Maya Goodfellow discusses the idea of teaching English to migrants for the purposes of ‘integration’
Some myths refuse to die: austerity is a public necessity or the British Empire did a lot this country can be proud of. Periodically these ideas float to the surface of public discourse and produce the same, predictable flurry of conversation. This week, dressed up in one of its many different forms, it’s that immigrants, people of colour and specifically Muslims undermine ‘community cohesion’.
Cue the government’s former integration tsar, Louise Casey. This week she’s demanded the government set a target date for “everybody in the country” to speak English for the purposes of integration. In an effort to respond, Sajid Javid pledged to expand the teaching of English for immigrants after claiming 770,000 people in England can’t speak English. This is a tired old tune – in 2011 David Cameron said immigrants who couldn’t speak English created a “kind of discomfort and disjointedness” and way back in 2002, New Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett advised migrants to speak English at home to avoid “schizophrenic” fissures in their families. Of course, people who need it should have the opportunity and crucially the time to learn English, but it shouldn’t be punitive – especially when it’s used to suggest non-English speakers are a “problem” that blight our communities.
One of the issues with the latest incarnation of this plan and how it’s reported is that the Tories have hacked away at English for Speakers of Other Languages (Esol) lessons. According to Refugee Action government funding for ESOL in England dropped from £203million in 2010 to £90million in 2016, amounting to a real term cut of 60%. Now they’re saying they are willing to give a bit of this back. This is a pattern with the Tories: they cut budgets, widen inequality and then give a bit back to try and paper over the cracks.
But English language talk is part of a much bigger misdiagnosis about what’s going on in our country. Contrary to the implication behind Casey’s and the government’s claims, the Runnymede Trust has shown communities are actually becoming less divided as they become more diverse. Where the 2016 Casey Review warned of “worrying levels” of segregation and the press studiously reported it as such, Runnymede pointed out this was contrary to the evidence. “All ethnic minority groups live in local authorities where on average they make up less than 10 per cent of residents”, their report explained, “In contrast, the white British population is the only group that lives in relative isolation from others, on average living in local authorities where 85 per cent of residents are white British.” But when white people self-segregate, there are think pieces and documentaries made about how they’ve been driven out of an area; people pick over the ways Muslims moving down the road has upset their way of life or papers raise the alarm that fewer towns are majority white.
This gets to the heart of the integration debate and the way it’s reported: the onus is entirely placed on people of colour and migrants, who are treated as outsiders disrupting harmonious community relations. From documentaries looking at “segregated” towns to headlines that declare England “ethnically” segregated, there is too little thoroughgoing engagement with how material inequality and racial discrimination play into division. That’s because the current incarnation of the integration agenda has been purposefully mislabelled. It’s really about assimilation. “Integration provides for the co-existence of minority cultures with the majority culture,” said the late Ambalavaner Sivanandan, “assimilation requires the absorption of minority cultures into the majority culture.” “Integration” has never been the unproblematic solution we’re told, but when you open up what the government is selling us you find something different altogether.
The issue is, unless it has anti-racism at its heart, trying to make sure people can get along and create a sense of community doesn’t mean all too much. People of colour are told to “integrate” into a society that is institutionally racist; Muslims into one with deep Islamophobia and migrants are encouraged to fit in to a country that is so anti-immigrant the government have dubbed one strand of its immigration strategy the “hostile environment”. Instead, we’re left with racialised caricatures of a cohesive British society being disrupted by the “other” – the racialised image of a non-English speaker fits neatly into this picture.
Successive governments have been uninterested in one of the real causes of division: economic inequality. Take Oldham. When violence erupted on the streets of this Greater Manchester town in the summer of 2011 – spreading to others parts of the north – the Cantle report, commissioned by New Labour, depicted minorities and migrants as a problem. The intersection between economic inequality and race could barely be discerned in the analysis. But people of colour had been let down by the state; living in poorer housing, cast into insecure work and subjected to racism that shaped both, they were forced to compete with their white counterparts for jobs. Over decades, a wedge had driven between people. Problems of racial inequality persist, sustaining a hierarchical society. The government’s Race Disparity Audit just added more evidence to the pile that shows the economic is deeply racialised and that this causes inequality and division. More English classes, welcome though they are, won’t change that.
“I believe in recognising every human being as a human being–neither white, black, brown, or red; and when you are dealing with humanity as a family there’s no question of integration or intermarriage,” Malcolm X wrote, “It’s just one human being marrying another human being or one human being living around and with another human being.” If only our governments could begin to think that way.
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Maya Goodfellow is a journalist and political commentator. She primarily writes about British politics and has worked as a researcher for a think tank. She also writes about international affairs, with a particular focus on conflict studies. Find her on Twitter: @Mayagoodfellow.
Featured image: Mind Your Language (BBC)
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