Why does our national debate on integration ignore segregation by wealth?

A major part of what leads to segregation in society, by wealth and power, is not part of our integration debate. Why not?

Samir Jeraj
26 June 2017

Red Scarf. Chris JL/Flickr. Some rights reservedToday our society is more divided by wealth than it has been in a century. Mostly this divide between people who own housing, and those who do not.

As part of a book I co-wrote last year on housing, I interviewed a housing officer in London, who told me about a block of flats where there were two entrances, one grand one with a concierge for the ‘private owners’ and a side door for the social and general needs tenants. Leaving aside the symbolism, this is just the beginning.

The car park was for private owners only, so is the outdoor space and the ‘private owners’ insist on CCTV and security to monitor their ‘social’ neighbours rather than estate improvements that would create a community. When she meets a prospective social tenant, it is not unusual for them to turn up at the concierge entrance. My friend then has to explain that it is not for them and walk them, past the car park that is also not for them, to the side door.

This side of segregation by wealth, by power, is not part of our integration debate.

The Casey Review was the latest attempt by government to address integration. It was announced by David Cameron during a speech on extremism in July 2015 as a review of “how to boost opportunity and integration in these [ethnic minority] communities and bring Britain together as one nation.”

It focused overwhelmingly on British Muslims, denouncing various current approaches to integration as being too PC. The key message was that the UK should move away from a ‘two-way’ process of integration, where we learn from each other, to a one-way process – i.e. ‘you must become like us’.

Proposals such as a ‘integration oath’ for migrants and teaching ‘British values’ in schools are red meat for some, but will do nothing to create a sense of belonging or deal with the real issues facing communities.  

Surprisingly, Casey has not actually said what she means by ‘integration’. Historically, it developed as a direct result of the dismantling of segregation and racial discrimination, known as ‘Jim Crow’. These laws legitimised everything from casual brutal violence through to public lynching well into the 20th Century.

The UK story is very different. Slavery was never entrenched in the UK in the same way as the US. There was never a legal basis for slavery in the UK (it was actually ruled illegal in 1772 in the Somerset Vs Stewart case), whereas it was part of the US constitution and became integral to how power was exercised over colonised peoples.

Despite racism and discrimination in the UK in the 19th and 20th centuries, and horrific policies in British colonies, there was never a comparable system to Jim Crow on the UK mainland.

We do know that discrimination and inequality persist in the UK. Black and minority ethnic people and families still live in private rented housing that is more likely to be damp, overcrowded, and insecure.

Shelter the charity found that black and minority ethnic tenants not only experienced a higher level of ‘retaliatory eviction’, but had a greater fear of such action by their landlord which meant they were not confident to ask about repairs and improvements to their homes.

In health, Black men are more likely to access mental health care through criminal justice than through a GP or hospital. Disabled black and minority ethnic people are less likely to be offered and to take up personal budgets designed to give people control over their care.

While the NHS is the biggest employer of black and minority ethnic people, they still rarely reach the top of these organisations, and frontline staff such as nurses are more likely to face disciplinary action and less likely to access career development opportunities if they are from a black and minority ethnicity.  

This is part of a wider problem. Our parliament, councils, institutions, businesses, media, and legal profession in no way reflect our diverse population.

The integration debate in the UK has not focused on breaking the grip of white privilege. Instead it is about ‘assimilation’. These people are different, it’s threatening or dangerous, how can we make them more like us?

It reflects a colonial mentality, and insecurity around difference.

Now I want to tell you a different story. About sharing experiences, values and hopes. One of the common, if not universal human experiences is that of parenthood. Early on in the life of the organisation I work for, the Race Equality Foundation, we became concerned about the poor support available for black and minority ethnic families.

Particularly, the quality and effectiveness of parenting programmes. What we did was look around for a programme that worked for black and minority ethnic families. We found one in the US, developed for African American families. It is called Strengthening Families, Strengthening Communities.

What we found then and ever since is that it is a programme that promotes good relationships and understanding across communities (You might call that integration), because it works not just for black and minority ethnic families, but for White families, and for poor families.

When you get parents into a room at the start of the programme, they pretty much represent the local communities. People start of reticent, guarded among people who are mostly strangers and may be unfamiliar. Soon the barriers start coming down.

People start sharing, start talking, about the challenges they face as parents, about the joys, about the hopes they have for their children. Turns out we have a lot in common when it comes to parenting.

If we are to talk about integration in the UK, let’s abandon the colonial era mentality of assimilation based on arbitrary and simplified cultural symbols. Instead let’s think about what we can do to promote our shared human experiences and connect to each other on that level.

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