The politics of ethnic diversity: Scotland, Brexit and inequality

This week the Equality and Human Rights Commission published a study demonstrating that people born into an ethnic minority household in Scotland are twice as likely to face poverty. 

Robert Somynne Fuad Alakbarov
19 August 2016

Communities United Advice centre,Govan,2008:"Raising Awareness of the Opportunities and meeting needs and demands of the Ethnic Minority Community". Wikicommons/Richard Webb. Some rights reserved.With the rise of Brexit, Scottish politicians and proponents of independence are at pains to emphasise the absence of an anti-immigrant block in Scotland as a driving force of politics.

This week the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon met with EU nationals to reassure them that they are welcome in Scotland and valued as a community. But in the obvious gap this and the concern for post-referendum racism has created, leaves us wondering about the position of Arab, black and south Asian ethnic minority groups.

In recent years, while the gender balance in Scottish politics has steadily improved, ethnic diversity remains low on the agenda and it has always been a question between whether what is unseen goes unheard or constitutes a deep institutional malaise.

New immigrants have always had a vibrant relationship to Scottish society, adapting to its already diverse cultures and values, just as society adapts to the immigrants, their traditions and perspectives. However despite popular conceptions, most public benefits are not available to asylum seekers. For immigrants who do qualify, these benefits provide a safety net for the neediest, aimed at preventing the most abject poverty. Meanwhile multiculturalism is intended to deepen the understanding of the diversity already present in Scotland by recognising the positive contributions of different immigrant and non-immigrant communities. 

When standards are subjective, such as pride in ‘British identity’, people from ethnically-diverse backgrounds often subscribe uncritically to the dominant views, and are under greater scrutiny. For instance, after the 9/11 and 7 July London bombings Muslim citizens of the country were called on to prove their loyalty. Economic and linguistic indicators are more quantifiable. Nevertheless, the focus on assimilation ignores how discrimination closes off opportunities to many immigrants, forcing them into segregated communities, denying them quality education, and keeping them economically disadvantaged. The dismantling or defunding of affirmative action, bilingual education and English language programmes has posed a significant obstacle to the economic and linguistic integration of new immigrants. It also impedes their access to equal opportunity and economic justice. 

This has not only an effect on many communities of ethnic minorities UK wide but also specifically in Scotland. This week the Equality and Human Rights Commission published a study demonstrating that people born into an ethnic minority household in Scotland are twice as likely to face poverty and unemployment and four times more likely to face conditions of overcrowding. The report also found a growing awareness among children of prejudice along racial lines, with a quarter of school children surveyed saying they knew of racial or sectarian incidents or bullying. Called, Race report: Healing a divided Britain, this report is, according to the commission, the "biggest ever analysis of existing evidence into race equality in Scotland" and focuses on poverty, education, employment, and housing.

However during the Brexit campaign, many Scots did oppose the official Leave campaign’s toxic xenophobic campaign and signalled this by voting against it. Setting aside for the moment the essentially undemocratic belief that the result should be ignored and the process rerun, there were nevertheless a number of impressive pro-Remain demonstrations following the referendum results, in Glasgow as in Edinburgh. Mainly young Scottish protesters made it clear that their main focus was fundamentally positive: solidarity with migrants both in the EU and elsewhere. 

In addition, while English parties demand controls on immigration, Scottish parties say we need more migrants to balance our ageing population and repair our skills shortages.

Unlike the rest of the UK, the debate in Scotland over Brexit was not about migration. As a result, we need to argue both for Indyref2 and for a new referendum on EU membership in which the actual nature of the EU can be openly discussed. It should go without saying that EU migrants and sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds should be allowed to vote in both. Additionally we need to also build on the positive view of immigrants and the political rejection of racism as a vote-winner in Scotland, but campaigning particularly hard for improvement in the institutional racism against ethnic minorities.

Language factor 

Many anti-immigrant groups advocate for federal and state laws declaring English the official language of the UK. However, there is no danger of English losing dominance within the UK. Over 98 per cent of the population speaks English exclusively or very well. Immigrants to the UK are learning English as quickly today as they have in the past. In fact, almost all second-generation immigrants are fully fluent in English. By the third generation, fluency in the language of origin is extremely rare.

In fact, there is much more reason to be concerned about the rapid loss of immigrants' languages of origin. Multilingualism is a valuable resource given the increasing economic and cultural ties between different nations. In fact, many native-born English speakers are seeking to learn second and third languages to assist them in their work and travel; and studies show that fluent bilinguals do better in all aspects of their academic performance. In many countries, such as Canada, Germany and India, children are taught multiple languages in school or at home and become highly fluent in more than one language.

Offering government services in multiple languages does not prevent immigrants from learning English. Multilingual services merely allow first generation immigrants to advocate for themselves by gaining access to the political system and services to which they are fully entitled. English language acquisition is still essential to holding many jobs and participating in many aspects of society. Indeed, the demand for English language classes outstrips the availability in many immigrant communities.

In the nineteenth century, despite most immigrants being of European descent, there was interethnic tension and competition, stemming from real or perceived inequalities. For example, Irish immigrants were seen as not loyal to the country because of their Catholicism and were explicitly discriminated against in employment. The right-wing group's solution of restricting immigration does not deal with the present reality of diverse cultures in Scotland. It also ignores the racism experienced by all people of colour, as a significant factor in this problem. 

When groups and parties such as the UKIP and Britain First blame multiculturalism for increased tensions between different communities, it reinforces people's resentment of other ethnic groups and adds to these tensions. It also ignores the root causes of the tension, such as perceived and real injustices.

Multiculturalism seeks to reduce tensions by teaching values that support diversity and acknowledge the contributions of all communities. Other programs, such as affirmative action and redistricting to create "majority-minority" districts, are created to counter institutional racism and of course right-wing groups have consistently opposed these programmes. Ultimately, these toxic groups take advantage of racist sentiments to drive wedges between various communities and to garner support for their goal of restricting immigration.


What Brexit has shown us in the Scottish context is that the country is at the moment well fortified against the widespread culture of contempt for immigrants with EU, non-EU or ethnic minorities in general. However much has to be done to transform this vocal good will into a firm pledge to ensure all groups are not just welcome in Scotland but can thrive as citizens whether in an independent Scottish state or not.

As a result, Scottish political parties should look seriously at introducing BME shortlists. The latest Scottish parliament election showed that ethnic minority representation in Scottish parliament has declined, when you consider the increase in the growth of BME population.

We need bold measures to tackle inequality issues in Scottish politics, not just more tinkering around the edges. But also look at reforms to police interaction with ethnic minority communities and a more vocal voice for BME groups to be part of mainstream Scotland as more visible and undoubtedly welcome.

The fact that women are now so much better represented gives cause for optimism. From that struggle we know that parties still tend to appoint in their own image, whether consciously or unconsciously. We also know that assumptions about workplace ambitions are often made about a potential candidate based on little more than prejudice. These lessons need to be reapplied so that we have local institutions that represent the people they serve.

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