Joan Smith: We are withdrawing into our own tribes

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Even before it was officially published yesterday, the final report of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) made dramatic headlines. Britain remains a place of "inequality, exclusion and isolation", despite decades in which governments have tried to tackle the problem of discrimination.

In its swansong, the CRE paints a depressing picture of ethnic segregation across the country, with a huge impact on how people live, work and socialise. It accuses 15 government departments of failing to meet their obligations on tackling racism, and says that political and religious extremism is on the rise as people become "disillusioned and disconnected".

There is already concern that such issues will have a lower priority when the CRE is merged into a new Commission for Equality and Human Rights in two weeks' time, an anxiety shared by many who argued against the absorption of the Equal Opportunities Commission into the new body. The EOC's final report, published in the summer, was just as hard-hitting, suggesting that at current rates of "progress" women will have to wait 40 years to be paid the same as men.

This means that the new Commission is in the unenviable position of starting work under the scrutiny of competing interest groups, representing the elderly and the disabled as well as women and ethnic minorities, which all fear that they will lose out as a consequence of the merger.

These are reasonable anxieties, but I want to draw attention to an even bigger problem which the government hasn't even begun to address. That is the rise in this country of a series of defensive identities in which race, religion and gender not only play significant roles but are in conflict with one another. When people feel isolated and embattled, they tend to act out of self-interest and it is all too easy for anyone who doesn't have the same ethnic or religious affiliation to become an object of distrust, incomprehension and fear.

Yesterday the Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire highlighted the economic impact on policing of legal immigration from EU countries; she also (unintentionally I'm sure) provided ammunition to hardline opponents of immigration who are bound to seize on her remarks about migrant workers and knife-crime.

Julie Spence was actually pointing out the increased cost of investigating crime when, for instance, a murder committed in " to be sent to Lithuania. But she also talked about cultural differences, including the view of some migrant workers from Central and Eastern Europe that it is perfectly acceptable to carry knives.

I'm sure papers with an anti-immigration agenda would be very happy for us all to go in fear of being attacked by knife-wielding Latvian thugs. But Ms Spence's remarks need to be considered in the context of a 2004 report by Norfolk County Council and Norfolk Police which showed that migrant workers are themselves at high risk from racism, extortion and violent crime; many carry knives not to get involved in crime but because they are frightened, defensive and lack confidence in the police. A combination of suspicion and hostility from local communities, and threats from the criminal element among their own nationality, is hardly conducive to a relaxed, tolerant, confident sense of identity.

But it is not just migrant workers from the EU who are on the defensive. The success of anti-immigration parties such as the BNP is not necessarily a symptom of settled and innate racism, but could just as easily be the fearful response of white working-class communities who don't feel they have ever had a share fair of national resources. They latch onto visible manifestations of difference – skin colour, hearing foreign languages in the supermarket, people wearing extreme forms of religious dress – and project onto them all the discontent and feelings of injustice which disfigure their own lives.

This is not to excuse racism but it is to argue that the extremes of wealth which seem to be endemic in this country, and the failure of a Labour government to provide decent education for all, provide fertile soil for the hugely damaging social divisions which the CRE report talks about. The temptation in such circumstances is for people to retreat into tribes, living, working and socialising only with people like themselves. And the problem with tribes, from a feminist point of view, is that their attitudes are almost always rigid and patriarchal.

I observed it in white working-class culture when I was growing up, hearing my mother's friends complain endlessly that their husbands wouldn't allow them to go out to work; these days I see it in the attitudes of young British Muslims who were born and brought up in this country but have adopted a much stricter Islamic identity than their parents.

For some time now, I've been struck by the parallels between these young men and the Black Panthers, one of the most extreme organisations in the American civil rights movement. The Panthers' ideology was secular, based on Marxism, but some of their leaders had been radicalised in prison, as the shoe-bomber Richard Reid would be almost 40 years later. They were obsessed with guns, like the young Islamists who pose with semi-automatic weapons in al-Qa'ida videos, and they even marched on the California state capitol in 1967 to protest against a proposed law to ban the carrying of loaded weapons in public. Their misogyny and homo-phobia matched that of any Islamist preacher.

None of this should obscure the fact that black Americans at the time had genuine grievances, as do many people who belong to ethnic minorities in Britain today. But it is a warning that when young men feel excluded and insecure, they are vulnerable to ideologies which glamorise extreme forms of masculine identity.

This is what political Islam does, offering a return to patriarchal attitudes – including contempt for women and gay people – whose effect is to increase alienation from the wider community. It takes quite a lot of imagination to identify the chronic insecurity which lies behind the posturing of Islamic extremists, and even more (apparently) to recognise that separating children and sending them to "faith" schools is a recipe for even greater fragmentation.

The portrait of Britain in the CRE's final report is disturbing, but it confirms what most of us know from our own experience. Faced with huge economic and social change in a relatively short space of time, we are withrawing into our own little tribes and have begun to regard each other with mutual suspicion. Respect grows from knowledge and familiarity, not segregation; the remedy isn't more of the things that divide us, such as religion, but constant reminders of our common humanity.