, however, lies a sense of alienation from a market-driven economic strategy that has pertained since the Thatcher years and has done little to transform such communities. What the Blackburns of society most need is enhanced educational and economic opportunities: racial harmony and community cohesion can only be advanced if a higher-skills, higher-wage economy can be established."

Even government minister Margaret Hodge has been forced to recognise that only providing "decent homes that [working-class people] can afford" will cut across racism. However, she immediately discounted the possibility of providing public-sector housing.

Equally, the Oldham Independent Review concluded that poverty and the lack of decent housing were central causes of the riots. However, its only answers were increased use of the private sector.

A major programme of high quality, public-sector house building is the only means to provide working-class housing on a scale that would meet people's needs and therefore begin to cut across racism.

This is derided by all the mainstream parties but from 1949-54 an average of 230,000 council houses were built each year. By contrast, from 1999-2001 there were only 400 council houses built in the whole of Britain.

United movement

ONLY A determined struggle of working-class people, in trade unions and communities, united across ethnic lines, will effectively counter the government and big businesses' determined attempts to destroy public services. The anti-war movement showed the potential for a united movement between working-class Muslims and other sections of the population.

Although it did not succeed in preventing New Labour going to war, which would have taken mass industrial action, it nonetheless profoundly weakened the government. And, mobilisations against the occupation of Iraq, particularly by the working class, in the US and Britain, remain vital to forcing the withdrawal of the troops.

The kind of unity that was shown in the anti-war movement now needs to be demonstrated in a struggle for high-quality public-sector housing and public services, against low pay and for free education.

An essential part of this struggle is the need for a new workers’ party - to represent and fight for all sections of the working class.

Socialists should not ignore increases in the divisions between different sections of the working class but play an active role in fighting to overcome them.

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In The Socialist 20 October 2005:

Take over the drug companies

Health service... condition critical!

Government climbs down but questions still remain

Courts fail to tackle rail dangers

Come to Socialism 2005 - defend democratic rights

Students are searching for a socialist alternative

Sleepwalking to segregation?

Poorest areas of towns and villages suffer most

Iraq: Women's rights pushed back

Strong solidarity action against Connex union-busting

Challenging 'partnership'

London bus workers reject pay offer


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