Good Ghettos?

The Economist reports on Britain’s Bangladeshi community, which is making tremendous strides.

Historically bottom of the heap of Britain’s south Asian immigrants, they have in recent years been bounding ahead. Bangladeshi children (including those born in Britain) have overtaken Pakistanis at school; they have even narrowed the gap with Indians, the most successful south Asian group (see chart). After controlling for poverty, the results are brighter still.

Though it will come as a surprise to come, it turns out that the cohesion and concentration of the community has been a boon.

More than half of the 330,000-strong community live in the capital, and of these almost half live in the borough of Tower Hamlets, within whose western border runs Brick Lane.

This means more social capital, and local governments that know how to work with the Bangladeshi community.

“People pool their resources to support kids in after-school classes. There’s a lot of informal home-based learning.” The fact that most Bangladeshi migrants come from just one region, Sylhet, binds the community tighter still. And the sheer numbers mean that schools in Tower Hamlets are used to negotiating the language barrier and working with parents and religious groups.

Moreover, ethnic concentration, ironically enough, can even facilitate certain kinds of assimilation: when you see other Bangladeshi-origin parents embracing aspects of Western modernity, you are more likely to do the same. Smaller, more isolated enclaves are likely to have a more defensive orientation.

Of course, not all “ghettos” work: it’s easy to imagine an ethnic community that, for example, refuses to learn a broader society’s lingua franca, which is a recipe for the worst kind of isolation. So one is reluctant to generalize to much.

I do wonder, though, how this relates to the broader relationship between diversity and social capital, commonly understood to be a mostly negative relationship. In Yuri Slezkine brilliant The Jewish Century, he posits that there are Apollonian and _Mercurian societies. To oversimplify, Mercurians are urban and highly mobile, and thus Mercurians tend towards diaspora. Apollonians are everyone else. Slezkine’s conceit is that “We Are All Mercurians Now,” which means that historically Mercurian communities have had something of an advantage in negotiating the new industrial world.

This maps (imperfectly) on the experience of South Asian communities in Britain. The most Mercurian, the so-called African Asians who emigrated from Kenya and Uganda and other exceptional bourgeois minorities (Marwaris, etc.), have been very successful, surpassing the native born in educational attainment and professional success. The most Apollonian, the Pakistanis, have done less well. After all, these are Apollonians clashing with Apollonians of another stripe. The Bangladeshis, and in particular the Sylhetis, fall somewhere in between.

The anxiety surrounding the Mexican-born population in the United States stems in part, I think, from its Apollonianness. Many of the most successful immigrant communities in the contemporary US are, after all, pretty Mercurian. Consider that most of the Russian and South Asian influxes are themselves disproportionately drawn from Mercurian minorities, which should come as no surprise.

There’s a lot to chew over.

(Thanks to Razib.)