Multiculturalism: Past its expiry date?

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Debates about the role of multiculturalism in contemporary British society have become an inescapable and endemic feature of political discourse in recent years. Since Trevor Phillips, the then chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission claimed that Britain was ‘sleepwalking’ to segregation in 2005, the rhetoric of multiculturalism in Britain has become increasingly divisive. In February 2011, David Cameron joined German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former French President Nicholas Sarkozy in claiming that multiculturalism had ‘utterly failed.’[1]

Even though Phillips and his counterparts have come under attack for undermining race relations, I too am hard-pressed to reject the claim espoused by those above. No more so is the failure of multiculturalism evident than in its failure to facilitate the integration of minority ethnic groups into mainstream British society. As a consequence, ethnic communities have been allowed to live parallel and polarized lives. Multiculturalism has arguably facilitated resistance to intercommunal interaction and mixing by facilitating reference for residential self-segregation. This is no more so apparent than in the deeply ethnically segregated former northern mill town of Oldham in Greater Manchester. At present, the Pakistani and Bangladeshi community comprise 77% of the population in the Glodwick district while 99% of residents in the Saddleworth district are white.[2]

This failure has had profound consequences in the UK, most notably the inter-community conflict in former industrial multi-ethnic cities in Northern England in 2001. Nowhere was this more powerful than in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford, where violent confrontations between second generation adolescents of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin and neighbouring white communities engulfed those cities. The torching of cars and throwing of petrol bombs and fireworks emblazoned on our television screens that summer served to demonstrate the absence of community cohesion and a common sense of citizenship.

A subsequent expression of this alienation proved even more catastrophic. The London terrorist bombings of July 2005 were committed by highly assimilated second generation British-born Muslims of Pakistani descent, who rejected their British identity because they viewed it as being complicit in the persecution of fellow Muslims in the Middle East. In committing their act, they highlighted their profound alienation from the society they were raised and educated in.

On both occasions, the notion of the ‘criminal-outsider’ was central to describing the profile of the perpetrators. Sensationalist media representations of the black and minority ethnic community suggested that they were more predisposed to committing violent crimes, which has served to demonise certain communities as inherently deviant and disorderly. I am not hard pressed to see such myths propagated in the headlines of morning tabloids: ‘Young Black Kids to Blame for Knife Crime Wave’[3] and ‘70% of Muggers are Black in Robber Hotspots’[4] being but two examples.

Such ‘moral panics’ has served to legitimize police misuse of ‘stop and search’ laws. At present, black and Asian people are 28 and 10 times respectively more likely to be stopped than their white counterparts. Who could forget the nightly news coverage of the widespread rioting which first occurred in London and later escalated across several cities across the UK including Manchester during August 2011? The setting of police cars ablaze and pelting officers with bricks and baseball bats served to symbolize ethnic minority antagonism because of the perception of long-standing police mistreatment. The events were triggered by the death of African-Caribbean Mark Duggan, who was shot by Metropolitan Police officers a day prior to the rioting on 6 August.

Similarly we must not overlook the role of the far-right in fostering a climate of hostility. Last May, in response to the conviction of nine men in Rochdale Greater Manchester for the grooming and sexual abuse of teenage girls, the English Defence League (EDL) capitalized on the scandal by defining the sexual offenders merely in terms of their ethnical racial and religious identity as ‘Asians’ or ‘Muslims’ paedophiles, and dismissed the fact that sexual exploitation happens across society. Even though 95% of those on the Sex Offenders Register in Greater Manchester were white, 500 supporters of the EDL exploited the crime to promote racial tension and inter-community violence by travelling to the north-west town to protest.

However, we shouldn’t entirely dismiss the positive effects of multiculturalism. Last summer’s London 2012 Olympics was arguably a triumph for its defendants – celebrating the model which has allowed different cultures to co-exist and flourish. From the Olympics opening ceremony, which celebrated the diverse range of musical artists’ cultures and identities, to Somali-born British athlete Mo Farah’s double gold medal, I am hard-pressed to refute the undeniable contribution made by black and ethnic minority Britons to cement the UK’s status as a diverse and inclusive society projected to an international audience.

So what’s the future of state multiculturalism? Perhaps the era of celebrating different cultures to co-exist and flourish is irrevocably consigned to the history books. And David surfacing frequently to denounce multiculturalism as a failure, it would seem that governmental support for multiculturalism in Britain is, for the moment, on hold.

Written by Salma Haidrani

Edited by Chris Olewicz