Posted on October 18, 2011

Is Britain Becoming a Country of Johannesburg-Style Ghettos?

Lindsay Johns, Daily Mail (London), October 18, 2011

Having just returned from a week with my Peckham mentor kids at a leadership conference in Atlanta, Georgia, I am always alarmed by the shocking level of segregation that sadly still exists across the pond. What is more, the South is not an isolated case.

Ostensibly cultured and cosmopolitan East-coast American cities like New York, Boston and DC are still far more of a fruit salad than a genuine melting pot, with separate races often living in separate, geographically-distinct neighbourhoods.

On previous occasions, I have always felt thankful, and perhaps a little self-satisfied, that such stark racial segregation doesn’t exist here in the UK.

And yet now, each time I return to these shores, I am beginning to look at London and other major cities with an increasing sense of dismay, in terms of the way many of us, especially young people, seem to be progressively living and interacting split along racial lines. I sincerely hope that we are not going the way of the States.

A few weeks ago David Levin, the headmaster of City of London School, articulated this same concern at the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, where he warned of the dangers of inner-city segregation in schools. What is more, he felt that ‘London is sleepwalking towards Johannesburg.’

Despite the doom-filled voices of the habitual naysayers and professional grievance merchants, I genuinely believe that people of colour have much to celebrate in Britain.

Thankfully, we do not have the pernicious legacy of slavery as in America or the barbaric inhumanity of the South African apartheid regime. Britain’s high level of mixed-race relationships is, on one level at least, a testament to a much more liberal and open-minded state of affairs.

I’m not saying that life here is a proverbial bed of roses and that the UK is devoid of racism–far from–but, in all honesty, compared to other notoriously racist countries in Europe, like France or Germany, and the level of nefarious racial inequality which still exists in countries like the USA and South Africa, we undeniably have a lot to be proud of.

That’s why we must now be mindful of the desire to self-ghettoize, a phenomenon which I see increasingly reflected around me, be it on the streets of the capital and in many of the inner-city schools I visit.

The idea of an unconscious, unwritten, apartheid-style segregation seeping into the fabric of this country horrifies me. My father’s family are from Cape Town, and, as Coloured people under apartheid, were physically not allowed to go certain places (be it the best beaches, theatres or restaurants), because of the colour of their skin, and were duly made to feel like second-class citizens in their own country.

Now, for whatever reason, it seems that many young people in London and elsewhere in the UK are almost consciously choosing to limit themselves in terms of their social interaction, both in and outside of school. This strikes me as a tremendous shame.

Living and socializing around one’s own is a human instinct which clearly transcends race and time. To be fair, there is surely much to be said for the feeling of security engendered by being surrounded by ‘people like us.’

Plus, let us not forget, the initial, overwhelming impetus for immigrants to congregate together in the 60s and 70s was directly due to the prevalence of virulent white racism. Think, for example, of the disgusting attacks on West Indians in Notting Hill in the 50s and 60s and the abhorent ‘paki-bashing’ perpetrated by the National Front in the 70s and 80s.

But now, thank God, such callous, retarded bigotry is mercifully on the wane. Call me foolishly optimistic or painfully naive, but I would like to believe that enlightened white attitudes are increasingly common as Britain has become more at ease with cultural diversity, and, despite pockets of continued ignorance, most white people are far more likely to be open to difference than forty years ago. As a result, we should capitalize on this and benefit from it, not actively spurn it.

As a regular theatre-goer, I am always saddened by the conspicuous lack of other brown and black faces at non-black or brown productions in London. I urge all the young people I mentor in Peckham to explore and actively embrace the joys of the South Bank, the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House–places that have a reputation for being (in ex-BBC head Greg Dyke’s infamous phrase) ‘hideously white.’

These milieux, I tell my kids, are as much for them as for anyone else. Expanding their cultural horizons beyond the essentially stultifying confines of SW9, SE15 or NW10 are key to their intellectual and social development as well-rounded, well-balanced and well-adjusted individuals.

Personally, I have no desire to live in a silo-like Britain–a bizarre, self-inflicted replica of the USA or South Africa, where separate races live and socialize apart through choice in distinct ethnic enclaves. I could think of nothing more tedious, nothing more mentally enfeebling and nothing more saddening than only mixing with people of my skin colour or background.

That doesn’t for one minute mean that I am not fiercely proud of my racial heritage, or don’t encourage the young people I mentor to be. I just don’t want to limit myself to one set of ideas, one set of stimuli, one world-view or even one type of food. There’s a bigger world out there, with a multiplicity of valuable truths–one that exists in glorious techni-colour, not just black and white.

As such, I urge my young people to be unashamed advocates of intellectual and social (as opposed to sexual) promiscuity. That is how they will come into contact with new ideas and fresh thoughts about this marvellous thing called life–not cloistered, blinkered and ultimately fettered by one sole tradition, one hegemonic canon or by seeing everything through one racial prism. Engaging with difference is how they can liberate their minds and hopefully make tangible human progress.

Our parents’ generation ardently strove to fight the evils of racism, with the aim of ensuring equality for all, irrespective of colour, creed or class. As such, we have inherited an immensely precious birthright, which must not be squandered at any costs. Integration, not voluntary segregation, is the way forward for harmonious social cohesion, let alone a better, more interesting Britain.

As a committed humanist, I am always reminded of the words of the Latin playwright Terence, himself an African slave from Carthage and a seminal influence on Shakespeare and Montaigne: ‘I am a human being and I consider nothing human alien to me.’

If more of us–brown, black and white alike–were mindful of Terence’s powerful words, perhaps we would be less inclined to confine ourselves to such debilitating and ultimately imprisoning mental and physical ghettos–ghettoes of the postcode and of the mind which tragically stymie human flourishing and negate the fulfilment of our true potential as human beings, not merely representative of races.