Segregation myths exposed


Segregation myths exposed

Review

Written by: Jon Burnett


A crucial book questioning dominant ideas about race, ethnicity and segregation deserves to be widely read.

Claims about the growing impact of segregation have permeated policy-making to such an extent within the UK that they have visibly impacted upon a wide range of criminal justice, social policy, education, and anti-terrorism strategies. They are central to the concrete shifts towards a race relations agenda of community cohesion, put in place after urban disorders in the North of England in 2001 and the subsequent development of this agenda following terrorist attacks in London in 2005. Given the practical significance of such ideas and the very real impact they have, it is of particular importance to analyse the basis upon which their claims to knowledge emerge.

‘Sleepwalking to segregation’? Challenging myths about race and migration, by Nissa Finney and Ludi Simpson, ‘aims to set the record straight on current claims about Britain’s “immigration burden”, about the level of racial or ethnic segregation and about minority ethnic groups’ willingness to integrate’. In doing so it uses a diverse range of statistical sources and sets out from the beginning to base its analyses on the interpretation of data ‘to defend and to extend human rights’. A central premise of the text is that many of the dominant claims about race, ethnicity, and immigration are myths. As such, this book has two primary aims which focus firstly on challenging these ideas; and second on exploring the manner in which they gain currency in contemporary thought. The ideas tackled are (in turn): that ‘Britain takes too many immigrants’; that ‘so many minorities cannot be integrated’, that ‘minorities do not want to integrate’; that ‘Britain is becoming a country of ghettos’; and that of ‘minority white cities’. Underpinning these myths is the claim, vocalised by the Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) Trevor Philips, that Britain is ‘sleepwalking to segregation’.

As the authors point out, the development of a set of ideas about community cohesion and segregation mark, in some ways, a distinctive shift in the basis of race relations policies. At the same time though, they continue a long historical trend within the UK of utilising statistical data in a form which has ‘developed (or not) in response to changing political and policy arenas’. In order to challenge such misreading and misrepresentation of knowledge it is necessary to explore the context in which myths emerge. Consequently, the notion that Britain takes ‘too many’ immigrants is tackled, first, by exploring the basis of this perception. The authors then utilise a range of statistical sources such as, for example, the UK census and information produced by the United Nations, to assess such claims. Importantly, the analyses that are presented within this book, to debunk myths, often do so by utilising the same sources of data upon which such myths are based in the first place. As the text shows it is frequently a wilful misreading of data which enables myths to gain political and popular currency.

Within the context of ideas relating to levels of immigration, for example, Finney and Simpson discuss the role of MigrationWatchUK. This think-tank explicitly makes clear that it sees immigration into the UK as a form of threat. As a result, in order to justify this position it uses various statistical sources to come up with dubious conclusions. One of the many strengths of this book is the clear way the authors set out how such conclusions are reached. In so doing they draw attention to how they are underpinned by ideological agendas and, in essence, untruths.

MigrationWatchUK features frequently within this book and, as is explained, this is in part because of the influence it has in debates on immigration. As this book goes on to show, the ideas that it asserts are shared by a wide range of organisations, political entities and media sources. A further strength of this text is the way in which it provides insight into the extent to which particular ideas around immigration and segregation have become legitimised. For example, when exploring the much popularised notions that immigration has created housing shortages and that ‘diversity’ ultimately threatens security and stability, this text draws on references from a range of political parties. This, from one perspective, reiterates the extent to which integrationist agendas have entered mainstream political thought.[1] At the same time though, Finney and Simpson produce data sources to explain how such myths are, in some cases at least, based on ideas which are diametrically opposed to reality. So, for example, myths around immigration and housing gain prominence in a context where, in reality, ‘immigrants and their children tend to live in the more dense urban areas and with more people in each property’. Similarly the notion of self-segregation, focused primarily on Asian families, is not only based on the misuse of evidence but has gained currency despite the fact that the ‘White group is the most separated in Britain, in the sense of living in areas only with themselves’.

This book is important and deserves to be widely read for it presents a crucial account of the way in which certain ideas come to permeate popular and political thought. At the heart of its analysis is a discussion of the way through which particular forms of knowledge come to occupy space as ‘common sense’. That they do so comes with the price of privileging particular organisations, such as MigrationWatchUK, as purveyors of authoritative information. As the authors make clear in the conclusion, there is need for an ‘alternative lens’. They could not be more accurate and this book will help ensure that this lens is grounded by clarity.

Related links

The Policy Press

Read an IRR News story: ‘Reflections on the media, immigration and the election’

Read an IRR News story: ‘Revival of the numbers game?’


'Sleepwalking to segregation'? Challenging myths about race and migration, by Nissa Finney and Ludi Simpson is available from The Policy Press. [1] For further discussion see Arun Kundnani The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century Britain (London, Pluto, 2007), pp. 121-140.


The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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Saleh Mamon
Saleh Mamon
10 years ago

Thank you for this excellent review. One of the highlights of the book is that it critically examines Trevor Phillips chilling evaluation in 2005 “we are sleepwalking our way to segregation”. The title comes from this remark. The authors debunk Phillips prognosis and discuss the relationship between poverty and segregation.

Saleh Mamon
Saleh Mamon
10 years ago

Thank you for this excellent review. One of the highlights of the book is that it critically examines Trevor Phillips chilling evaluation in 2005 “we are sleepwalking our way to segregation”. The title comes from this remark. The authors debunk Phillips prognosis and discuss the relationship between poverty and segregation.

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