About the most certain prediction we can make of any developed country is that it will be more ethnically diverse in a few decades’ time than it is today. The magnetic pull of the rich world is such that slamming the gates is probably not possible, but even if it could be done, immigrants already in the West are set to have enough children to represent a growing population share for a time to come.
This week, US President Barack Obama visited the UK for the G20 summit. The first black president of the US is an apparent symbol of American comfort with diversity, and a prompt for wondering whether the UK is similarly at ease. For the last few months, I have been writing a book with a team of researchers — led by Harvard professor Robert Putnam — who have been trying to find this out. Despite the undoubted economic and cultural gains from diversity, it transpires that it does put certain strains on community life, on both sides of the Atlantic — especially when politicians exploit unease.
With electric blue eyes and a prophet’s beard, Putnam stands out as a man drawn to big ideas at a time when university life is ever more specialized. He made headlines around the world in 2000 with his book Bowling Alone, which looked at everything from bridge clubs to PTAs to reach its conclusion that community life in the US was withering on the vine.
Despite that grim verdict, he brims with the conviction that societies can turn themselves around, and his work has won the attention of politicians ranging from Obama to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. He has now teamed up with Manchester University in northern England for a £5 million (US$7.2 million) five-year project to examine the vast forces that are reshaping society in the UK and the US. Studies on the feminization of working life and the gulf between pious America and secular Europe will follow on from the work on immigration.
Diversity has run much further in the US than Britain; there, as many as one in three citizens belong to one ethnic minority or another. In the UK, the figure is around 10 percent, or slightly more if groups such as the Irish are included. But even this figure is a remarkable transformation when it is recalled that the non-white population was vanishingly small until the Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury in 1948, bringing the first large group of West Indian immigrants to the UK a mere two generations ago.
More pertinently, the proportion has been growing fast. The credit crunch has temporarily depressed the inflow of arrivals, but before long it will probably pick up again.
A flick through a children’s history book is enough to inspire speculation about differences in the way the US and Britain will handle the transformation. The Statue of Liberty is the symbol of an immigrant nation, whereas fusty myths of British tradition concern an island people fending off all comers since 1066. Indeed, it turns out that, in many respects, immigrants in the US fare better, finding work more easily and enjoying better health than new arrivals in the UK.
With race, the story is different, thanks to the poisonous legacy of slavery. The black American population is more ghettoized and suffers worse health than almost any section of US society. Despite warnings by Trevor Phillips, chair of the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, about Britain sleepwalking into segregation, the census reveals that there are few true British ghettos.