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T. Cantle: Prospects for Multiculturalism and Community Cohesion

Paper presented at the Focus Group on on Multiculturalism and Community Cohesion
Global Peace Festival
London, England, November 22, 2008
Most Western democracies have been “multicultural” for some 50 years and have gradually developed and extended equal opportunities programs and antidiscrimination legislation over that time. Despite this, many of our minorities are amongst the most disadvantaged sectors of our community and still experience prejudice and unequal life chances. Segregation — a term which has taken on different meanings — is not being broken down and may even be getting worse, and we are now encountering a rise in interethnic conflict, based upon separate identities, which are more readily reinforced by transnational and diasporic affinities. The gradual integration and cohesion of society has been set back and there are new questions about the value of multiculturalism and its impact on civic and social solidarity.
Multiculturalism and identity

The concept of “multiculturalism” is certainly no longer adequate to describe the extent and nature of diversity, and Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, has called for it to be “scrapped” because of the way it has been used as a means of legitimizing separateness and division. “Multiculturalism,” however, did succeed in emphasizing that “difference” should be respected and celebrated, rather than feared. In that sense, it was helpful as a means of tackling racist views and confronting prejudice. But it has also been used as a justification of a wide range of differences — economic, political, social, cultural, physical, etc. — and conflates concepts of nationality, national identity, and group and personal affinities. Over the years it has done little to promote any sense of commonality and help build bridges between different communities.

Many proponents of multiculturalism have become so used to resisting attacks on minorities that they will defend all differences automatically, as though cultural attributes are “natural” and are all worthy of defense (and even though they may have supported more liberal principles in another context, which would have undermined these differences). People are not made up of genetically defined groups, and the ethnic, faith, and other boundaries that we create — and defend — are almost entirely socially and politically defined. The idea of “people like us” is a dangerous concept — which even liberal commentators have been guilty of using — and having broken down the myth of separate “races,” we are in danger of creating “primordial” faith and ethnic divisions.

In reality, there are many different conceptions of both majority and minority cultures and as much variation within “cultures” as there is between them — some may even lack the coherence to be called a “culture,” and what do we mean by “culture” anyway? But when identity is instrumentalized and under threat — and this can be in respect of either the majority and minority groups — we fall back on an exaggerated, almost stereotypical, view of ourselves. We inevitably emphasize our differences rather than what we have in common.

The search for identity, then, is like chasing shadows, and much greater emphasis should be placed on how we actually relate to each other, allowing relationships to grow. This should develop in the form of a common sense of belonging and is not restricted to “common culture.” Society also grows from political interaction between the state and individuals and between individuals themselves. The ongoing debate about expenditure priorities, the extent and nature of welfare provision, the regulation of the local environment and the economy as a whole, as much as the everyday discourse of social activities, builds a polity unity — even if only a framework within which we can disagree. Social and political capital and the sense of trust upon which they depend can only be built by dialogue and exchange. The once derided notions of citizenship and community are beginning to be reasserted, and the concept of nationality, as opposed to the more ephemeral notion of national identity, should also take its place in the lexicon of cohesion. Our nationality, together with membership of our local “state,” must provide a basis for political discourse, and often the only means by which we can contribute to an international and wider debate.

Segregation and separateness

However, the historic pattern of settlement means that the possibilities for such interaction are limited. The development of “multiculturalism” since the Second World War has reinforced, rather than broken down, the many forms of segregation and separation. One of the most surprising statistics is that in 1961, London contained 47 percent of the black and minority ethnic population and the West Midlands conurbation 14 percent, and some 40 years later the figures are almost exactly the same. A small proportion of the BME population has moved into predominantly white areas over the years, but the areas with a high concentration of minorities have generally been reinforced by new migrants and have also suffered from “white flight,” with the same pattern remaining — the expected gradual integration has simply not happened.

The fact is that, while Britain describes itself as a multicultural society, most people do not live in multicultural communities. Even though most of the ethnic minority population live in London and a few other regional capitals, the white population dominates most of the rest of the country, with areas such as the north-east, Wales and the south-west being almost exclusively white. And in areas that are more mixed, the separation is often just as evident, with most towns and cities divided on a neighborhood basis. “White flight” means that cities are losing some of their white population to suburban and rural areas and, meanwhile, the BME community is growing because of inward migration and natural factors. The different populations are then becoming more concentrated — and more divided.

