By Lola Adesioye, a US-based writer, specialises in issues affecting the black community (THE GUARDIAN, 21/01/08):
My social group in London resembles a United Colours of Benetton advert. Like others brought up in Britain's racially diverse inner cities, I have friends who are English, European, Caribbean, African, Asian. Now that I live in New York, my social group is 99% African-American.Londoners who visit New York are often shocked by the "segregation" of African-Americans and white Americans. In the US, people socialise and live within their own racial groups - according to one study, only 5%-10% of families live in integrated communities.
British liberals find this lack of racial integration problematic - we pride ourselves on the melting pot that many of our cities are today. We're troubled by those who cocoon themselves within the confines of their own communities. In 2005, Trevor Phillips, then chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, predicted that Britain was "sleepwalking into segregation". He said decades of multicultural policies had deepened racial divisions and increased tensions.
Multiculturalism has been out of favour since the 2001 riots in Burnley, Bradford and Oldham and especially after the London bombings four years later. It has been replaced by citizenship tests and a zealous government-driven "social cohesion" agenda that urges minority communities to assimilate into British ways. Conventional wisdom has polarised the issue into either integration (good) or segregation (bad). But things aren't that simple.
Many Americans do not seem to feel any pressure, or need, to mix with other races - it's not only African-Americans: major US cities are renowned for their Little Italys and Chinatowns. History plays a fundamental role; the enforcement of segregation - through slavery, Jim Crow laws and institutionalised racism - meant that, in the past, black Americans had little choice but to live within their own communities. Separation and segregation - and, consequently, inequality and inferiority - went hand in hand. Inequality, rather than the leading of "parallel lives", is the real problem in race relations.
In America's post-civil rights era, many black people can live where, and among whom, they want. The college-educated and middle-class - up to 45% of African-Americans - have no real need to remain in black neighbourhoods. Yet many choose to do so. According to the last census figures, 350,000 even re-migrated to the south - once considered the bastion of racism - heading to more racially homogenous towns with flourishing black communities. The growing number of affluent African-American neighbourhoods also allows the choice to live among those of the same social status.
It's essential for people of all races to understand and respect one another, and to have access to equal opportunities. If these conditions are met, what is wrong with people choosing to live among their own? Not everyone wants to integrate. Self-identification via race is still a major factor in where many choose to live. Black universities and colleges are examples of the benefits of such choices.
Many African-Americans are content to live separately so long as they have equal rights. Contrary to what most Britons believe, "voluntary separation" need not be a problem. For African-Americans who choose it, the focus is on pride and solidarity. It is a choice to preserve the cultural heritage and values that are often undermined when minorities assimilate into the mainstream.
Integration and separation need not be polar opposites. In America, it seems, it is possible to be separate and integrated - and equal - at the same time.