2 March 2021

Is integration always a good thing? It’s complicated…

By

As a British Muslim man of Bangladeshi heritage who has been interested for some time in matters of social cohesion, I find myself in a slightly unconventional position: I’m a second-generation patriot who doesn’t necessarily view integration as an unadulterated good. 

Don’t get me wrong – I am not a segregationist. Social integration should be encouraged. Over time, it fosters bonds of social trust and mutual respect. I have friends from all walks of life, and my life is richer for it. A lack of contact between different groups can breed suspicion of the unknown, which in turns makes one more vulnerable to divisive conspiracy theories.

In my new report for the Henry Jackson Society I found that – when compared with their counterparts who are more integrated in the mainstream – black Britons who are less integrated, and part of predominantly black friendship groups, are both more likely to have an unfavourable view of white Brits and believe in anti-Semitic tropes about the global control of banking and entertainment.

There is also a growing body of evidence which suggests that social integration for ethnic minorities is linked with dissatisfaction with British democracy. Of course, this can be seen as a positive: as ethnic minorities become integrated into the relatively cynical mainstream, they potentially ‘take on’ its attitudes – increasing the number of ‘critical citizens’ who can keep elected representatives on their toes.

On the other hand it could be that, as people mix more with others outside of their ethnic and religious group, they begin to compare how public institutions and the private sector treat sections of society differently. This heightens the risk of developing perceptions of unequal treatment and injustice, in turn undermining confidence in the democratic system. This underlines the importance of complementing social integration with a politico-economic settlement which is firmly rooted in equality of opportunity.

There is also the important matter of what migrant communities are being asked to integrate into. Of course, there are certain socio-cultural practices which have no place in the UK – including female genital mutilation [FGM] and forced marriage. Public authorities must be robust in rooting out such practices, and make clear that they are unacceptable in British society. But there are features of mainstream British culture – like the UK’s ‘world leader status’ for family breakdown, the secularisation of cultural life, traditionally high rates of binge-drinking, and an unhealthy obsession with ‘celebrity icons’ – which hardly act attractive ‘pull factors’ for the ‘integration’ of family-oriented, traditionally religious migrant communities.

Two sizeable co-racial groups – Black British Africans and Black British Caribbeans – are vastly different in terms of social integration and their socio-cultural attitudes. When compared to Black British Caribbeans, British Black Africans are more likely to attach importance to their religious identity and less likely to say they had an unstable family life as a child. They are also, importantly, more likely to report being satisfied with their life in the UK.

These figures on family and faith should encourage fresh thinking on integration. Black British Caribbeans are ‘hyper-integrated’ in a secular mainstream that is now characterised by internationally high levels of family breakdown. Meanwhile, their co-racial counterparts of African origin, traditionally devout and with stronger social and economic networks within their communities, are simply not. This lends itself to the admittedly unfashionable view that for some groups there may be a ‘sweet spot’ in terms of social integration – with ‘hyper-integration’ potentially leading to undesirable outcomes.

For all the supposed virtues of secular rationalism, our society should acknowledge that faith can be a source of mental strength and personal optimism. The UK’s recent withdrawal from the European Union, along with the harsh lessons learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic, should be viewed as catalysts to create a more trusting and satisfied society. While this is a momentous national challenge, the collective rewards would be monumental. We have the opportunity to shape national policy agenda which reflects the reality that a stable family unit remains the best social safety net, providing a sense of rootedness and the vital foundations for personal development and long-term life satisfaction.

There is a craving for a new cultural alignment in this country. A civic model of national identity rooted in respect for the rule of law, social cohesion, and equality of opportunity. This is the ideal which should lie at the heart of the ‘British promise’.

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Dr Rakib Ehsan is an independent analyst in race relations and community cohesion. His PhD thesis explored the effects of social integration on British ethnic minorities.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.