...in the bottom drawer
I knew I'd lose it so I put it in a safe place, and now I can't remember where it is.

currently stashed in: Cheshire Street, London
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September 26, 2005 || 10:27 am
On race relations, integration and equality

[Note: I was tickled to read Tom Coates on how he hasn't had time to blog about the things he really wants to write about. This post has been 'in progress for several days: it's rough and incomplete but I decided I should post it up anyway, otherwise I'd never get it out...so forgive any excess bluntness!]

Race, due to Trevor Phillips recent comments, due to the disaster of Katrina, and the bombings in London, is high on the agenda. I've just lived for a year in an area where racism is popularly supposed to be the worst in the States, coming from the area of London that it is famous for being the 'melting-pot' of immigrants, with a white minority. I can only comment with any authority on the relationship of race to physical space - the much-used word 'ghetto', and the place of physical 'pepperpotting' of ethnic families in neighbourhoods.

West Alabama is somewhere where de-segregation has happened legally regarding jobs, voting and services, yet where huge physical and social segregation is still visible. There are white neighbourhoods and black neighbourhoods; churches are almost all (voluntarily) segregated; some white and wealthier businessmen don't deal with blacks (for example, a realtor not renting to blacks) and socially, whites and blacks choose to spend their time in separate bars listening to opposite types of music. Institutional racism, in terms of the gerrymandering of electoral districts, the unequal provision of education due to laws linking its funding to property taxes; and the bad design of state and federal programmes so that they misfit with the real needs of deprived people (mostly black): is rampant. Black and white politicians are equally corrupt, however, with their garnering of votes from the dead, and black-run programmes are accused, often correctly, of maladministration and racial favoritism.

Yet day to day, most whites work next to black people, care about their welfare, treat them well and ask about their children. I have had days there of incredible optimism, whether it was seeing black kids dancing on stage last weekend to old-time string bands, or just seeing the civility with which people treat each other in the gas stations and shops, the jokes exchanged between white and black blue-collar workers queuing together at the lunch counters, and the kindness and generosity of many of the wealthier white families towards black families with nothing at all, such as during Katrina. But the casual comments about blacks continue, whether about their drug and crime habits, their promiscuity or their welfare culture. These comments are chicken-and-egg, justified in some senses, but equally the phenomena that they refer to are the product of centuries of inequality and lack of opportunity, breeding apathy through a lack of hope.

The East End, you might say, is the pepper-pot model, where white, black British, Bangladeshi, Turkish and African families live cheek by jowl crammed together into squalid housing estates, included in the same neighbourhood regeneration schemes, living in the same terraces of Victorian houses. But I have more non-white friends in Greensboro, Alabama than I do in London. I know more about what the news is in the black community, what everyone's up to, in Alabama than I know about what preoccupies my Bangladeshi neighbours in London, or even what on earth the Turkish people living in the flat directly below me actually do for a living. This is nothing to do with the physical segregation, or lack of: it is entirely due to pace of life. In Greensboro I have the time to talk to people, get to know the ordinary people who surround me, and hear all the news. This is called nosiness, or community cohesion, depending on who you ask.

The fact, and my shame, of the matter is that in London I simply did not make the effort. My Turkish neighbours could be terrorists for all I know, but every time I tried to talk to them I couldn't understand a word they said and after a while I gave up. I didn't want them to think I was being nosy, or racially profiling them, by quizzing them - how ironic. Should they have been more open with me? Yes. They should have tried to get to know me as much as I should have tried harder to get to know them. They could have learnt more English. The most I knew about them was that they used to play Turkish music loudly beneath my bedroom and sometimes I wanted to go down and tell them to shut up, but I felt embarrassed to do so because they were all men and I felt they looked at me funny and were sexist. I loved overhearing the Cockney-accented Bangladeshi girls on the bus talking about how the boys they knew were pathetic, but I never joined in their conversation. I felt both excluded by virtue of my different cultural background, but also shy and not wanting to make comments that might be perceived by them to be either judgemental, stupid or unwelcome.

Trevor Phillips appeared to be advocating the kind of mixed-ethnicity neighbourhoods that exist in the East End as opposed to the segregated neighbourhoods common to me from the southern USA. Yet the word 'ghetto' to me doesn't accurately describe the phenomenon of ethnically homogenous communities, as to me it is reminiscent of forcing an minority group to live apart from the dominant ethnicity. In the States most black people choose to live around other black people, because of reasons of family, community, land ownership and historical solidarity, not to mention the provision of local shops and services that cater to their particular needs and tastes. [The exception to this is obviously the middle-class black urbanites who often reject the 'black culture' of the lower income groups.] To force these people to live in 'mixed' neighbourhoods will not automatically lead to greater social integration, as we can see in areas like East London. And how can any government legislate for this? It can act against racism by rental agencies, housing associations or residents' groups but fundamentally if a Bangladeshi family wants to live in an area where there are mosques, halal butchers and sari shops, this is normal and to be respected. We cannot control who chooses to buy a house where.

But in our schools, shops, workplaces and streets - those 'places of exchange' and neutral grounds - as individuals we can and must make more time to get to know our neighbours and colleagues as people. Your Filipino cleaning lady - you probably have no idea how many kids she has or even where she lives. Your shopkeepers, checkout girls, street cleaner, petrol station attendant - they are Jane Jacobs' "public characters" who, through their everyday actions, bind our communities together, act as communal resources for those of us who are less 'public' in the way we lead our lives and know all the local news, if you just bothered to ask. Although in Britain, our institutional and passively sanctioned racism may be less than in the Southern USA, I would venture to say that perhaps our ignorance on a personal level - our ignoring, really - of other ethnicities and social groups is greater.

You can't force us to live next to a person of a different race, or make us have some token black friends. But as citizens, I would consider it our civic duty, not to mention good neighbourly manners, to get to know those who surround us, who serve us, who we encounter in our everyday lives, whether of a different race or class or not: to talk to them and listen to them, to help them if they need help and look out for them in times of trouble. Then, we may be able to call ourselves a society, let alone an integrated one.

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