Although the title may seem a controversial statement to make, a moment’s thought will reveal that it’s inevitable when seen against the “long arc of history”. I’m not aware of many ghettos of Normans defiantly speaking old French, distilling moonshine Calvados, and furtively manufacturing Brie. The dividing line between Romans and Ancient British also seems to have healed up quite nicely, and although we might treasure the fantasy statue of Boadicea, we don’t generally get into trouble for not showing due sensitivity to our Roman communities when we do. So it’s hardly radical to point out that the “natural” course of events is for cultural difference to become indiscernible over time. It requires action and energy to prevent this process from playing out in its inevitable way, rather like the energy required to prevent entropy increasing in a physical system. So is it better to put that energy (and money, which is really simply the energy of public policy) in by encouraging minority communities to maintain their differences, or would it actually be better to let “nature” takes its course, or even actively to try and speed it up?
In Britain and France we have an interesting contrast between these two approaches. In this country we are, formally at least, committed to the sustenance of multiculturalism and to the celebration of difference. There are of course other currents, especially in response to islamist extremism, which are running in a different direction but by and large this is the approach we’ve decided to adopt as a nation, and which we actively impose through money, the law, and official moral disapprobation of alternative perspectives. France, on the other hand, has gone down a different route. Whilst we’ve held up diversity as a virtue, they’ve held up “Frenchness” as a virtue. Most of the debate about that in this country has I think rather simplistically and moralistically merely declared that this is evidence of French racism. (It’s been fun however to watch our own right-wing tabloid hacks having to decide between enthusiasm for French defiance of the dreaded political correctness, and lazily reaching for a few weary frog-related French stereotypes.) The horrors of the post 1789 period in France when so much blood was spilled has made them determined to safeguard the revolutionary advances, of which a very significant one was the establishment of a secular state and the diminution of the power of the church. The determination of French policy to keep religion out of state education is one of the currents (only one – more later) which led to the outlawing of religious apparel and iconography in French schools.
Into this febrile atmosphere marches the issue of race. Race and culture aren’t remotely the same thing, but they often intersect more or less tidily. Where members of a cultural group are generally also members of a specific racial group, and in a society where racism (in the second of the two senses established here) is entrenched, then there is plenty of room for trouble. Cultural minorities might choose to maintain a sense of identity, but they may also be forced into it by economic or geographical ghettoisation (an ugly term for an ugly process). Cultural identity then becomes as much a defence as a choice. To return to the French example, it is at least debatable how much of the fervour to ban religious dress (which was not specifically targeted at islamic dress, but was for all that mostly concerned with that particular issue) was a laudable defence of hard-won rights, and how much a pretext for islamophobia and racism.
In my view, we’ve too easily confused categories, and set up moral boundaries, when greater clarity and discernment would have served us better. There is no doubt that acting deliberately to slow down the inevitable process of assimilation creates problems even if it also provides some protections. It is not clear to me, for example, that it serves anyone’s interests for there to be enclaves of people who cannot speak the language of the country in which they live. And, please note, that applies just as strongly to the embarrassing groups of non-French-speaking ex-patriot British people (I will not use the detestable term “Brits”!) who litter the French countryside as it does to Sylheti immigrants to London’s East End. It is not inherently racist to question the doctrine of maintaining multiculturalism as a social and moral good. After all, it’s only a modern attempt at succeeding where Canute failed. I firmly believe that it is better for a society to act on undermining the forces that collude to deepen and maintain cultural difference for the simple reason that these are frequently the forces of racism. Cultural ghettos are necessary defences against injustice. They are not positive displays of an enriching diversity. The advice to immigrants “when in Rome, to do as the Romans do” is perfectly fair with one massive and critical qualification: it must be possible for them to do so. And it isn’t when unexamined racism in job markets and the rest conspire to keep them excluded.