The trouble with multiculturalism

The trouble with multiculturalism

Official multicultural policies have been even more divisive than old-fashioned racism.

Kenan Malik

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Topics Politics

UK home secretary David Blunkett suggests that immigrants should be required to speak English, and urges ethnic minorities to become ‘more British’.

The Home Office-sponsored Cantle report on the riots in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford, released on 11 December, recommends that all immigrants be required to swear an ‘oath of allegiance’ to Britain. David Ritchie, author of a separate, independent report on the Oldham riots, published on the same day, criticises the ‘self-segregation’ of ethnic minorities, and the failure of ethnic minority leaders to encourage greater integration.

Blunkett, Ritchie and the authors of the Cantle report all agree that the problem of race relations in Britain stems from the ‘difference’ of ethnic minorities. This belief has been at the heart of policy debate in Britain throughout the postwar period, and is at the heart of the arguments of both supporters and opponents of multiculturalism.

In the vociferous debate that has raged in the UK over recent weeks about the merits or otherwise of a multicultural society, both sides have very different views of the Britain they wish to see. They agree, however, that Britain has become a multicultural nation because immigrants (and their children) have demanded that their cultural differences be recognised and afforded respect. Supporters of multiculturalism urge the state to see such diversity as a public good; opponents use it to make a case against immigration and, in some cases, for repatriation.

This view of multiculturalism gets reality upside down. Far from being a response to demands from local communities, multiculturalism was imposed from the top, the product of policies instituted by national governments and local authorities in order to defuse the anger created by racism.

To understand this better, we need to look again at the history of postwar race relations policy in Britain. The arrival of large numbers of black immigrants in the 1950s from India, Pakistan and the Caribbean created conflicting pressures on policy-makers. While they welcomed the influx of new labour, there was at the same time considerable unease about the impact that such immigration may have on traditional concepts of Britishness. As a Colonial Office report of 1955 observed, ‘a large coloured community as a noticeable feature of our social life would weaken…the concept of England or Britain to which people of British stock throughout the Commonwealth are attached’.

For the British elite of the time, its sense of self and identity was mediated through the concept of race. Britishness was a racial concept and large-scale migration from the colonies threatened to disrupt the racialised sense of identity. Even in the 1950s, though, it was clear that such a simple notion of Britishness could not be sustained for long. It was a form of national identity rooted in a Britain and in an Empire that was already crumbling. Moreover, the experience of Nazism and the Holocaust had rendered virtually unusable the kind of racial exclusiveness embodied in this notion of national identity.

In any case, by the end of the 1950s black immigrants were already a fact of life in Britain. Despite the subsequent attempts by politicians from Enoch Powell to Margaret Thatcher to Norman Tebbit to formulate a racially exclusive concept of Britishness, it was already apparent by the end of the 1950s that British identity would have to be reformulated to include the presence in this country of black citizens.

In the 1960s, therefore, policy-makers embarked on a new ‘twin track’ strategy in response to immigration. On the one hand, they imposed increasingly restrictive immigration controls specifically designed to exclude black immigrants. On the other, they instituted a framework of legislation aimed at outlawing racial discrimination and at facilitating the integration of black communities into British society. Labour MP Roy Hattersley’s famous aphorism that ‘Without limitation integration is impossible, without integration limitation is inexcusable’ pithily summed up the interwoven nature of immigration laws and race relations legislation.

The twin-track strategy helped promote the idea of Britain as a tolerant, pluralistic nation that was determined to stamp out any trace of discriminatory practice based on racial or ethnic difference. Britain, in the words of then Labour home secretary Roy Jenkins, set out to create ‘cultural diversity, coupled with equal opportunity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance’.

At the same time, though, the linking of immigration and integration implied that social problems arose from the very presence in Britain of culturally distinct immigrants. As the (liberal) then Tory shadow home secretary Reginald Maudling put it in a parliamentary debate in 1968, ‘The problem arises quite simply from the arrival in this country of many people of wholly alien cultures, habits and outlooks’.

