Diversity is divisive
A new manifesto looks set to kickstart a debate about how multiculturalism fosters tribalism and political victimhood.
The manifesto of the New Generation Network (NGN), published this week, has thrown out an impressive challenge to improve the national conversation about racism. Amongst other things, the manifesto calls for a proper debate about multiculturalism, an end to ‘communal politics’, and it criticises self-appointed ethnic ‘community leaders’ for hijacking certain issues (read the manifesto in full here). Perhaps inevitably, much of the debate it has provoked so far is focused on the comments about self-appointed leaders. However, these issues can only be fully understood in the context of official anti-racism measures that have been built up over the past two decades.
As NGN states, we have come a long way since the first Race Relations Act was created in 1976. Back then, racist attacks were more common and prejudice more evident in the immigration service, police, employment, housing and education. Thirty years on, racism is clearly in decline, thanks to the efforts of many progressive activists and the gradual cultural integration of ethnic groups in society.
Yet in many ways, our society is much more anxious about race than before. Early findings from the 2005 Home Office Citizenship survey show that nearly half of all people (48 per cent) questioned believed that racism had got worse in the past five years. This was a rise from 43 per cent in 2001. White people were more likely to say this than ethnic minorities, suggesting that perception does not reflect the reality experienced by most people.
Why has this strange paradox emerged? While people from ethnic minority backgrounds are today less likely to confront old-fashioned racism, they are much more likely to confront multicultural policies and practises that racialise them. The principle of equality – that all people should be treated the same regardless of their skin colour or ethnic background – has now been replaced with the principle of diversity, where all cultural identities must be given public recognition. While this sounds nice and inclusive in principle, the overall effect is that people are being treated differently, which fuels a sense of exclusion.
The ‘race relations industry’ has expanded massively on the back of government policies, legislation and funding. Most public services – housing, healthcare, arts and cultural provision, voluntary support, public broadcasting, and policing – have strategies to accommodate the supposedly different needs of ethnic users. Many organisations now have targets to ensure they are employing enough ethnic minorities.
The effect of such measures, however, is not to get rid of racial categories, but to reinforce their grip on our consciousness. For example, there has been much debate about the lack of ethnic minorities in the media and arts sectors. The reasons are complex, and can be explained by different aspirations, socioeconomic factors and cultural expectations (many of which also affect the white working class).
But the dominance of racial thinking leads to the simplistic explanation that the ‘white male establishment’ is full of bigots. This leads to positive discrimination schemes that put ethnicity before talent, and results in the hired hand being sent to work in this or that department as the unofficial spokesperson for their ‘community’. No wonder these individuals then think there is racism in the sector where they work, when they are so obviously treated as ‘the token ethnic’. Diversity policies often appear as the flipside of old racial thinking, making us see people’s ethnicity first and their (often diverse) talents and interests second.
The most pernicious effect of this new racial thinking is how it fosters tribalism between ethnic and religious groups. They end up competing for resources on the basis that they are more excluded and vulnerable than others. Some Muslim lobby groups have argued that Christian groups already have public funding for their schools and services, so they should, too. In response, there are now Hindu and Sikh organisations demanding their own concessions lest they feel left out. The demand to wear the headscarf one day spurs the demand to wear the crucifix the next. There is a perverse incentive to assert one’s victimisation by others, rather than build alliances. In this climate, no wonder everyone thinks that racism and discrimination is rife.
To challenge the dominance of identity politics, we need to champion an alternative universalist approach. This wouldn’t mean bland similarity, with everybody talking and looking the same. Instead, it would help us challenge the imposition of formal, ethnic categories and allow us to develop richer differences based on character and interests.
A major step towards the universalist approach would be to dismantle the countless diversity policies that encourage people to see everything through the prism of racial difference. We should get rid of ‘tick box’ measures that do nothing to address underlying inequality in areas like employment. And we should interrogate the claims of victimisation made by some organisations to get their slice of pie. If the NGN will help to expose some of the damage being done in the name of diversity, I welcome it.
Munira Mirza is a writer and researcher based in London, and a co-founder of the Manifesto Club. This article was first published on Comment Is Free.
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