Munira Mirza’s ‘Rethinking Race’ dossier in the October edition of Prospect magazine evokes in me an ambivalent response. ‘Has multiculturalism had its day?’ The answer, for me, is both Yes and No. But more importantly, whilst multiculturalism may indeed have ‘had its day, it’s not because of the reasons Mirza and co set out.
First off, therefore, some context. Prospect has been ploughing this furrow for some years. Back in 2004, David Goodhart used Prospect to launch a broadside against multiculturalism. Employing extremely questionable terminologies for such a liberal mouthpiece – the phrase “stranger citizens” to refer to new migrants for instance — Goodhart proscribed multiculturalism’s imminent demise on the basis that Britain was becoming “too diverse”. Questioning whether Britain could sustain the mutual obligations that were necessary for maintaining a good society he went on to declare that the “more our lives [are] spent among strangers…” the more our “…common culture is being eroded”.
Trevor Philips, head of the then Commission for Racial Equality now the Equality & Human Rights Commission, responded in The Guardian by suggesting that “The xenophobes should come clean”. In an article I wrote for the Journal for Culture and Religion I concluded that for Goodhart et al, “it is possible that a much more accurate meaning of what is being put forward can be gleaned from what is not being said rather more than what is not”. It’s possible that the same applies now.
A somewhat naïve premise seems to underlie this new multiculturalism bashing dossier: that multiculturalism was somehow a cure for racism. Multiculturalism can be either, or indeed both, a descriptive and normative term. The former describes the existence of a diversity of cultures, ethnicities, religions and so on, typically referred to in a specific geographic or demographic space. The latter is more conceptual and refers to the rights of different groups to both give and receive respect and recognition in a given space or context. Some of the opposition to multiculturalism is specifically an opposition to the normative understandings and premised on the view that incorporated within this is a seemingly institutionalised positive endorsement of multiculturalism. Irrespective of understanding however, in many parts of today’s Britain, multiculturalism – at its most descriptive level – is the modus operandi. Even in the few anomalous places where Britain remains demographically mono-cultural, the mediatised and virtual spaces that represent today’s Britain are quite different and so multiculturalism is a reality, like it or not. On this basis, I disagree with Prospect’s premise.
But then again, I do think that in some ways multiculturalism has had its day. Let me clarify that.
In some places, multiculturalism has had its day. This is not because Goodhart’s 2004 predictions were correct and multiculturalism was already in terminal decline. It is, rather, because multiculturalism has changed. For me, Prospect’s latest assault on multiculturalism seems a little passé. But what do I mean by this?
In places such as London and Birmingham, it is now far more ‘on trend’ to speak about how they are becoming super-diverse. For those such as Steven Vertovec, my University of Birmingham colleague Jenny Phillimore and indeed in my own think-piece for the West Midlands Regional Observatory last year, the urban conurbations in Britain are rapidly moving towards levels and complexities of diversity that surpass anything that this country has ever experienced or understood. Super-diversity is significantly different to anything that has gone before: far more protean with far more variables to contend with that are also less visible and more embedded in a greater number of sometimes newer, smaller and more scattered, multiple-origin, socio-economically differentiated and legally stratified communities. In these areas therefore, old notions of multiculturalism would appear to have had their day, but not, I repeat, for the reasons the Prospect articles suggest.
But even though we might acknowledge the shift towards super-diversity we have to be careful. Like multiculturalism, super-diversity is a descriptive term also. Merely recognising more complex forms of diversity will not in itself be a means to an end. Like multiculturalism before it, using a term to describe society – or at least parts of it – will neither eradicate racism nor indeed any other forms of discrimination or prejudice.
And here is where I again agree and disagree with Mirza and her gang of multicultural doom-mongers. Clearly race does not have to be the significant disadvantage that it is – I’m reluctant to say “often” – portrayed to be. We no longer live in a society where we collectively gather in front of our television screens to laugh at racist and xenophobic prime-time sitcoms such as ‘Mind Your Language’ and ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ as we did in the 1970s. But we do still live in a society where racism is an issue and where newer forms of discrimination and prejudice such as Islamophobia have not only found a greater resonance with large swathes of society but are moreover increasingly being used as a smokescreen behind which old racisms hide.
But this is not because of the failings of the multicultural model.
No, it is the consequence of high levels of poverty and deprivation and the lack of successful policies implemented to redress inequalities, some of which may have been described as ‘multicultural policies’. And this is my biggest objection to this recent Prospect assault. So eager is it to kill off multiculturalism that it fails to capture and present the whole picture.
Take for instance Birmingham. At present, people from BME backgrounds tend to be concentrated in the most densely populated areas of the city. Many of these areas are also those where the highest levels of deprivation can be found. For example, Department of Health figures from 2009 show that almost 60% of Birmingham’s wards are within the most deprived quintile nationally. Other statistics from the Campaign to End Child Poverty state that Birmingham is home to the poorest ward in the country, Ladywood. Two others are not far behind in the poverty stakes. Unsurprisingly, these same wards are where high numbers of BME people live and where ‘super-diverse’ might be an accurate description.
Disadvantage is not necessarily about race, any more than it is about religion, ethnicity or gender for instance. Yet even where it is not ‘about race’, race may still be something through which disadvantage can also be additionally experienced and perpetuated. And where this does occur – as with religion, ethnicity, gender and any of the newer markers that are emerging in super-diverse areas such as language, immigration status and so on – it can rarely be disentangled from manifestations of deprivation, poverty and inequality. None of this occurs within a vacuum
As we move towards greater super-diversity therefore things are going to become more complex and far less ‘black and white’. What is needed is a new mindset, one that seeks to eradicate the causes of disadvantage – of poverty, deprivation and inequality – and is able to recognise but also consider beyond the old markers of race, ethnicity and so on.
Multiculturalism therefore has not had its day, it’s merely undergoing transformation (in places). And it’s not simply only about rethinking race, it is about rethinking our approaches and understandings of disadvantage.
That being the case, I wonder whether Prospect’s framing of the question and issues are really part of the rethinking required?