Friday, 01 March 2013

We Tolerate Each Other – But We Are Far From Integrated

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Huffington Post, 01/03/2013 

The UK has a segregation problem. When we open our eyes we can see it. We see it when we visit our schools, we see it when we walk round our neighbourhoods, we see it when we look at our friends. By age, income and race – our country divides every morning and every evening.

We share roads and pavements as we travel to work and school, and divide as the gates shut behind us. We squeeze together as we journey home and split apart as we arrive.

Look at your friends. Did they go to university? They mostly did if you did. Do they receive benefits? They mostly do if you do. Are they white? They mostly are if you are.

Our approach to integration has failed. It failed Ahara – an Asian girl from Birmingham – who at 16 had “never had a white friend”. It failed Dami who never considered university as he did not have a friend who had applied. It failed Louise who crossed roads to avoid groups of black youngsters as she thought they were all in gangs. As the co-founder of a charity that works with thousands of young people a year, these stories don’t surprise me anymore.

Yet we deny the obvious. As long as there are no riots or violence we assume it’s all ok. As long as everyone speaks some English. As long as we can queue up together.

This is not integration. It is – at best – passive tolerance.

A passive tolerance that accepts one of the most segregated school systems in the rich world. A system where half the children who can’t afford lunch are packed into just 20% of our schools. A system so segregated that my three year old daughter will prepare for life in a diverse country by spending seven hours a day, five days a week for 11 years in a building full of people broadly her age, her ethnicity and her parents’ income bracket. It’s not just about our schools. It’s about a care system that corals the elderly together or isolates them at home. It’s about our lack of affordable housing that locates rich and poor households in separate enclaves. It’s about the 600,000 white people – enough to populate Glasgow – who left London for more segregated spaces in the last ten years.

Unless we act now to reconnect our society, our future is a divided country. A country where we tolerate each other, but never integrate. A country where fearful individuals hunker down in rich gated communities, where parents choose from monoethnic schools and monoethnic neighbourhoods and where segregated labour markets promote job vacancies by word of mouth through communities based on ethnicity or income.

For anyone who cares about genuine integration, it is time to wake-up.

We know what needs to be done. We need social entrepreneurs who can build new institutions that create trust where there is division; the National Citizen Service is a great start – through it Ahara made a white friend, Dami decided to apply to university and Louise overcame her fear. We need political leaders who can transform our public services into spaces where people from different backgrounds connect.

Above all – whether mentoring teenagers, visiting the elderly or volunteering at community centres – we need to form friendships across income, ethnicity and age. That is what true integration will look like.

There is no time to waste.

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