A more multiracial Britain
Published: Sunday | January 25, 2009
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II watches a pupil having a computer lesson during a visit to the St-Martin-in-the-Fields High School for Girls in Tulse Hill, south London, Friday, February 16, 1999. Her visit marked the 300th anniversary of the school, where nearly nine in 10 of the 600 pupils come from multi-ethnic backgrounds.
Gwynne Dyer, Contributor
If you are the head of something called the Equality and Human Rights Commission, your job is to complain about the racism, gender discrimination and general unfairness of the society you live in. So Trevor Phillips, the chairman of Britain's E & HRC, broke with tradition when he said last week that Britain is "by far - and I mean by far - the best place in Europe to live if you are not white".
Phillips, whose own heritage is black Caribbean, made his remarks on the 10th anniversary of a report on the murder of a young black Londoner, Stephen Lawrence, that condemned the police as "institutionally racist". So they were - at the time - but having lived in London half my life, I think Phillips is right. Things have changed.
Lucinda Platt of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at Essex University thinks so too. She has just published a report revealing that one in five children in Britain now belongs to an ethnic minority - and one in 10 lives in a mixed-race family. The first statistic might merely confirm Enoch Powell's fears of 40 years ago. The second proves that he was utterly wrong.
Enoch Powell was the Conservative politician who made a famous speech in 1968 predicting race war if the United Kingdom did not stop non-white immigration from the former empire. He dressed it up with quotes from the classics, but the message was plain: "As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see 'the River Tiber foaming with much blood'."
"That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic," Powell went on, referring to the race riots that devastated many large American cities after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, "... is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect. Indeed, it has all but come. In numerical terms, (the non-white part of the British population) will be of American proportions long before the end of the century. Only resolute and urgent action will avert it even now."
Powell was promptly expelled from the shadow Cabinet, but an opinion poll soon afterwards showed that 74 per cent of the British population shared his fears. The general opinion at the time in Europe, based mainly on observation of the American experience, was that different races could not live comfortably together.
Fast-forward 40 years, and Britain is more or less as Powell predicted: the proportion of non-whites among its citizens is almost the same as it is in the United States. But the next generation of British are not fighting each other, as Powell predicted; they are marrying each other.
Among British children who have an Indian heritage, 11 per cent live in families with one white parent. Among kids with a Chinese heritage, 35 per cent have one white parent. Among children with a black Caribbean heritage, 49 per cent do - including my next-door neighbours.
Among Muslim Britons the rate is much lower (only four per cent for kids of Pakistani heritage), but the younger generation of British people is largely blind to ethnicity, religious differences, all the old shibboleths. And apart from some former mill towns where unskilled immigrants from a single ethnic group confront the old white working class, both of them now unemployed, there are few racially segregated ghettos in Britain.
Of London's 32 boroughs, none is less than 10 per cent non-white. Only three reach 50 per cent, and those just barely. Despite the happy-ever-after inauguration of Barack Obama, the urban scene in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago is dramatically different.
This does not prove that British people are more virtuous than Americans. It just shows that people of different races can live comfortably together, can even come to see race as essentially irrelevant to their choice of mate, provided that there is no heritage of race-based slavery.
The French 'race riots' of 2005 and 2007 occasioned much discussion of France's failure to integrate its immigrants, but lots of angry white kids took part in those riots too. The same was true of the Brixton "race riots" in London in 1981. They were actually anti-police riots, and whites were welcome to join. Many did.
Eastern Europe is different: it has far fewer non-whites, and so it is far more racist. But Britain, and to a lesser extent France, are rather like Canada, another country that was 98 per cent white only 50 years ago, but now has a racial diversity that equals or exceeds that of the United States. Yet it simply isn't an issue for most of the young. Indeed, London and Toronto are probably the two best cities in the world in which to bring up mixed-race kids.
None of this detracts from the historic achievement of Americans in electing a black (well, all right, mixed-race) president. It's just to say that it was much harder to do that in the United States because of the malign influence of history.
All the more credit to Americans for doing it anyway. And full marks to the British and the Canadians for showing that race really doesn't matter when history doesn't get in the way.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.