The ethnic minority communities in Britain comprise 5.7 per cent of the total population but are likely to rise to about 7 per cent in the early years of the twenty-first century, on account of their higher birth rate. In 1950 there were only about 40,000 non-white Britons, mainly in ports like Liverpool, Bristol and Cardiff. People from the West Indies began immigrating to Britain in substantial numbers at that time, in response to labour shortages. During the 1960s and 1970s a large number of people also came from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
These immigrants soon discovered that they were the target of discrimination in class and status. People of Afro-Caribbean and Asian origin have generally had the worst-paid jobs, lived in the worst housing and encountered hostility from white neighbours. The initial view that non-white immigrants would assimilate into the host community was quickly proved wrong. Since the mid-1960s the government has introduced three race relations acts in order to eliminate racial discrimination. But laws were also introduced to restrict immigration, which seemed particularly aimed at thwarting non-white immigrants.
The following table gives the sizes of the main ethnic minority communities in Britain by area of origin, based on the 1991 official population census.
Ethnic minority communities in Britain
Black African 212,000
These communities have areas of high concentration. London has the largest concentration of ethnic minority members, particularly Afro-Caribbeans, 60 per cent of whom are Londoners. But people of Indian origin are also highly concentrated in Leicester, those of Pakistani origin have high concentrations in the West Midlands and also in West Yorkshire, while those of Bangladeshi origin are concentrated in east London. In 1997 20 per cent of Londoners belonged to an ethnic minority group, a proportion which will rise to 28 per cent by 2011.
Many British people believe they inhabit an already overcrowded island. Governments have seldom told the electorate that immigrant labour has filled essential areas the British workforce was reluctant to fill. Instead, they have tended to bow to uninformed popular prejudice, that immigration is a problem rather than an asset. Margaret Thatcher, for example, promised that a Conservative government would “finally see an end to immigration”, and spoke of the fears of white Britons that they might be “swamped by people with a different culture”. Although she failed, her government increased the restrictions on immigration and ended the automatic right of anyone born in Britain to British citizenship. Her remarks reflected widespread but ill-informed prejudice. In fact, immigration has been dropping steadily since its peak year in 1967 and, although this is not widely known, in the 30 years up to 1982 750,000 more people left Britain permanently than entered to settle. Since then immigrants have slightly outnumbered emigrants, by about 70,000 each year. In the early 1990s the government made it much harder for political asylum seekers to find refuge in Britain. For both immigrants and asylum seekers, their applications can take years to be processed because of bureaucratic inefficiency.
Another complaint frequently levelled against ethnic minority communities is their “failure to integrate”. At first it was government policy to try to spread immigrants evenly. It did not work for two basic reasons. Most immigrants ended up in the poorest areas, and also they understandably wished to be close to other members of their community. In addition, white families often moved away from areas of high ethnic-minority concentration. The result has been a continuing process of ethnic separation.
Afro-Caribbeans and Asians experience many kinds of disadvantage. They find greater difficulty getting a job. Studies show that a white person is 10 times more likely to obtain a job than a black competitor for it. In 1995 the unemployment rate among black Afro-Caribbeans and Bangladeshis was 24 and 27 per cent respectively. The rate among those of Indian origin was 12 per cent while among whites it was only 8 per cent. A black person is likely to find it harder to obtain credit from a bank or a loan to purchase a house.
Immigrants also tend to receive the worst housing. Thirty-eight per cent of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis report lacking one or more basic housing amenities compared with 11 per cent of whites. It is no surprise therefore that Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are 50 per cent more likely to suffer ill health than whites. Thus, in employment, promotion prospects, housing, health and education, many immigrant communities find themselves significantly disadvantaged.
Difficulties for children from ethnic minorities begin when they go to school. Many members of the ethnic minorities live in deprived inner-city areas where the quality of the schools is worse than elsewhere. Low expectations from their teachers and a sense of alienation from the majority white community are serious disadvantages. Afro-Caribbeans are expected to remain at the bottom of the educational and economic scale. Asians generally do better in formal education than Afro-Caribbeans and many white children. Some parents of Indian origin make major sacrifices for their children to be educated privately. For example, easily the most frequent name on the register of Dulwich College, south-east London’s most prestigious private school, is an Indian one, Patel. British Asians of Indian origin are likely to rise to leading positions in the British economy.
The ethnic minority communities feel that they also face hostility from the authorities. In some areas a young black man is 10 times more likely to be stopped in the street by police than the average white citizen. Black people feel harassed by such treatment, particularly since a growing number of black youths, the main target of the police, were born in Britain. There is also clear evidence that the police more readily arrest blacks than whites. A study in 1989 showed that although only 6 per cent of the population, blacks made up 20 per cent of those held in custody in England and Wales, and 38 per cent of those held in custody in London, even though ethnic minorities represent only 20 per cent of London’s population. Blacks are both twice as likely to be held in custody before trial and twice as likely to be acquitted once their case is heard by a magistrate. Afro-Caribbeans and Asians are frequent targets for verbal abuse, harassment or even attack. In 1996 about 12,000 racially motivated incidents were reported.
Discrimination, or at least a failure to involve the ethnic minority groups adequately, is apparent in many institutions. Only 1 per cent of the army, the police and fire brigade are from ethnic minorities. In all three organisations stories of racial abuse and harassment deter blacks from enrolling. The idea of a black officer commanding a regiment or a police station, let alone becoming a general or chief constable remains difficult to imagine. Discrimination is not confined to such “macho” organisations. There used to be many black nurses working in hospitals. By 1995 while blacks comprised over 8 per cent of nurses over the age of 55, they were less than 1 per cent of those under the age of 25. Younger black women know that they are unlikely to get promotion, and are looking elsewhere for a career. Yet acceptance and equal treatment are now urgent since the ethnic minorities are expected to double by 2025, when they will constitute 20 per cent of the workforce.
In some places the barriers have begun to be broken down, but it has required determination. Black people have excelled in sport and show business, but these two areas do not confer real power or social authority on them. The idea of blacks in managerial positions over whites is still not widely acceptable. Successive governments have introduced legislation that promises absolute equality for non-white British citizens. But the promise has remained unfulfilled. Government has not done enough to implement functional equality in the areas over which it has direct control, and white Britons have not yet accepted Afro-Caribbeans and Asians who are born and grow up here (now more than 40 per cent of their communities) as being as British as themselves.
Yet, in spite of this bleak picture, the outlook seems positive. A survey in 1997 found that 60 per cent of black respondents felt that racism had lessened during the previous five years. Furthermore, multiracial partnerships are more frequent in Britain than elsewhere, and this is creating a new multiracial identity. By 1991 almost 40 per cent of young black men were married to or living with a white partner, and so were over 20 per cent of young black women. Almost half Afro-Caribbean children come from multiracial homes. Such children tend to embrace a black identity because of the discrimination around them. However, they are thoroughly British. As Trevor Phillips, one of Britain's leading black journalists writes: “It is the young, multiracial crowd who have the flexibility and adaptability that the twenty-first century will demand. For them moving between cultures and using several languages is a way of life that they have imbibed with their mother's milk. Instead of teaching children that the whiter (or blacker) they are, the better, the real advantage may be in being able to count the number of different roots your parents have bequeathed you”.
Reading Comprehension Check
1. Name major British minority groups.
2. Make a list of problems British minorities face in the UK (find evidence of that).
3. What is the governmental policy in terms of immigration in the UK? In what way is it different from the USA? How will you account for that?
4. What is the contribution of minorities to the UK economy & culture?
5. Do you agree with the opinion of Ph. Trevor? Or do you think the children of mixed-race partnerships will remain disadvantaged?