Could diversity be making us more civil?

A walk in one of the poorest and most diverse areas in Britain reveals that contrary to popular belief, it seems that extremisms flourish in homogenous areas. So what explains social resilience in the face of great diversity?

Phoebe Griffith
14 September 2010

The stalls in Queen’s Market in Newham, officially London’s most diverse borough, sell the same noisy toys from China and counterfeit ‘Calvin’ jock straps found in markets around the world. The area has been globalising for decades. In 2005 almost 40 per cent of residents were born outside the UK. They came from over 40 different countries. Social scientists label areas like Newham ‘super-diverse’.

 And it is presumably areas like Newham that fuel growing concerns about migration’s negative social and political effects. Diversity on this scale makes civic life unsustainable because, to borrow from Robert Putnam, ethnic groups ‘hunker down’ – stick to themselves in search for safety and support. Isolation and disengagement from mainstream society makes them alienated and fuels resentment in established groups, particularly those who feel they are getting a raw deal.  Crime and ethnic conflict therefore become more likely.

Likewise, it is claimed that radical right parties have capitalised on perceptions of these areas, as described by Montserrat Guibernau in her piece Migration: the rise of the radical right.  In her view, people turn to extremes because of the destabilising effects of rapid social and economic change which is taking place in areas like Newham. While elites are able to adapt and thrive in the new flexible labour market, low and medium-skilled workers are left behind feeling vulnerable, and therefore become easy targets of unsubstantiated rumours about job-stealing, welfare-claiming newcomers.

 My trip to the market disappoints. Shoppers queue patiently, families push their prams, girls giggle and grannies haggle. The local Community Support Officer informs me that shoplifting is infrequent – a lonely (broken) CCTV camera peers down from one end of the market. When I ask the shopkeepers about their biggest challenge, they claim it is the elderly ladies who often demand refunds (although one did complain about the most recent coriander scam: shoppers apparently take two bunches, clasp then together and then only pay for one).

Newham also appears to defy some of the political assumptions that Guibernau sets out. Most of the people who live there are medium to low skilled but seem at ease with the trappings of globalisation. Unlike the neighbouring (and more homogeneous) borough of Barking and Daggenham, BNP appeal has been low (including among the White Working Classes) and until 2010 they had not even bothered to contest a local seat. Contrary to popular belief, it seems that extremisms flourish in homogeneous areas, particularly those on the fringes of diverse hubs like Newham.

So how do we explain this apparent social and political resilience in the face of such diversity?

 Part of the explanation for the market’s apparent harmony could lie in the old advertising adage that the ‘customer has no colour’ (see Mad Men series 2). Stall holders have adapted with the times – it’s not unusual to meet Cockney salesmen who speak fluent Urdu for example. In their own words: “We have to be polite because we are so different.” They recognised early on that the alternative was to go out of business. Clashes and prejudices just don’t make business sense. Old-fashioned civility could also be a means of coping with the constant flux of modernity. Thick skin and sharp antennae for differences are critical to navigate areas like this.

 But above all, hope seems to have been the critical lubricant for harmonious human interaction in diverse places. Population churn in Newham stands at 20 per cent– people don’t stick around for long in other words. Residents in diverse places like Newham are likely to be driven by a hunger for success, what rapper Jay-Z calls that ‘great dream of mobility’. Many will have taken a significant step down the social ladder when leaving home, and they won’t want to stay there, wallowing in prejudice, for long. Moreover, as Gillian Brock sets out in her piece Migration and global justice, migrants are normally people who are either driven by love or by ambition. These are the only things which make people prepared to leave behind everything they know. Brock also provides an important reminder of how the welfare costs associated with migrants are completely dwarfed by the sums spent on controls (for example, the cost of detaining 800 people in Britain came to £48 million a year, roughly 12 times the estimated cost of housing benefits and income support for the same number of people in that period). Welfare makes little sense for people who are hungry for success.

 And although very diverse areas can be poor (Newham is the 6th most deprived borough in England), evidence shows that diversity is a significant driver for economic success. Diverse consumers demand a more mixed range of goods, acting as drivers for economic growth.  The range of hair products, exotic fruit, textiles (silks alongside African prints), meat (halal alongside jerk chicken and fish and chips), as well as bilingual greetings cards, on sale in the packed market couldn’t be a clearer illustration.  Diverse teams also outperform homogeneous ones. In Silicon Valley, for example, 25 per cent of all start ups have at least one foreign-born owner and it was not unusual to see multi-racial stalls in Queen’s market. These also appeared to be the most successful ones. 

In recent years, Newham has also been buoyed by substantive public and private investment (which could add up to up to £15 billion). The Thames Gateway is England’s biggest regeneration project. And having the 2012 Olympic site on its doorstep (with an estimated 62,000 new jobs) of course helps.

Demographic trends indicate that, regardless on any caps on the numbers of future migrants, London and other parts of the UK will continue to diversify. Areas like Newham will inevitably become the norm in the future. But rather than harking back to a golden age of ethnic homogeneity, those who fear migration would do well to spend a day in Queen’s market, witnessing how people are adapting to each other, refining their behaviours in order to make the great diversity experiment in Newham work.






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