Graeme Archer is a medical statistician, a former winner of the Orwell Prize for blogging, and recently a speechwriter for a Cabinet Minister.
I’d forgotten how the mist lies heavy on the fields surrounding the railway line, early in the autumn mornings. A year in London and everything had appeared concrete: hard pavements, hard edges, hard faces. Six weeks commuting out from the capital to work, and I’m reminded, as the mist rolls over the ground, that what can seem solid is often nothing of the sort. In an hour the mist will be gone.
My life as journey: from inner to outer London, for home, and from outer London to Home County, for work. That is, from racially diverse areas to, well, less diverse ones. Whiter ones. Professor Eric Kauffman might say I’m exhibiting exactly the trait that his new report disdains: “white avoidance” (of non-white people; it’s an unfortunate phrase, invented to avoid invoking the cliché of “white flight”.)
Quoting statistics which show the collapse of the white British population in places such as Birmingham (from 65.6 per cent to 53.1 per cent) and Brent (from 29.4 per cent to 18 per cent) in the ten years between 2001 and 2011, the good professor and his co-author, Professor Ted Cantle, say that the “increasing polarisation had ‘gone under the radar'” – he’s kidding, right? Everyone noticed, apart from the people in charge of acceptable political discourse – and that in the interests of community cohesion it now requires to be tackled:
“[P]oliticians … need to encourage white British residents to remain in diverse areas; to choose, rather than avoid, diverse areas when they do relocate, encouraging similar choices with respect to placing pupils in diverse schools.”
Hmm. I wonder if the “obvious” theory in the face of the statistics – that white people are actively avoiding non-white people, and that, therefore – chillingly – they must be “encouraged” to stop doing so (perhaps their children should be forcibly bussed to schools in more diverse areas? Or house purchases be subject to approval by a quota-driven Diversity Board?) – I wonder if this is the only theory that fits the facts.
Imagine were everyone in the UK to possess the same skin colour, but that the population had grown in prosperity and size to the same extent as it has since the end of the Second War. Would there have been no movements in the population over the decades? The lower-middle and working-classes would have been happy to stay in high-rise cities, and shun semi-detached suburbia?
My point is that surface explanations, like the mist, can evaporate in less than an hour. It is true that the borough where I now live is more white than the one that I left. But a couple of facts get in the way of a convenient “avoidance” hypothesis.
One is temporal. Our middle-aged to elderly neighbours are mostly white. But the children in the borough’s excellent state schools (they top the Times exam result list, every year) are mostly not. So if the professors hang on for a decade or so, this “white” borough will look a lot less so. All without a single diversity commissioner.
Those children – who will disproportionately go on to Russell Group universities – are the sons and daughters of shop-keepers, artisans, solicitors and medics. In other words, they are the offspring of the upwardly mobile. They will buy our house, when Keith and I are dead, and will probably vote Conservative, as we do. Skin colour is irrelevant: they are people like us, seekers of the (suburban) Good Life.
People do tend to want to live amongst those they resemble, this is true. It is why we abandoned inner London for suburbia. But it wasn’t a lack of white people which drove us away.
The riots were the last straw, and, believe me, on that night of chaos – when feral boys committed mass muggings across London Fields and the shop round the corner from our flat was set alight – the last thing on my mind, as I picked my way along Hackney Road and avoided the short-cut up past the city farm, avoided eye contact with anyone who approached through the gloom, the last thing on my mind was the skin colour of the gangs who cycled in and out of the mist. They were as ethnically diverse as you could shake a stick at, though nobody, other than the heroic Turk shop-keepers, did so. Shake a stick at them, that is.
In other words, the reasons we moved were manifold and complex and not reducible to a simple “avoidance” hypothesis, which in any case is false. Policy solutions for cohesion, predicated on such a false hypothesis, are highly likely to fail.
I read a novel during this week’s misty train journeys, where the protagonist described her urge to leave Edgware, because she could “walk three streets before there was anything but houses.” I counted the streets I walked down on my way home from the station last night: shops, shops, houses, shops, then – indeed – houses, houses, houses. And home.
I’m the anti-protagonist, one of the reasons no-one cares what people like me think. I don’t care who lives next door; but I prefer a lack of violent fatherless children and extreme Islamic bigotry. No diversity champion has ever explained to me why a gay man would want to live fewer than three streets from an extremist mosque anyway.
Call that white flight if you like. Call it “white avoidance” if you must. I prefer to call it civilised, bourgeois, suburban safety. My prejudice is entirely indifferent to skin colour, but I have antibodies to cultural values which are inimical to a liberal democracy.
In case that’s not clear enough for the diversity workers and community activists and sociology professors and angry, angry victims who spew their infantile demands for respect all over the pages of the liberal press, who turn blind eyes to anti-social behaviour and make excuses for attacks on freedom, and whose hypotheses for such events are always, always reduced to accusations of racism against anyone who objects: people like me aren’t the reason other people leave the inner city. People like you are.