Having watched the images of communities overcoming adversity as a result of the recent floods in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, you cannot help but empathise with the problems that the people living in those areas must have been facing. When events like this arise, many are quick to stress the sense of ‘community spirit’ that gets people through such times. In many ways this message can be reassuring, confirming to people that not only do communities still exist but that they are a positive influence and force for good in our rapidly changing society. Very few people would disagree with this. Yet if you look closely at the television images of those queuing for fresh water, you will see that the people themselves are widely diverse and different: a ‘community of communities’ maybe. Yet despite this vast diversity and difference, the same old sense of ‘community’ and what’s good about it appears to remain.
The dictionary definition of a ‘community’ is one where people live together in one place, sometimes with a sense of common ownership. In more recent years however, there has been a tendency to use the term ‘community’ to lump people together on the basis of their identity, stressing this aspect of the definition in preference of those merely living together in one place. This has meant that on far too many occasions, people are seen to be a community because of who or what they are rather than anything else. In doing so, the increasingly popular notion of community overlooks or even eradicates that necessary recognition of diversity and difference that vibrant and real communities – such as those overcoming adversity together in Gloucestershire or in today’s Birmingham – typically contain.
In terms of Birmingham, if we think that the people living together today are diverse, in the coming decade the city and its inhabitants will become ‘super-diverse’. To ensure that Birmingham as community therefore remains a force for good, ensuring that everyone is treated equally will become increasingly central to the city’s ongoing success.
If this is not achieved, then a lack of equality and the division of people into single identity communities could be easily used to not only identify but more worryingly single out and even scapegoat particular sections of society. This is far from being mere speculation, we only have to look back over recent months to see how events in Birmingham cause some to hold their breath in the hope that a concerted backlash against certain groups of people fail to materialise. For Birmingham as indeed elsewhere, this understanding of community can be problematic and can play into the hands of the mischief-makers who want to exploit the tensions and fractures that also clearly exist. When social and community challenges therefore arise, for many in society those challenges and ‘problems’ belong to ‘them’ rather than ‘us’. In doing so, not only do we see ‘them’ as being clearly different from ‘us’, but we also see ‘them’ presenting a challenge to ‘us’ in terms of ‘our’ values, way of life, culture and so on. Because of this, not all people in our community are treated equally.
This attitude and approach to understanding and identifying difference is sometimes reinforced both in politics and also by spokespeople for particular groups, or dare I say it, different ‘communities’. Take for instance the Government’s Preventing Extremism Together (PET) programme that is currently being rolled out across Birmingham in the form of projects (like raising awareness of Islam and training Imams). By funding ‘Muslim’ groups and ‘Muslim’ initiatives only, the programme runs the risk of inadvertently attributing the ‘problem’ of extremism to Muslim communities alone. In this way extremism – and more importantly preventing extremism – becomes something for most people in the city that is more about ‘them’ than it is about ‘us’.
With the emphasis being placed upon what Muslims should be doing, an opportunity is being squandered that might allow society as a whole to take a shared responsibility for ‘preventing extremism together’ through promoting common ownership of the problem. An approach that sees people and communities as having a ‘single identity’ alone was recently identified as problematic in the findings of the recent Commission on Integration & Cohesion’s report. Shared futures, as the report was titled, stressed the need to put an emphasis on articulating what binds communities together rather than the differences that might divide them. In prioritising a shared future over divided legacies, the report stressed that funding single identity groups or single issue projects can be regressive and divisive. Birmingham’s PET therefore seems to go against current thinking about what is good for communities.
In part, the approach to PET reflects the way Government and Local Authorities have sought to engage with black and minority ethnic (BME) communities in the past. This approach was known as ‘representation’ and was on many occasions highlighted as having serious flaws, Often used to advocate and lobby on behalf of the views and interests of those given the opportunity to ‘represent’, this has historically encouraged groups to play up their victimhood as well as their unique cultural or religious identities in a bid for more public funds or greater social influence. In a programme like PET, this can have a number of negative effects. Most significantly, divisions can be reinforced at the same time as encouraging some to believe that Muslims for example are getting preferential treatment. Consider for example the ‘grants for Muslims’ statistics used by the far-right in some of their campaign materials in certain areas of the outer city recently. Ultimately, such approaches can result in all people feeling that they are not being treated equally.
Because of this, few in society ‘buy-in’ to the challenges and problems we face in terms of ensuring all people are treated equally: few share that common ownership necessary to build a community. Yet as we saw in Gloucester, the consequences of the problems that impact upon communities affect us all, quite irrespective of what any of our differences may or may not be. The flood waters therefore failed to recognise ‘them’ and ‘us’ and so impacted upon the lives of white and black, young and old, male and female, Christian, Muslim, atheist and the not sure (as well as those who just don’t care!). Irrespective of who or what the people are that are queuing for fresh water, all that mattered was that everyone was treated equally. Whilst the challenges facing those in Birmingham may then have a different dynamic or focus, what really matters is that all are treated equally no matter what that challenge or situation might be.
Is it time then for a new approach to treating all people equally and by default, strengthening community?
As Director of Research and Policy at BRAP – a Birmingham based equalities and human rights charity – much of this is central to our day-to-day thinking. Because of this, we have been at the forefront of the shift towards a human rights based approach to equalities. Historically, equalities legislation in the UK has been largely driven in response to incidents that have had a nationwide resonance, for example the Brixton riots in 1981 and the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993. This has typically led to some form of protection being afforded to particular groups, such as ethnic minorities for example. While this has helped to rightfully protect some people, others have not been able to benefit because they have not met a particular identity or ‘profile’, something that is entirely divisive. And even for those offered some form of protection, it has not always been the case that simply reducing discrimination has been enough to prevent ongoing inequalities.
This is where a human rights based approach to equalities offers some benefits over and above what we already have. Human rights are ‘inherent’, they don’t need to be earned or bought. So groups shouldn’t have to wait for a riot or for somebody to die in order to be afforded the protection they deserve. Also human rights are universal, and all people can have them irrespective of their identity. This approach disposes of the need for knee-jerk responses and may even go some way towards identifying the commonalities that exist between us: commonalities between us as human beings first and foremost.
The slow and albeit tentative shift towards a human rights approach to equalities will gain further momentum later this year with the formation of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR) in October. For the first time in Britain, the various equalities strands covering ‘race’, gender, disability, age, sexual orientation as well as religion and belief will be brought together. By moving beyond the single identities that existing approaches have preferred – including PET – we can begin to address the ‘issues’ that stop us from feeling as though we are treated equally and that cause us to blame or scapegoat others as a result.
There remains a long way to go however, but if we want to build a community with a shared future, equalities and human rights might just be the unifier – the common ownership element – that our changing society needs. Building upon what informs our understanding of ‘community’ and what’s good about it might then be the first step in a new direction towards the goal of seeing everyone as ‘us’ in preference of others being ‘them’. To ensure that people see the value of treating everyone equally, those involved in driving equalities will need to effectively communicate what this might be and what a human rights based approach to equalities might look like for all. To do this, we must ensure that we not only speak out when certain groups are scapegoated or unnecessarily targeted but also when programmes such as the PET go against current sensibilities and flout potentially divisive lines. In doing this, community will go beyond being about what you are or on what basis you are lumped together, but more importantly about treating those we live together with equally and fairly irrespective of difference or diversity.