The term “segregation” is often used to describe this separation, but it is not wholly appropriate, as it would suggest that divisions have been imposed by law. Clearly, there is no such regime in force, but “self-segregation,” in which some people prefer to live in an area dominated by their own ethnic or faith group, is also not adequate. Locational choices are often constrained by socioeconomic factors, the lack of appropriate social and cultural facilities, the availability of suitable schools and, most of all, by real concerns about the lack of safety and security in other areas. Given that the areas “preferred” by minority groups generally contain the poorest housing and have the worst overall environment, it is hard to believe that they are the consequence of a free choice.

Many of these “segregated” communities are so dominated by particular groups that the possibility of contact with the majority population or another minority group is very limited. These “parallel lives” do not meet at any point, with little or no opportunity to explore the differences and build mutual respect, let alone to see them as enriching our communities. Meanwhile, racists can easily spread myths and false rumors and use the ignorance about each community to demonize minorities. That is not to say that we should attempt to go in the opposite direction toward some form of total integration or “assimilation.” Some degree of “clustering” for each group is essential, if we are serious about preserving cultural identity. A critical mass of each community will also be necessary to support different places of worship, shops, and social facilities.

The “layers of separation” need to be examined in each case, but in general, we should expect to see a much greater sense of commonality — or integration — at the political and economic level, while maintaining and promoting a separation at the cultural level to allow diversity to flourish.

There are real practical difficulties to overcome too, in particular, for the many white children growing up in all-white parts of the country who have no experience of the multicultural society of which they are a part. Many do not meet people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds until they go to university — and they are still a minority of their peers. Community cohesion has to be directed at them too, and it will require some imagination to realize, for example, the way in which Wigan, a largely white area, has teamed up its young people with youngsters in multicultural Leicester.

Vision – A shared sense of belonging

Sharing experiences is not sufficient — and will not develop — unless there is also a shared vision and sense of purpose. The way in which different cultures are supported often means that difference is reinforced, rather than based upon commonalities. As societies become more diverse, there is an increasing need for common values and a greater sense of national solidarity. This is difficult given that our notion of diversity has moved on significantly from just a handful of principal minorities to embrace a much larger number of communities — over 300 languages are now spoken in London schools.

The nature and pattern of difference is also on a new level with a wider range of people from eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and every corner of the globe creating new “domains of difference,” both between the host community and the new migrants and between minorities. Indeed, we have created a culture in which each different group feels that it is being unfairly treated in relation to the other and believes that it is in competition for jobs, housing, and public services. Moreover, each group feels that its identity is at risk and under pressure.

There is a danger that we just focus on ethnicity or faith — or even just one, the Muslim faith, which has been the center of attention. However, this is a much more complex problem, and we have to address the fear of difference more generally. This means investing in education programs, breaking down the barriers between groups, and building bridges between communities at the institutional level and in neighborhoods and wherever people meet. This is very much about helping people to come to terms with diversity and seeing it as an enrichment of their community, rather than as a threat. This means that we should not dismiss negative perceptions too lightly as “racist” or prejudiced and that we should try to understand the causes and also deal with the real competition over resources and ensure that conflicts are addressed in an evenhanded and transparent way.

This also means a much more difficult debate about “commonalities,” rather than simply focusing on difference. We have promoted difference in so many respects: encouraging separate schools for different faiths, housing provision for minorities, a wide range of separate cultural, arts, and sports programs, regeneration schemes based on different communities, separate employment training schemes, etc. — all for laudable reasons — but generally failed to promote the things that all communities have in common. As a defensive mechanism against racism and discrimination, the focus on difference may have been justified, but we now have to redress the balance, challenge areas of difference that conflict with wider societal interests, and more vigorously promote a common language and active citizenship, rather than relying upon “peaceful co-existence.”

The equalities agenda still has to be reinforced, not simply to ensure fairness and social justice, but also as a means of promoting interaction, understanding, and respect. In this sense, racial equality and community cohesion programs come together and are mutually reinforcing. However, we need a more positive approach to breaking down segregation and “parallel lives,” not only in interaction in our daily lives but also as part of a political entity with a common interest in the direction and development of the state. Local authorities therefore need to understand and anticipate the dynamics of change within their local community and to be ready to respond with a strategy which promotes interaction and integration in both new and existing neighborhoods, while preserving cultural diversity.

In over 30 years in public service, Ted Cantle has held a wide range of senior positions at a local level and has served on a number of UK bodies focusing on urban regeneration and key social and economic problems. He is the author of Community Cohesion: A New Framework for Race and Diversity, published by Palgrave Macmillan.