Ghettoes of the mind

Last week I was re-reading an angry but meticulously argued pamphlet, from 1980, by my late friend, colleague and comrade Ken Leech: Brick Lane 1978: The events and their significance. It focused on the Bengali community in the East End, many of whom had arrived in the previous 10 years. They were struggling economically, and under siege from racists and fascists. Their daily concerns merited little attention from the police or the press. They lived close to each other, not just for safety in numbers but as a result of discrimination and social exclusion. Among them, and nearby, lived other struggling East Enders, black and white. In social commentary about the Bengali community, the word “ghetto” cropped up repeatedly, but Leech told his readers:

“Brick Lane is not a ghetto in the racial sense. But it is a ghetto of the poor, of the marginalised, of the oppressed. No attempt to deal with racism alone will be adequate any  more than will the attempt to evade racism. The attack on racism, whether in the form of organised racist groups or in the more pervasive form of our institutions and laws, must not be watered down. However it is essential to widen the attack into one on the oppression of the urban poor… Brick Lane is a community disfigured by unemployment, by racial discrimination by deprivation of resources.”


Leech challenged “the commonly held white mythology of the oppressed, victimised Asian, passive and fearful, helpless…” and showed how that community  helped and organised itself and found allies in the diverse, wider community locally.

Yesterday I read the 18-page executive summary of Louise Casey’s “Review into Opportunity and Integration”, which talks of “ghettoes” and “segregation”. I was so glad I had read Ken Leech’s pamphlet first. Their approaches and assumptions are like chalk and cheese. Everything that is so insightful in Leech’s work is missing in Casey’s.

Casey says quite candidly: “I approached this review with an absolute belief that we are a compassionate, tolerant and liberal country” with “a media that exposes corruption and injustice whoever you are, and a legal system that treats everybody as innocent until proved otherwise”. For Casey, “Creating a just, fair society where everyone can prosper and get on is a cornerstone of Britain’s values.” The Britain she knows “has developed some of the strongest equalities legislation in the world, and provided greater freedoms to be different.” It has made “great strides in gender equality.”

Nothing that Casey  encountered during her review seems to have challenged her own narrow assumptions. But let’s look at some truths here about this “compassionate, tolerant and liberal country”.

Since the 1970s, under both Tory and Labour governments and a Tory Lib-Dem coalition, the wealth gap between rich and poor in Britain has grown enormously, homelessness has mushroomed, gentrification is enacting social cleansing, while rights to protest and wider civil liberties have been severely eroded alongside the removal of legal aid channels for many who need it to challenge injustices. Meanwhile the discriminatory Prevent Strategy spreads unease within Muslim communities.

The media, with occasional exceptions, gives a free pass to those who have cornered most of that wealth for themselves, praising their entrepreneurial spirit, treating them as celebrities, preferring to scapegoat the poor for poverty, targeting immigrants and refugees for social problems, and whipping up Islamophobic prejudices.

As for gender equality, there is still a gap of 14% in Britain between the earnings of men and women in full-time employment. Men are still more concentrated in senior roles and women more likely to be working in low paid, low skilled jobs. Women are also less likely to be working full time, partly because of spiraling childcare costs, with women taking on the main burden of childcare.

In this period since the 1970s, segregation and ghettoisation has occurred, but not the segregation Casey notices.  As one of our foremost Human Geographers, Danny Dorling, has pointed out, the most aggressive moves towards geographical ghettoisation, have come from mainly white people within the predominantly middle and upper income bracket, housing themselves within gated communities; guarding their wealth and power by limiting their physical contact with people from less privileged classes and especially from ethnic minorities within those poorer classes, while ensuring that their children are educated in schools  largely devoid of those minorities. They may not mind Sajid Javid living next door but might not be keen on having his poorer relatives living on the other side


Casey’s focus on ghettoes is not here. She avoid questions of class and accumulation of substantial wealth,  but notes that Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities in particular, are generally not keeping up. She hints that some are held back by prejudice, and “social exclusion”, but remarks that they  “tend to live in more residentially segregated communities than other ethnic minority groups”. In these communities, she says,  “economic inactivity levels remain unusually high among women”. Arguing  that “English language is a common denominator and a strong enabler of integration” (and social mobility), she states that:  “Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnic groups have the lowest levels of English language proficiency of any Black or Minority Ethnic group… and women in those communities are twice as likely as men to have poor English.”

