Integration must have the support of ethnic minorities—not be imposed on them, says Emran Mianby Emran Mian / July 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Race and Faith: The Deafening Silence by Trevor Phillips (Civitas, £8)
British Airways (BA) used to forbid its cabin staff from wearing a Christian cross, though they permitted the Muslim headscarf. The national carrier hadn’t been Islamicised; nor were its Muslim employees more militant in asserting their rights. BA took a different approach to the two religious symbols because the headscarf could adopt the corporate colours whereas the cross was off-brand. The headscarf, you might say, was easier to integrate.
In 2006, BA’s policy was challenged by an employee who insisted on her right to wear the cross. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in her favour. Protecting the airline’s look, said the Court, was not sufficiently important to justify the infringement on her right to profess her faith. By contrast, in a linked case, the Court ruled that a hospital could ban the cross because the health risks—of the cross dangling down into an open wound, for example—were sufficiently important.
These judgments illustrate how much context matters in the practice of multiculturalism. Yet many see it instead as an unyielding ideology. Trevor Phillips, once Chair of the Commission on Equality and Human Rights and born in Britain to Caribbean parents, pursues that argument in his new book, Race and Faith: The Deafening Silence. It comes in the wake of a Channel 4 documentary shown in May, What British Muslims Really Think, where Phillips examined the prevalence of illiberal attitudes and extremist beliefs among some British Muslims. This book has a broader focus. Phillips has a rising concern about what he calls “super-diversity” in the UK and, in that context, argues that state-sponsored multi- culturalism is both inimical to meritocracy and harmful to integration.
The first part of his critique is illustrated with a discussion of the 100m final at the World Athletics Championships in 2015. Observing that all the athletes bar one were black, Phillips asks whether the competition was fair. His implication is that, in most other areas of public interest, the ideology of multiculturalism would require that if one ethnic group were disadvantaged then the rules ought to change to be more inclusive. We tolerate the anti-white discrimination of the 100m competition, though at the same time we rail against, as even the Prime Minister David Cameron has done, the admissions practices of top universities, which exclude all but a few black pupils. This is inconsistent, says Phillips. Merit alone determines entry to the sprint final—shouldn’t it determine entry to university in the same way?
I’m not so sure. The purpose of the 100m is to identify the fastest sprinter. This is why the competition is colour-blind. The purpose of university admissions is more complex. If it is to identify the most talented applicants, which is a reasonable idea, then it might better fulfil its purpose by taking a black pupil from a disadvantaged background who outperformed expectations at an average state school, rather than another white pupil from an expensive independent school. Here too it might be that context matters. When we take it into account, it’s possible that multiculturalism isn’t at odds with meritocracy after all.
Phillips’s argument on the tension between multiculturalism and integration has a firmer basis. While Phillips was Chair of the Commission, he started an inquiry into the food processing industry. It found that many managers were segregating workers, assigning different nationalities to different functions because they were regarded as more reliable or hardworking, and to different shifts, to avoid tensions that might have arisen between workers of different nationalities. Segregation of this sort might be convenient, Phillips concedes, but nevertheless: “if the workplace is to remain a primary site of social integration,” then “such an approach… spells disaster for our society.”
The nature of the potential disaster is evoked at the beginning of the book. Phillips observes that “we live in a world beset by tribal and religious strife”; “Islamist terrorism is now firmly camped on our own European shores,” while “our nation is complacent about the ability to manage its own diversity.” The segregation in the food processing industry might be good for productivity but it’s bad for security. Integration is a form of self-defence.
While he doesn’t make use of them, there are at least another couple of arguments for integration that Phillips might make. Integration might improve the lives of those whose participation in social and economic activity is enhanced by it. If you always get the early shift gutting fish rather than picking up new skills by revolving shifts, then you might never get the chance to run your kids to school or to progress into a better paid job. Equally, a Muslim woman who doesn’t speak English might not have “genuine opportunity,” as the Prime Minister put it in January when announcing more funding for language classes.
As well as self-interest, a more “muscular” approach to integration may also advance our common well-being. A university with students from different backgrounds is arguably a more interesting place than one that is mono-cultural. Facing off against a world “beset by tribal and religious strife,” our diplomatic service might be more effective if it contained people from those various tribes and religions.
