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Gary Younge
Please stop fetishising integration. Equality is what we really need

And so it is that it seems to make no difference how segregated their lives, white people rarely ever seem to live in ghettoes. When a group of white people gather, they call it a country club, boardroom or - for most of the last century - House of Commons. But when non-white people reach a critical mass in any area, they always hit the G-spot - the point at which policymakers scream.

The cause of integration has become so fetishised since the July bombings that it has been elevated to the level of an intrinsic moral value - not a means to an end but an end in itself. Later this week the government-appointed task force will make integration a vital component of its report to Tony Blair on how to tackle Muslim extremism. In a speech in Manchester, Trevor Phillips, the head of the Commission for Racial Equality, will warn against the country "sleep-walking" into a "New Orleans-style" quagmire of "fully fledged ghettoes".

This is fine as far as it goes. The trouble is, unless integration is coupled with the equally vigorous pursuit of equality and anti-racism, it does not go very far. Rwanda had plenty of inter-ethnic marriages before the genocide; Jews were more integrated into German society than any other European nation before the Holocaust. Common sense suggests that the more contact you have with different races, religions and ethnicities, the less potential there is for stereotyping and dehumanising those different from yourself. But even that small achievement depends on the quality and power dynamics of the contact.

Take the American south. Despite preaching segregation in his presidential campaign, the late South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond still slept with black women, like most white southern gentlemen. Black women breastfed and raised white children, and since most slave owners were not that wealthy, many black and white families shared the same roof.

The question was not whether the races could mix but what were the ground-rules for them mixing. These relationships were not consensual or mutual but usually coerced and one-sided. The whites-only signs kept African Americans from many a public place; but in the most intimate parts of their lives, black and white people were as integrated as they possibly could be.

In other words, the value of integration is contingent on whom you are asking to integrate, what you are asking them to integrate into and on what basis you are asking them to do so. The framing of the current debate is flawed on all three fronts. It treats integration as a one-way street - not a subtle process of cultural negotiation but full-scale assimilation of a religious group that is regarded, by many liberals and conservatives, as backward and reactionary. It is hardly surprising that many Muslims would not want to sign up to that.

But they would have a hard time trying even if they did. The racial group in Britain that has the hardest time integrating is white people. A YouGov poll for the Commission for Racial Equality last year showed that 83% of whites have no friends who are practising Muslims, while only 48% of non-white people do. It revealed that 94% of whites, compared with 47% of people from ethnic minorities, say most or all their friends are white. There is no good reason why white people should go out of their way to befriend ethnic minorities. But the truth is some go out of their way not to. A Mori poll for Prospect magazine last year showed that 41% of whites, compared with 26% of ethnic minorities, want the races to live separately.

Britain has a great many qualities where race is concerned. But the image so eagerly touted after the bombings, of an oasis of tolerant diversity that has been exploited by Islamic fundamentalists who hail from a community determined to voluntarily segregate, simply does not square with the facts. If fair play is a core British value, racism is no less so. According to Home Office figures, in 2003-2004 roughly 150 racially motivated incidents were reported every day; of those 100 fell into the serious category that includes wounding, assault and harassment.

Some are deadly, as in the case of the black teenager Anthony Walker, a devout Christian and would-be lawyer, standing at a bus stop with his white girlfriend. He looked about as integrated as you can be, but that didn't stop him being killed by a single axe blow to the head, following a torrent of racial abuse.

But the most likely victims of race attacks are Pakistanis and Bangladeshis - the dominant ethnic groups among Muslims. And this was before the bombs sparked a significant rise in Islamophobia. All this is compounded by economic deprivation. Bangladeshis have the highest rate of unemployment, reaching just over 40% for men under 25. These people are not segregated; they are alienated. If they need to be integrated into anything as a matter of urgency, it is the workforce and the education system. A decent job with a decent income is still the best path out of the crudest forms of racism and fundamentalism. Polls and studies show a link between wealth and the propensity to integrate.

The reason black people could not get out of New Orleans was not because they were separate but because they were unequal - the wealthier ones left. Equality of opportunity is the driving force behind integration, not the other way round, but their relationship is subtle and symbiotic, not crude and causal.

July's bombings blew a hole in assumptions, on the left and the right, about the link between race and desperation. The four young men who created bloody havoc led neither deprived nor segregated lives. Abdullah Jamal (formerly Jermaine Lindsay) was married to a white Englishwoman; Mohammad Sidique Khan was a graduate who helped children of all religions with learning difficulties; Hasib Hussain was sent to Pakistan only after he "went a bit wild" with drinking and swearing; Shehzad Tanweer was a graduate who used to help at his father's fish-and-chip shop.

In July 5% of Muslims told an ICM poll that more bombings would be justified. Given the margin of error, this could be at least hundreds and at most thousands of potential suicide bombers. Whether it be Anthony Walker's murderers or terrorists, we know it only takes a few.

Liberals must not give an inch to fundamentalism, whether racial, religious, ethnic or national. While its leaders must be ostracised, its followers must be won over. But either collective ethnic and racial identities are universally applicable, or they are not. If so then white people need a taskforce to discuss how to better police "their community" in order to marginalise extremists who kill in the name of white supremacy. If not then we need to move to a more sophisticated place that takes into account the degree to which our prejudices, pain and potential are all interlinked. If integration means anything, then it means we're all in this together.

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