If you are expecting details about the drastic cuts to ESOL classes, and the widespread and unchecked discrimination that keeps minority ethnic women in casualised, low-paid work or more prone to unemployment, you will need to look elsewhere. Casey looks mainly for explanations within those struggling communities themselves. If this sounds familiar, it does appear to dovetail  with David Cameron’s assertions in 2016, which cast women from Muslim communities as “traditionally submissive” and blamed them for not integrating, rather than giving due weight to the direct and indirect racism they suffer, including regular abuse and frequent physical attacks that blight their lives and hamper their desire for equality.

What those of us fighting for equality should take more seriously, even if it is uncomfortable and tricky territory, is when Casey talks of  “regressive cultural and religious practices”, and “religious, cultural and social barriers” preventing women “from accessing even their basic rights”. She refers explicitly to “criminal practices, such as female genital mutilation, forced marriage and so called ‘honour’ based crime”, and also claims that “lesbian, gay and bisexual groups who suffer discrimination in mainstream society… are affected twice over when they also belong to a community that can be culturally intolerant of non-heterosexual identification.”

Apart from the massive generalisation/stereotype of the range of attitudes within Muslim communities, those of us who have grown up in traditional Jewish or Christian communities or attended faith schools within these religions, will know that practices of cultural intolerance towards LGBT individuals can be equally repressive. Casey’s almost exclusive focus on Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslim communities is suspect, to put it charitably.

Some anti-racists are wary of acknowledging and tackling human rights issues within minority communities. We shouldn’t be. Human rights are indivisible. If we support the most vulnerable, oppressed and marginalised within society in general, then we must also support the oppressed and marginalised within minority communities.

What does bother me is that Casey does nothing to enlighten us as to how these issues have been and continue to be  challenged by courageous individuals and groups within the minority communities she homes in on, such as, for example, by Southall Black Sisters, at the very same time as they are challenging economic discrimination, social exclusion, institutional racism and racist attacks.

Casey’s executive summary  gives no agency to those she sees as passive victims. Instead she informs us that “Too many public institutions… have ignored or even condoned regressive, divisive and harmful cultural and religious practices, for fear of being branded racist or Islamophobic.” It is a complacent and blinkered attitude that may result her review itself being branded as racist and Islamophobic. That would not be wrong, but that is not the only problem with it, and it would be tragic if that meant that progressives outside these communities do not support women and sexual minorities within them who are taking up these human rights issues at the same time as they expose the prejudiced class ridden perspectives that Cameron and Casey seem to embody.

In one small section of the Executive summary, Casey seems to refer to communities other than Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims, when she turns her attention to immigration in general.  She talks of the “unease” felt by “traditional White British communities” (as if all white people are of one mind) adding that “in a situation where the country has been through an economic downturn, it is understandable that the pace and scale of immigration has felt too much for some communities.”

But who are these “traditional White British communities”? Immigrants have been coming to Britain for thousands of years. They have tended to settle in towns and cities, predominantly among the working class. And while in some areas a majority or even a large majority of them may be white, working class communities have long been diverse. Which brings us back to Ken Leech’s observation about the oppression of the marginalised and oppressed urban poor – the diverse urban poor. Casey, like Cameron is locked into a set of “us and them” perspectives without, apparently, even being conscious of how narrow a perspective it really is. The ghettoes of Britain today are to be found in the growing gated communities of the privileged.  They are also to be found in the walled-in mindset of elite commentators such as Cameron and Casey.










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