Trevor Phillips: ghetto blaster?

The chair of the Commission for Racial Equality might worry about racial segregation in Britain's cities, but his proposed solutions will only push people further apart.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), has warned that Britain is ‘sleepwalking’ into racial segregation, with white, Muslim and black ‘ghettos’ dividing cities. He sees America’s experience after Hurricane Katrina as a ‘warning’ to Britain to avoid similar ‘complacency’.

Am I missing something, but since when have ‘ghettoised’ city areas become big news? And just who exactly is Phillips trying to blame here? Local government’s social policies, or black, white and Muslim people who just can’t seem to love their neighbour?

The demarcation of urban areas along racial lines first emerged during the post-war years. Many Asian and black immigrants were housed in slum areas, such as the East End of London, after the white working-class had evacuated them for the suburbs. Allocating social housing along racial lines, and in the process creating ‘ghettos’, continued to be official policy of local authorities throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Increasingly, such allocations were institutionally justified via the language of multiculturalism and diversity. In areas such as Dewsbury, Bradford and Oldham, tensions have risen precisely because different ethnic groups are encouraged to play the identity card. Rather than the allocation of resources being based on basic economic need, local authorities stress the importance of recognising ethnic groups’ cultural ‘differences’. If some Muslim communities have become segregationist, it’s only because local authorities have given them the material incentive to do so. For Phillips to blame people for being ‘suspicious’ of others is a spectacular inversion of reality.

Predictably enough, Phillips isn’t criticising the policies and practices of local authorities. Instead he wants more professional meddlers to try and enforce social cohesion. This includes having ethnic quotas in areas that are predominately made up of one social group. If only certain areas looked like a Benetton advert, the argument goes, then Britain’s fragmented society could become more cohesive. Leaving aside the patronising subtext that we all need social etiquette classes, Phillips seems to endow as much weight to skin colour as old-fashioned racists.

There is something witheringly banal in the belief that differences in personal appearance somehow equals a ‘rich diversity’, that what you ‘are’ rather than what you ‘do’ is somehow deeply significant. It seems Phillips automatically equates racial background with fixed cultural identities and particularistic expressions. For someone who recently declared that multiculturalism is problematic, he’s doing a grand job in keeping it all alive. Phillips’ proposal to stop the ghettoisation of urban areas is for there to be more… diversity. Far from criticising society for being too divided, too insular and too fragmented, Phillips proposals only want to heighten ‘difference’ further. Rather than encouraging a colour-blind society, Phillips won’t rest until we’re all aware that ‘hey, don’t we all look a bit different’?

Even when Phillips talks about the importance of commonality and unity, the only examples he can muster are Shakespeare and the British culture of ‘tolerance’. The basic notion that what we have in common is more important than what sets us apart is still anathema to contemporary thinking. Whilst the political elites might ‘controversially’ criticise the excesses of multiculturalism, they’re tightening its grip on society every step of the way.

Neil Davenport is a sociology lecturer and freelance writer.

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Topics Politics


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