From the beginning, then, the problem of race relations was viewed as one not so much of racial discrimination, but rather of cultural differences, and of the inability of black immigrants to be sufficiently British.

While the question of integration and of cultural differences preoccupied the political elite, it was not a question that particularly troubled black Britons. First generation black immigrants were concerned less about preserving cultural differences than about fighting for political equality. It is true that many black communities organised themselves around traditional institutions (such as the mosque) which provided shelter from the intensity of racist hostility they often experienced. And as black communities remained ghettoised, excluded from mainstream society and subject to discrimination, they often clung to old habits and lifestyles as a familiar anchor in an unwelcoming world.

Nevertheless, most black Britons recognised that at the heart of the fight for political equality was the essential sameness of immigrants and the indigenous population, and a commonality of values, hopes and aspirations, not an articulation of unbridgeable differences.

Throughout the 1960s, 70s and early 1980s, three big issues dominated the struggle for political equality: opposition to discriminatory immigration controls; the fight against racist attacks; and, most explosively, the issue of police brutality. These struggles politicised a new generation of black activists and came to an explosive climax in the inner-city riots of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The effect of the riots, wrote one academic commentator, was to ‘transform pleas for more political opportunities into the received wisdom that the black electorate should be involved in politics’.

The authorities recognised that unless black communities were given a political stake in the system, their frustration could threaten the stability of British cities. It was against this background that the policies of multiculturalism emerged.

Local authorities in inner-city areas, led by Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council (GLC), pioneered a new strategy of making black communities feel part of British society by organising consultation with black communities, drawing up equal opportunities policies, establishing race relations units and dispensing millions of pounds in grants to black community organisations. At the heart of the strategy was a redefinition of racism. Racism now meant not simply the denial of equal rights but the denial of the right to be different. Black people, many argued, should not be forced to accept British values, or to adopt a British identity. Rather, different peoples should have the right to express their identities, explore their own histories, formulate their own values, pursue their own lifestyles.

In this process, the very meaning of equality was transformed: from possessing the same rights as everybody else to possessing different rights, appropriate to different communities.

The multicultural approach appears to be a sensitive response to the needs of black communities. In fact, it is underpinned by the same assumption that has dogged the debate about race relations from the start: the idea that black people are in some way fundamentally different from ‘British’ people and that the problem of race relations is about how to accommodate these ‘differences’.

By the mid-1980s the political struggles that had dominated the fight against racism in the 1960s and 70s had became transformed into battles over cultural issues. Political struggles unite across ethnic or cultural divisions; cultural struggles inevitably fragment. Since state funding was now linked to cultural identity, so different groups began asserting their particular identities ever more fiercely. The shift from the political to the cultural arena helped entrench old divisions and to create new ones.

The city of Bradford provides a very good example of how the institutionalisation of multiculturalism undermined political struggles, entrenched divisions and strengthened conservative elements within every community. In April 1976, 24 people were arrested in pitched battles in the Manningham area of Bradford, as Asian youth confronted a National Front march and fought police protecting it. It was seen as the blooding of a new movement. The following year, the Asian Youth Movement was born. The next few years brought further conflict between black youth and the police, culminating in the trial of the Bradford 12 in 1981. Twelve young Asians faced conspiracy charges for making petrol bombs to use against racists. They argued they were acting in self-defence – and won, when the jury accepted this as the case.

Faced with this growing militancy, Bradford council drew up GLC-style equal opportunity statements, established race relations units and began funding black organisations. A 12-point race relations plan declared Bradford to be a ‘multiracial, multicultural city’, and stated that every section of the community had ‘an equal right to maintain its own identity, culture, language, religion and customs’.

As racism intensified through the Thatcher years, Bradford Asians became increasingly bitter. But the character of anti-racist protests in the city changed. By the mid-1980s the focus of concern had shifted from political issues, such as policing and immigration, to religious and cultural issues: a demand for Muslim schools and for separate education for girls, a campaign for halal meat to be served at school, and, most explosively, the confrontation over the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.

