Side by side, not segregated

I left my home in Norbury, south London, last Friday morning, heading for the Nehru Centre on South Audley Street in the West End, there to participate in an all-day conference organised by CultivAsian in association with the 1990 Trust. The conference posed the tongue-in-cheek questions: "An epitaph to British multiculturalism - are we digging its grave? Is it time to bury the fight for race equality and either join the British nationalists or follow the sleepwalkers to segregation?"

I was invited to participate in the first session as a panellist: all the panellists were Asian, with the exception of yours truly. Readers of this column are acquainted with my approach to these issues. I thought I would forgo abstraction and simply detail the community from which I had travelled that morning and the journey that had got me to South Audley Street.

I stepped out of my front door, only to meet my next-door neighbours who were delivering the local "freesheet". They are an old white couple, not too long returned from their holiday in Portugal. We exchanged small talk about gardening and I continued on my way.

One house further up the street, and I hailed my Muslim neighbour in the spirit of Islam: "As-salaam aleikum", to which he replied quietly and politely, "Wa aleikum as-salaam." His younger brother emerged from the house, a football tucked under his arm and his trousers perched around mid-arse. Residents peeled out of their homes on the way to work: sari-clad women; besuited African men carrying briefcases; Asian, black and white young women with pierced belly buttons on show. Black youths were bouncing along with hoods neatly poised on their backs, seemingly without a care in this world. And the rubbish truck trundled along, manned by blacks and a single white man.

I turned on to the high street where five banks are housed, indicating the prosperity of our community. Houses are bought and sold at an alarming rate here, estate agents negotiating with easy confidence as we shape and reshape our community. Halal butchers, fruit and vegetable shops, fast-food outlets, restaurants, a DIY establishment, a garden centre, newsagents, a minicab office, a pound shop, a couple of old cafés serving a traditional breakfast, a boutique for south Asian women, barbers and hairdressers. We are all catered for. And I left my house keys with Polish builders who are re fashioning my home with great skill, acquired on the building sites of the old communist state.

This community, I warned the attentive audience, was not sleepwalking. The evidence indicates the opposite: a dynamic section of the population which has painstakingly reconstituted a high street on its last legs into a vibrant, multicultural place. To describe us as segregated borders on abuse. All are free to come and go. There is always a coming and a going as communities change to accommodate the new.

I have travelled through the Deep South in America and I know what segregation is. Its defining characteristic is that it is always organised and perpetuated by a racist state power. So, too, in South Africa.

I joined the passengers who cram the trains to Victoria, cheek by jowl. Whites are huddled next to blacks. Asians are crushed up against Africans. And when they arrive at work Muslims and Christians are set in motion beside each other; they join trade unions together and discuss the latest fashions together.

My community and those like it have built these areas from the bottom up. We will not allow them to be rent asunder by some minister for social cohesion and her cohorts from the bemused bureaucracy.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 28 August 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Blogs plc