If you were alive and sentient in Britain in the 1980s, you will remember “multiculturalism.” This was an ideal, a policy, a statement of intent and an acknowledgment of the presence of several distinct cultural and ethnic groups, all of whom should be considered valuable members of British society. Schools were encouraged to commit to the value of multiculturalism and promote it through their curricula. Employers were advised to amend their recruitment policies so that groups underrepresented in the workplace were urged to apply. This included the police which had disproportionately few officers from ethnic minorities.
UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman recently gave a speech on migration. She concluded a “misguided dogma of multiculturalism” had brought people into the UK with the purpose of “undermining the stability and threatening the security of society.” It was an adventurous claim undergirded by her premise: “Multiculturalism makes no demands of the incomer to integrate. It has failed because it allowed people to come to our society and live parallel lives in it. They could be in society but not in society.”
Has multiculturalism failed? Ideals rarely fail or succeed totally, since they envision something desirable or perfect but not likely to become a reality. They offer a guide as to how society should operate. In recent years, the word itself has been replaced by “cultural diversity,” but the aspiration is very similar. Both expressions describe a serviceable model of society; neither describes reality. Let me provide a historical summary.
Brits were not ready to accept the “dark strangers”
Postwar Britain was taken aback by the appearance of what one sociologist of the period, Sheila Patterson, characterized as Dark Strangers. Patterson’s research in the early 1960s centered on “West Indians in Brixton.” Brixton is an area in south London where accommodation was cheap. It became a magnet for migrants from the Caribbean who traveled to the UK in search of work with the intention of saving for a few years before returning to Jamaica or one of the other islands. This became known as “the myth of return” because so few actually did go back. Most permanently settled in Britain. Britain’s other main migrant groups were from South Asia, in particular, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Unlike West Indians, they spoke different languages, had different faiths and often dressed in traditional clothes.
Patterson’s conclusions were essentially those of most liberals in the early 1960s. Racial prejudice and discrimination, as they were called, were temporary deviations. Indigenous whites were simply unused to different-looking neighbors with unusual accents. The presumption was that whites would, over time, become accustomed to their new confederates. Concurrently, the newcomers would assimilate, becoming absorbed in the mainstream culture to the point where they resembled whites in language, thought, ambition and, in general, outlook.
A series of disturbances labeled “race riots” — typically involving angry whites attacking predominantly ethnic minority neighborhoods — dashed these expectations. Liberals imagined that the solution would lie in controlling the numbers: if they allowed fewer migrants into the UK, hopefully assimilation had a better chance of succeeding. The Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 and other legislation designed to restrict entry to Britain followed.
Assimilation abandoned in favor of multiculturalism
By the 1970s, the sons and daughters of migrants were maturing. Most had been schooled in the UK and understood Britain as their home. Their parents had settled and, while many had assimilated, many others had not.
A slew of research projects chronicled how racism, or what was then called racialism or racial discrimination, had become a feature of British society. It flared most aggressively in the predominantly white police force, which epitomized Babylon — the contemptuous term used by the then-emerging Rastafari movement, which regarded the police as oppressive agents of control. Major upheavals, variously called riots or uprisings (depending on perspective), were characteristic of the first half of the 1980s, a period when progressives dropped assimilation as a policy directive, decrying it as discriminatory. Instead, they adopted “multiculturalism.”
Part of the thinking of the time was to avoid duplicating the USA, where ethnic ghettos had appeared and blacks and Latinos seemed to have formed a permanent “underclass.” Multiculturalism was conceived as an alternative — learn to embrace rather than erase difference, but ensure there is equality of opportunity in education, the workplace and every other aspect of society. Equal opportunity is not the same as equality: as long as access is fair and evenly distributed, multiculturalism will prosper, or so the thinking went. The expectation was that all groups from whatever background would seize their chances.
Multiculturalism has been working
I’ll remind readers that multiculturalism was an ideal. It was also a sort of prescription. It was not a guarantee: Through the 1980s, racism resurfaced with a vengeance as unemployment grew and, in particular, young people found themselves hard-pressed to make progress. Various political groups conjured up a simplistic but, in the event, persuasive formula: If blacks and Asians were not in Britain, there would be more jobs available to whites. Like every historical instance of racism or its analogs, competition over scarce resources like jobs (or houses and social services) was the root cause.
Whatever anyone says, equal opportunities, as a policy, did work. It pushed employers as well as educators to revisualize how they saw the future. They widened their scopes, created more opportunities and put together the kind of circumstances in which groups that traditionally had underachieved could prosper.
If this sounds sanguine, it’s only because I am comparing the situation at the turn of this century with how it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Those who complain there has been no improvement either have short memories or haven’t familiarized themselves with the research from earlier periods. I’m not disposed to optimism, nor am I naïve enough to imagine racism has been vanquished, but simple observation tells me the UK now has more politicians — including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman herself — who come from ethnic minority backgrounds.
There are also more ethnic minorities in British universities than at any time in history. Film, television and theater represent ethnic minorities amply, often reimagining historical drama to integrate black and Asian actors into the casts. Practically every city or town in the country has mosques, temples and other places of worship for those who are not aligned with Christianity. Restaurants cater to global cuisines. Athletes from ethnic minorities have made great strides in the world of sports. So, multiculturalism, to use Braverman’s word, hasn’t failed. It hasn’t succeeded, but it was never a pass-fail thing, anyway. It was a blueprint, a plan, an exemplar — something to aspire to.
While it’s been largely supplanted by cultural diversity — which aims to go beyond accepting variety by celebrating it — I actually like multiculturalism. It implies the kind of integration I favor: not the homogenization assumed by the crude assimilationist model, but an acceptance of and respect for cultural difference. An elevation of cultural difference to the point where people become curious and want to explore cultures other than their own. That’s what has been happening in the UK. Imperceptibly perhaps, but surely.
[Ellis Cashmore’s most recent book is The Destruction and Creation of Michael Jackson]
[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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