Segregation and apartheid … in the UK?

Recently it’s become fashionable for people concerned about the state of our country to talk of something called segregation. Trevor Phillips, in a famous speech in 2005, which touched off the phony debate on multiculturalism, told us that we were “sleepwalking into segregation”. The day before yesterday, Dr Anthony Seldon, a biographer of our former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who also happens to be the headmaster of a famous “public school” (meaning an elite private school), alleged that schools like his perpetrate some sort of educational “apartheid” in a speech to a headteachers’ conference, and this includes state-run grammar schools, which still exist in a few places like Kent.

Has anyone forgotten what Apartheid and segregation actually were? They were legally-enforced systems of racial separation which existed, respectively, in South Africa from the 1950s to the 1990s, and in the southern USA from the third quarter of the 19th century to the third quarter of the last. The first involved a system of laws which regulated where people could live and which services they could use and when, denied the vote to natives of the country, and dictated whom they could marry. The second was much as the first, minus the pass laws and Group Areas Act and including lynch law and a paramilitary death squad, the Ku Klux Klan, in which a number of politicians and police officers were active. (Actually, South Africa may have had those too.)

In 2004, Benjamin Pogrund, a South African Jew who migrated to Israel, wrote an article criticising the use of the term “apartheid” to describe the situation for Palestinians at the hands of Israel, in particular the separation barrier which is often called the Apartheid Wall. (I could not find it on the website of the Guardian, where I read it, but here it is at the Taipei Times). Pogrund writes as a Jew offended by comparison of the country to which he migrated with the regime he opposed in his old country; I have never experienced either, but there are plenty of parallels between the two. There is still a legal separation in which a population recently settled dominates the native population. The relative status of Israelis and Palestinians in the country did not come about because Israelis are rich. It came about because of who they are, much as was the case with whites and natives in South Africa and whites and blacks in the USA.

Does nobody recognise any big difference between this and old-fashioned class boundaries? In this country, we have an extensive state schooling system which, outside the inner cities where there are factors beyond the teachers’ control, seems to do its job pretty well, at least where special needs are not involved (I’ve told my own story about this in the past). People go through this system, they get degrees, they get good jobs. It’s true that it works better for the middle-classes, but apartheid would mean something like the state schooling system being designed to steer its subjects, or a certain group of them, into certain occupations and away from universities and the opportunities they bring.

Similarly, there is a huge difference between segregation a trend towards separation. “Birds of a feather flock together” - this is a fact of life and always has been. When Jews first came to the UK, they settled in the East End and have largely since migrated to the northern part of London. Bengalis have largely remained in that part of London. There are other areas where a distinct concentration of Asians, both Muslims and others, are to be found: Southall, Hounslow (parts of it), Tooting, north Croydon, Walthamstow and other parts of east London. Other communities have their own “home turf”, but mostly these are shared with others, including Leyton which was supposedly established as a no-go area by Omar Brooks of the former al-Muhajiroun in 2006, according to this stupid article by Shiraz Maher in the Sunday Times last weekend. We do not have ghettoes, much less segregation, in London. In the north, the story may well be different, but who can blame Asians for not wanting to live in neighbourhoods like this, where people are driven out and their houses are burned because they let rooms to Polish immigrants?

Besides, it’s fitting that communities with distinct customs have a certain space where they can express themselves freely. White middle-class people take it for granted that they can walk down the streets of, say, Cobham in Surrey with its little boutique shops, or Kingston upon Thames with its centuries-old market square and its own share of boutiques (mostly chains nowadays, though). Our ladies who like to wear veils, many if not most born in the UK, can do so on the streets of Muslim-dominated areas of northern towns (and, to be fair, in most of London too); but when they are barred from entry to a food store in a Lancashire town called Padiham (near to Blackburn and a number of other towns with Muslim communities) on spurious security grounds because of hijab (not even niqab), a pointless act of vindictiveness cheered on in the comments section of the Lancashire Evening Telegraph report, it’s not surprising that they prefer to live in their own neighbourhoods where the grocery shop won’t turn them away. (I’m sure that if the food shop there turns away a white, female customer on sartorial grounds, it will become headlines pretty quickly.)

If you are concerned that people in this country are not getting on as well as they (we) should, by all means say so. But spare us the idiotic likenings to segregation. There is no such thing as de facto segregation. Apartheid and segregation are de jure political regimes.

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