Wednesday 25 March 2009

The wrong debate about a British Obama

A new piece of work by Robert Putnam is always worth reading and his collaboration with the University of Manchester promises to unveil some fascinating comparative information about social capital in the UK and US. It is also likely to be controversial as some of his findings from the US about the relationship between high levels of diversity and low social capital have been heavily criticised by many in the UK.

We got a sneak preview in this morning's Guardian where Putnam's writer Tom Clark talked about the impact of geography on ethnic minority representation both here and in the US . The subtext seemed to be that segregated communities had been good for minority representation and the lack of such communities here would continue to hold back minority Councillors and MPs. I have to say I found it a very odd piece. 

Firstly, we are comparing apples and oranges. There may be segregation in the UK (and we can debate the amount of that another time) but it is not the same institutionalised, Government-led forced separation that created much of the US's segregated cities and urban ghettoes. There seems to me to be no way you can compare the two - many minority communities in the UK have arrived and settled by choice as the result of immigration not in chains.

Furthermore, the new research seems to ignore the work that the Fabians themselves have done on ethnic minority selections. While our levels of representation are critically low and demand action, it would appear as though that action was at least beginning to happen.

Today's article also seemed to suggest that US-style segregation was a good thing. I hope it was simply clumsy editing because this is surely wrong. The notion of having easily compartmentalised communities each selecting their own representatives is just crazy. Yes, we want a parliament that looks like the country it purports to represent but we want our MPs to represent their whole community. We do not want more minority MPs simply to represent minority communities - we want them because they will be an indicator of social progress and make our democracy more legitimate.

Obama’s success has prompted much debate about whether he was able to transcend race. I believe we have to reserve judgement on that. Already, we have seen some interesting perspectives on race in the Obama age – not least Gwen Ifill’s fascinating book on the generational change in American black leadership. Both her work and other early analysis of Obama’s success would indicate that many minority politicians are able to move beyond being the ‘black candidate’. Indeed, this is hinted at in Clark’s piece today.

I will await Putnam’s book with interest. There is much to be learned from comparative research and his essay E Pluribus Unum is one of the best discussions on the challenges of diversity in the modern age that exists. However, today’s article concerns me. There is a great story to be told about race politics and progress in the Age of Obama both in the UK and US; this article does not do it justice.

No comments: