Against the Grain: We should all be anxious about rising divisions – even if intolerance is falling

Paul Ormerod
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BRITAIN is becoming more sharply divided on ethnic lines, according to a worrying study just published by the think tank Demos. Over the past decade, more than 600,000 white people have moved out of London to areas which are more than 90 per cent white. The effect has been strongest among white Britons with children, with a fall of almost 20 per cent in the number of them living in London.

The Demos project is chaired by Trevor Phillips, the former head of the Equalities Commission. The trend he identifies is certainly deeply depressing, and appears to suggest that racial prejudice is alive and well. Further, it is not limited to white British people. According to Phillips, ethnic minorities are becoming more tightly clustered in areas where their own group is well-represented.

But Phillips insists that, while this trend will have highly damaging long-term consequences, the overall evidence does not show increased prejudice at all. In fact, personal prejudice is declining. How can this be? Prejudice is allegedly falling, yet Britain is becoming more divided along ethnic lines in terms of where we live.

The answer to this seeming paradox was provided over 40 years ago by the brilliant American academic Thomas Schelling. Based at the University of Maryland, Schelling has carried out highly original work in areas such as national security and nuclear strategy, using a game-theoretic perspective. Along the way, he picked up the Nobel Prize in economics in 2005.

Schelling imagined a checkers (draughts) board, with many more squares than a standard one, on which an equal number of green and blue checkers are placed at random. A small percentage of squares are left empty. The rules of Schelling’s game are very simple. One of the checkers is chosen to see if it wants to change location. Each square is surrounded by eight other squares so, including its own square, it looks at nine squares in total to see who else lives in its neighbourhood.

Suppose the checker is green. Provided that there are five green checkers in the nine squares in total, it is happy to stay put. It does not mind living with blue checkers on the other four. But if it is five blue checkers to four green, rather than four to five, it moves to one of the empty squares.

The players in this game have a very mild preference for living among players that are like them, but they are happy to live with a large minority of the other group. What happens as the game progresses? Each checker can decide, one at a time, whether or not to move. Then they all get another chance to move if they want, given the new pattern of location. Remarkably, the board divides rapidly into dense blocks in which the checkers are all the same group. It appears as if the players have a very strong preference to live near players of the same kind. But this is not the case at all.

Schelling’s game is, of course, highly abstract, but it has profound practical insights. Increased tolerance and rising residential divisions need not be incompatible at all. But this still leaves us with a big problem. As Philips says, an increase divisions, whatever the reasons behind it, is a reason to be deeply concerned.

Paul Ormerod is an economist at Volterra Partners, a director of the think-tank Synthesis and author of Positive Linking: How Networks Can Revolutionise the World.