In Britain we can build a new ‘us’

One important response to rising hate crime is to positively reinforce our collective British identity

October 25, 2018 15:50

Prejudice is a light sleeper. I feel certain that Britain has come a long way on racism when I think back to the playgrounds of the early 1980s, yet nobody looking at rising hate crime after Brexit or Labour’s failures on antisemitism could fail to think that we live in a much more anxious, divided and polarised society than any of us would want.

Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recently described the power of group identity — both to foster hatred and to counter it. “We find identity in groups, and groups identify and divide. They turn a lot of ‘me’s’ into a collective ‘us’, but that ‘us’ is defined in opposition to ‘them’, the people not like ‘us’,” he said.

Look around the world today and the validity of this account seems clear. When we look at America or Britain, Italy or Hungary, the ‘them’ may shift from targeting Mexican migrants, ethnic minorities or refugees. The contemporary focus is often on Muslims, although others once again restoke prejudices against Jews. Yet across countries and continents, and different targets for prejudice, the ‘them and us’ narrative has a common refrain: “There are too many of them” — about numbers. “They are taking our stuff” — about resources, such as jobs or housing. “They aren’t like us and they don’t want to be” — about culture, belonging and identity. And “We aren’t even allowed to talk about it — or they will call us racist”. 

That potent, dangerous appeal to grievance offers an uncomfortable conversation that we may indeed recoil from. But if we do, we risk reinforcing the conspiracy theory that we are not prepared to talk about these difficult issues. We know that we need to do so if we want to root out prejudice, but struggle to work out how to engage without risking legitimising it. So those who want to challenge this account scramble to find a useful starting point. 

When people worry about immigration numbers today, we may mention our long history of waves of migration, from the Huguenots to Jews fleeing pogroms across Europe, to show that we have made it work in the past. On resources, there is data to show that migrants do make a net fiscal contribution to the Exchequer. On culture, are there not benefits of diversity too? We could all surely agree that migration has been good for British food. 

Those are all important parts of the truth: each will resonate with those who feel confident about diversity and need little reassurance about how we manage this era of rapid change. However, for those with opposing worldviews, this will mostly become an exercise in talking past one another.
The responses to “them and us” challenges have often taken the form of a “they are good for us” counter-argument, about what incomers pay in or bring to our society. However benignly intended, the weakness of “they are good for us” is that it is another, softer, “them and us” account. So Rabbi Sacks captures why we need to dig deeper than that when we says that “neighbours are usually people like us. It is strangers not like us we need to learn not to hate … we need a strong, inclusive national identity. We need to become a bigger us”.

Creating the ‘new us’ sounds rather abstract. How could we actually go about doing it?

Contact matters. Ask people what has made most positive difference in reducing prejudice in this country, and you will find a strong consensus — across ethnic groups — that contact in classrooms has made the most difference. Schools have done well and they could continue to do more to bridge faith divides. But we need to think much more about what happens beyond the school gate, given that there has been a rapid inter-generational shift.

And the core challenge of anti-prejudice work is that it has to reach relatively unmotivated audiences. It is important to show solidarity with victims, and to build awareness of how to report hate crime so that it can be prosecuted. But successful anti-prejudice work needs to reach into the areas and social groups where prejudice is more likely to be expressed.

Over the last year, British Future and Hope Not Hate undertook public conversations about immigration and integration in 60 towns and cities in Britain — meeting both civic society groups and convening citizens’ panels broadly representative of the local population to discuss the choices we should make now.

Most people were balancers: the conversations we held were robust and decent, with the face-to-face engagement very different to online debates about identity, immigration or prejudice. Most people uphold anti-prejudice norms and care about others upholding them. 

Yet people can also struggle to extend those norms to those groups with whom they have little or fleeting contact — including East Europeans, Roma and Muslims.

This happened rather less in cities with plenty of experience of diversity. In Preston and Bolton, Birmingham and Bradford, Ilford and Enfield, people were confident when talking about integration — what made it work, and the challenges we face today. But stereotyping of “out-groups” — especially casual prejudices against Muslims — could be heard more strongly 15 miles down the road from places of high diversity, for example when looking from Kidderminster to Birmingham, or into East London from Basildon in Essex. 

So Rabbi Sacks is right that neighbourliness is not enough. It is vital to have sustained good relationships across faith and ethnic groups in Birmingham, Bradford and East London. The everyday experience of living together provides resilience. It has been important that Jewish and Muslim voices have stood together to challenge antisemitism and anti-Muslim prejudice this year. 

Yet this is not enough to address the “them and us” threat if we do not also foster a shared identity that reaches beyond our diverse cities. We need to reach across geographies and generations to those much less likely to have personal contact with those from groups that they perceive as a threat. 

Fostering an inclusive national identity in practice as well as theory works best when we engage with the national moments that bring us together. This November’s Remembrance Sunday — the centenary of the Armistice of the Great War — offers one powerful example. I have sometimes heard people wonder whether this country’s cherished traditions and rituals of remembrance can retain their relevance in an increasingly diverse Britain. Those asking that question probably do not realise that the armies that fought a century ago look much more like the Britain of 2018 than that of 1918. 

Indeed, the far-right racists of Britain First and Anjem Choudary’s Islamist extremists depend on a profound ignorance of the history of the world wars when they claim that minorities can never be fully British — and seek to turn our national symbols of remembrance into yet more ammunition in the “them versus us” culture war. Yet this remembrance season will be more prominent than ever before in temples and mosques, as well as synagogues and churches, as different faiths work together to promote the “Remember Together” message that our traditions of remembrance can and do belong to us all. This is one powerful foundation as we begin to build that “new us”.
Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future. Remember Together launches next week:

October 25, 2018 15:50

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