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‘Sleepwalking to segregation?’

Nissa Finney and Ludi Simpson
Policy Press, 218pp

ReviewsSegregationTwo months after British citizens exploded bombs in rucksacks on London’s public transport system, the head of what was then the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, warned that British society was ’sleepwalking to segregation’. Four years on, while the national conversation is perhaps less emotive, claims born out of a time of polarisation have become assumed ‘truths’ for some: ‘Muslim extremists are thriving in ghettoes’, ‘Whites are becoming a minority in their own country’.

‘Sleepwalking to Segregation’? confronts scaremongering, speculation and flabby rhetoric with hard statistics and pointed questions. It aims ‘to set the record straight’. Finney is a Research Fellow at Manchester specialising in ethnic group population patterns, while Ludi Simpson is Professor of Population Studies there.

The public discussion in the UK since 2001 on Islam in Britain, multiculturalism, and ’segregated’ cities followed years of equally simplistic political debate over immigration. A few months before 9/11, clashes between whites and Asians in Oldham and Bradford had commentators searching for answers to tough questions.

‘Challenging myths’ is the organising idea of the book. The authors consider five: ‘Britain takes too many immigrants’; ‘So many minorities cannot be integrated’; ‘Minorities do not want to integrate’; ‘Britain is becoming a country of ghettos’; ‘Minority White Cities’.

They examine the origins of the ‘myths’ and unpack their claims, e.g. discussing the actual definition of ‘ghetto’.  They present evidence challenging the idea of increased isolation and segregation, such as the friendship patterns of ethnic minority youth. The book finishes with an excellent section compiling all the key statistics and arguments about immigration, integration, segregation, and population change.

On the whole, the book is written in an accessible enough style for the layperson without compromising on substance, though some of the material on the politics and science of race statistics feels rather dense. Yet it is full of facts to readers used to  tabloid hysteria: the UK, for example, hosts 2.8 percent of the world’s migrants, while Germany has 5.3 percent and France 3.4 percent. For migrants as a proportion of the population, the UK lags behind the likes of Canada, Australia, Spain and Sweden.

The book really comes into its own, however, when the focus shifts from immigration numbers to the claims of ’segregation’ and ‘white minority’ cities. Unavoidably if their thesis was going to stand up, Finney and Simpson do not avoid cities like Bradford and Leicester. Bradford, contrary to myth, is shown to be ‘typical of most British cities in its dynamic population and lack of a ghetto’.

The authors argue that ‘flight’ from cities with a significant ethnic minority presence is not ‘white’ but rather ‘of those who can afford to move from depressed ex-industrial cities to jobs or to better housing’ – i.e. ‘affluent flight’. Thus ‘residential clustering’, while a typical response of immigrant populations, is a result of ‘benign demographic change, mostly non-racial in character’.
Perhaps the most striking, and challenging, facts of ‘Sleepwalking to segregation’? relate to the isolation of ethnic groups. Finney and Simpson point out that, despite the headlines, ‘only six districts (out of 408) in Britain contain any [electoral] ward with more than three quarters minority ethnic residents’ – that’s about 1.5 percent. Only eight wards ‘have a majority of a single minority ethnic group’ – from a total of over 10,000. Moreover, ‘the majority of minority residents have half or more of their friends from other groups’.

Contrast this, interestingly, with the UK’s white population.Thousands of wards ‘have a majority white population’, and indeed, ‘white people are by far the most isolated group in Britain’. An average white person lives in an electoral ward with more than 90 percent white people – Pakistanis live in wards that have on average 17 percent Pakistani residents. The authors point out how ‘the lack of a white population is seen as “extreme” in a way that the lack of minority ethnic groups is not’.

As I write this review, Evangelicals Now features a piece discussing birth rates, the ‘decline’ of ‘the West’, and ‘booming Islamic birth rates in Europe’. Sadly, some  Christians have encouraged a sensationalist paranoia in the British church that makes many Christians look at their Muslim neighbours with suspicion and absorb unquestioningly many of the myths Finney and Simpson so ably take on in this book.

‘Race and statistics’ are indeed ‘a potent mix’, to be handled with care, but beyond that, the sort of questions raised by Finney and Simpson are vitally important for the debate on the nature of British society’s ‘Christian’ identity: ‘Is it possible to define this “core culture”? Has it ever existed? Who defines it? Who has a right to define it? How is integration to this “core culture” assessed?’

Asking these questions is harder than claiming Christians are being ‘persecuted’, but the answers might be more fruitful for the Church and its role in society. An uncomfortable question asked by Finney and Simpson is ‘why myths of race and migration persist if persuasive evidence exists to lay them to rest’?

This is not simply a theoretical debate; the myths can shape policy. In an excellent essay in the Guardian on 15 August, Pankaj Mishra – aside from including some useful statistics of his own, such as how only 5 percent of French Muslims regularly attend a mosque – had this to say by way of a corrective to the ‘culture of fear’:

‘Multi-ethnic Europe is an immutable fact, and needs, appropriately, a more inclusive, open-ended identity, one derived more from its pluralistic and relatively peaceful present, and supranational future, than its brutishly nationalist and imperialist past.’

The pessimists, Linney and Simpson write, ’see a future of division and conflict, with British society sleepwalking to segregation, amid a culture clash brought on by unsustainable immigration’ Such prophecies of doom are unwarranted, as ‘many of the claims surrounding segregation, immigration and dangerous cultures turn out to be myths, unsustainable in the face of evidence’.

‘Sleepwalking to Segregation’? is a much-needed corrective to the typical overstatement and oversimplification that characterises conversation on immigration, race, Islam, and British identity including the church. Rather than a myth-created fear culture, Finney and Simpson remind us what really should be prized as ‘British values’ – a commitment to human rights and equality, intelligent debate, and a confident, open-minded acceptance of the different cultures and religions that call this country home.

First published in Third Way.

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