It’s revealing that Phillips does not consider such additional arguments in favour of integration. It suggests that he isn’t particularly interested in the value of integration per se or in its benefits to minority groups; instead he returns again and again to the theme of conflict.
“In my view,” says Phillips, “squeamishness about addressing diversity and its discontents risks allowing our country to sleepwalk to a catastrophe that will set community against community, endorse sexist aggression, suppress freedom of expression, reverse hard-won civil liberties, and undermine the liberal democracy that has served this country so well for so long.” His characterisation of the state we’re in is trenchant though exaggerated—it’s hard to maintain that we’re squeamish or somnolent when the Prime Minister is talking about the same issues; and his critique is far from even-handed—sexist aggression, for example, is practised by white Britons as well as incomers.
Yet he is surely right that tensions do exist between different communities. There is anti-Semitism among Muslims, as the Labour MP Naz Shah’s Facebook comments illustrated vividly; Tell MAMA, an organisation monitoring Islamophobia, recorded over 500 incidents of anti-Muslim hate in 2015; and the Equality and Human Rights Commission is participating in a number of legal cases where Traveller and Roma communities have experienced shocking discrimination. In the background, of course, there is the spectre of Islamist terrorism too.
Unfortunately, the measures to promote integration Phillips suggests have only the most tangential relationship to these concerns. He would impose a duty on public bodies and charities to promote integration. But this would by definition fail to disrupt the segregated work practices he describes in private food processing factories. Where it might have more bite is if housing associations and councils were to move tenants around in order to fulfil the proposed duty to promote integration; or if multi-academy trusts and local education authorities have to bus students from one school to another. Phillips, though, stops short of discussing the pros and cons of measures such as these. Instead he insists that “the most effective pressure for a regime of active integration must surely be transparency.” But, given that we’re already pretty forward in the UK (in contrast to, say, France) about publishing information on the ethnic composition of neighbourhoods and schools, the improvement in transparency that he envisages is never specified. Finally, and most redundantly, he proposes a legal presumption in favour of freedom of expression. “It may be a matter for parliamentary draughtsmen to work out how this might be done,” he grants, though he doesn’t stop to wonder if through the Human Rights Act in 1998 they may already have done so.
“It feels a pretty good measure of integration that members of small religious communities are enabled to assert the freedom of conscience in our country”
In writing about the dire prospects for our multicultural society, Phillips is unable to summon much more than policy platitudes. There are some plain truths in his critique of multiculturalism but his book feels like a missed opportunity. Specifically, there are two misses. The first is that he defines social strife as the problem integration must solve. This is too narrow. Promoting integration is good for something other than the prevention of violence and terrorism. Widening participation in higher education, for example, has the effect of creating a more diverse student body and broadening the pool of graduates. But it is also advocated because of the value it provides for individuals from disadvantaged and ethnic minority backgrounds personally. Universities are under a regulatory requirement to promote access and the government has set challenging ambitions for progress by 2020. In other words, as soon as we consider integration not as something done to minority communities, but with and for them, the muscular remedies Phillips seems to want become more viable.
The second missing part of the argument is that Phillips doesn’t give us any credit for the progress we have already made even while trapped, as he sees it, in the ruling ideology of multiculturalism. While there are parts of the country with high levels of school segregation, according to work by Simon Burgess for the think tank Demos, most groups have decreased their level of segregation relative to all other ethnic groups between 2008 and 2013. In any case all major ethnic minority groups now have better GCSE-level school outcomes than the white population. This will lead in time to more mixing in higher education and work. At the level of family life, the 2011 census showed that 2.3m people are part of an inter-ethnic couple. Nine per cent of people of Pakistani background are in such a relationship, more than double the rate for those who identify as white British.
Less scientifically, it’s worth knowing that the BA cabin attendant who won the right to wear the cross was a Coptic Christian originally from Egypt. It feels a pretty good measure of integration that members of small religious communities are enabled to assert the freedom of conscience in our country, working for the national airline, backed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, an agency of the state.
Where Phillips predicts unease, we might spy confidence instead, the enigma of arrival gradually receding, people feeling at home, mixed in with what is around them—not a harbinger of strife, but the beginning of peace.