This process was strengthened by a new relationship between the local council and the local mosques. In 1981, the council helped set up and fund the Bradford Council of Mosques. By siphoning resources through the mosques, the council was able to strengthen the position of the more conservative religious leaders and to dampen down the more militant voices on the streets. As part of its multicultural brief to allow different communities to express their distinct identities, the council also helped set up two other religious umbrella groups: the Federation for Sikh Organisations and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, both created in 1984.

The consequence was to create divisions and tensions within and between different Asian communities, as each fought for a greater allocation of council funding.

There had always been residential segregation between the black and white communities in Bradford, thanks to a combination of racism, especially in council house allocation, and of a desire among Asians to find protection in numbers. But within Asian areas, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus lived cheek by jowl for much of the postwar period. In the 1980s, however, the three communities started dividing. They began increasingly to live in different areas, attend different schools and organise through different institutions. New council-funded community organisations and youth centres were set up according to religious and ethnic affiliations.

By the early 1990s even the Asian business community was institutionally divided along community lines, with the creation in 1987 of the largely Hindu and Sikh Institute of Asian Businesses; of the Hindu Economic Development Forum in 1989; and of the Muslim-dominated Asian Business and Professional Club in 1991. The Asian Youth Movement, the beacon in the 1970s of a united struggle against racism, was split up and torn apart by such multicultural tensions.

Multiculturalism was not simply the product of demand from black communities for their cultural differences to be recognised. That demand itself was to a large extent created through official policy in response to the black militancy of the 1970s and early 1980s. Instead of tackling head-on the problems of racial inequality, social deprivation and political disaffection, the authorities, both national and local, simply encouraged communities to pursue what one of the recent reports into the summer 2001 riots calls ‘parallel lives’.

By the 1990s multiculturalism had become generalised from a response to militant anti-racism to a general recipe for society. Whereas in the 1950s British identity was seen in racial terms, by the 1990s the very notion of a national identity was questioned. Britishness became simply the ability to tolerate different identities. Little wonder, then, that people should increasingly look inwards to their religion, ethnicity or community as an affirmation of who they are.

In places like Bradford, Oldham and Burnley, multiculturalism has helped segregate communities far more effectively than racism. Racism certainly created deep divisions in these towns. But it also helped generate political struggles against discrimination, the impact of which was to create bridges across ethnic, racial and cultural divisions. Multiculturalism, on the other hand, has not simply entrenched the divisions created by racism, but made cross-cultural interaction more difficult by encouraging people to assert their cultural differences.

And in areas where there was both a sharp division between Asian and white communities, and where both communities suffered disproportionately from unemployment and social deprivation, the two groups began to view these problems through the lens of cultural and racial differences, blaming each other for their problems. The inevitable result were the riots into which these towns descended this summer.

The real failure of multiculturalism is its failure to understand what is valuable about cultural diversity. There is nothing good in itself about diversity. It is important because it allows us to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, make judgements upon them, and decide which are better and which worse. It is important, in other words, because it allows us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can help create more universal values and beliefs. But it is precisely such dialogue and debate, and the making of such judgements, that multiculturalism attempts to suppress in the name of ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect’ – as, for example, in David Blunkett’s attempt to outlaw incitement to religious hatred.

The result is not a greater sensitivity to cultural differences but an indifference to other peoples’ lives, an indifference that lies at the heart of the ‘parallel worlds’ inhabited by different communities in towns like Bradford, Burnley and Oldham.

Cultural diversity only makes sense within a framework of common values and beliefs that enable us to treat all people equally. And to create such a framework requires us to be a bit more intolerant and to show a bit less respect.

Kenan Malik is the author of Man, Beast and Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us About Human Nature, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and The Meaning of Race: Race, History, and Culture in Western Society, New York University Press, 1996 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website

Read on:

All cultures are not equal, by Kenan Malik

Who divided Oldham?, by Brendan O’Neill

The fundamentalist question, by Josie Appleton

Oath of allegiance to what?, by Josie Appleton

Giving race experts a Lasching, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issue: Race

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Topics Politics