Posted on September 9, 2005

America Slides Into Chaos: But Is That a Smug Smile on The Face of the Brits?

Alice Miles, Times (London), Sept. 7

So there it is, the underbelly of America — exposed. Hurricane Katrina has forced the middle classes in the United States to consider the dark side of the American dream: the poor, the black, the dispossessed, the “forgotten”. For Americaphobes, the events of the past ten days have proved something of a feast. The subtext, and often the main text, of much of the reportage from New Orleans has been what a nasty, divided, unjust place the US has been revealed to be. Nature has overturned its smug certainties and left it reeling.

And it strikes me that there is more than a little smugness in the reporting as well. British journalism revelling in racial division the other side of the Atlantic rarely seems to trouble itself to look at the ethnic splits this side of the pond.

Imagine — and unfortunately it isn’t too hard to do — a similar natural disaster striking here. The Times’s weatherman Paul Simons drew the scenario last Saturday. With rising sea levels, a sinking city, the development of the Thames Gateway, which will see thousands of homes built on the flood plain, and the ageing of the Thames Barrier, a devastating flood in the capital is easily predictable. It very nearly happened in 1953, when a North Sea storm sent a bulge of water down the Channel and the Thames came to within an inch of bursting its banks in London.

To get an idea of the increasing threat, consider the fact that the flood barrier was raised only three times in the five years after it was opened in 1983; during the winter of 2000-01, it closed 24 times, and 20 times in 2002-03. And the barrier was only designed to protect against surge tides up to 2030.

So let’s assume that the worst happens and the east of London is engulfed. Tower Hamlets, Stratford, and in the south, Lambeth would all be awash. Wealthier areas to the west might just be able to hold their heads above the water. Presumably many of the residents would have fled. But those without cars would find the Tube flooded. The earliest leaks would already have played havoc with the Underground’s electricity supply.

And here’s an American reporter, bristling with righteous indignation at the tragic sight of thousands upon thousands of the poorest people in Britain trapped in their decrepit homes. Or perhaps they might have taken refuge in the Olympic stadiums built for the 2012 Games in Stratford. What colour do you think these people would be?

Let’s take a look at Newham, where the Olympic stadiums are being built. Sixty per cent of the population are not white; not far off the 67 per cent African-Americans in New Orleans. A third are Asian; another fifth black. Travel upriver and see the people of Lambeth: more than a quarter are black. In the neighbouring borough of Kensington and Chelsea, that falls to only 7 per cent. Or take a trip up the canals to the West Midlands. In Worcestershire, 97.5 per cent of the population is white; in neighbouring Birmingham, that falls by a third. And within the city, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis inhabit their own separate enclaves from the wealthier white suburbs. And what were we saying about racial ghettos in the United States?

Let us not be complacent about our own society. We pile our social problems into ghettos of our own, which most Britons do not breach. In America, 24.7 per cent of black people live below the poverty line, compared with 8.6 per cent of whites and a national average of 12.7 per cent. In Britain, according to the Office for National Statistics, 68 per cent of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are living in low-income households, and a barely more creditable 49 per cent of black Caribbeans, compared with 21 per cent of whites. They may be measuring different things, but the ratios are similar.

Unemployment among Bangladeshi, Pakistani and black men is three times the rate for white British men. And look at the jobs that they do: one in three Bangladeshi men, according to the 2002-03 labour force survey, are cooks or waiters, compared with one in 100 white British men. Around one in ten black African women is a nurse, compared with around one in 30 whites. Pakistani women are eight times more likely than white British women to be working as packers, bottlers and canners, while Indian women are seven times more likely than their white counterparts to be working as sewing machinists. They may not be living among us, but they feed, drive, clothe and care for us. Wouldn’t it be nice if the country could do the same for them?

Government websites are strewn with statistics proving the disadvantages of our ethnic minorities. None of these figures is new. Education? Three times as many exclusions among black Caribbean pupils as among whites, and, for boys, half as many GCSE passes at grade A-C. Crime? Blacks, Asians and, especially, those of mixed race are far more likely to be victims of violent crime than whites. And health? Now here is an interesting omission. Britain does not register mortality rates by ethnic group, so that it is impossible to compare how long our different ethnic groups live. Given the frighteningly high rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease among black Caribbeans, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, you can bet it would make shameful reading, but — or perhaps that should read, so — the Government refuses to collect the information.

The only vaguely meaningful comparison is rates of infant mortality, recorded according to the place of the mother’s birth, by no means a precise indicator of ethnicity. These show, however, that in 2002 in England and Wales, of children born to a mother herself born in the UK, 7.8 per 1,000 die within three months. This rises to 10.5 for mothers born in Bangladesh, 10.6 for mothers born in India, 14.5 for mothers born in Pakistan and 15.4 for mothers born in the Caribbean.

So tell me, again, what do we have to be smug about? I look forward to seeing all those television reporters currently flooding the American South filing earnest reports about Britain’s divided society when they get home.