Exploding the myth of racist kids

Of course primary-school kids trade banter and insult each other. But that doesn’t mean they are racist.

‘More than 87,000 racist incidents recorded in schools’, declared a story last Wednesday on BBC News. The story quoted Sarah Soyei of the UK anti-racism educational charity Show Racism the Red Card, who claimed: ‘Unfortunately, the numbers of recorded racist incidents are just the tip of the iceberg.’

The basis of the story was a set of figures obtained from a BBC survey of 90 local education authorities, which revealed 87,915 in-school racist incidents recorded over a four-year period. Does this mark a worrying new trend? Probably not. In 2007, Channel 4 came up with pretty much the same figure for the previous four years. I conducted a more extensive survey for the Manifesto Club report, The Myth of Racist Kids. Using figures from 152 of the total of 174 English and Welsh local authorities and, checking figures for consecutive years, it became possible to deduce that the typical annual ‘racist incident’ tally exceeded 35,000.

That adds up to 140,000 incidents for a four-year period – an even juicier number for news desks and anti-racism zealots to get their teeth into. But far from ringing alarm bells, our report also showed that the majority of incidents came from primary schools. Moreover, most were namecalling and other verbal incidents, which were deemed ‘racist’ by adults carefully following government policy. Individual incident-report forms showed names like ‘chocolate bar’ and ‘white trash’ as typical of the level of supposed racism involved.

Of course, finding such a large number of incidents wasn’t the least bit surprising given that teachers are urged to file a report for ‘any incident perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’. Schools have consistently been told by local authorities that a ‘good school’ is one that demonstrates ‘zero tolerance’ and submits as many incident reports as possible.

This latest manifestation of the myth of racist kids exploits the idea that the creeping influence of the English Defence League and Islamophobia is filtering into the playground. If we don’t nip this problem in the bud, it is suggested, our current generation of children will surely mutate into fully fledged racists. The solution? Well, according to Sarah Soyei, we need more teacher training, more incident reporting and more anti-racist education.

The BBC’s story was keen to offer us something else to fret about. Since the coalition government introduced new guidance trusting schools to deal with namecalling and bullying as they see fit, the number of reports of ‘racist’ incidents to local authorities has, apparently, fallen. For dyed-in-the-wool official anti-racists, freeing schools from state monitoring and intervention can mean only one thing: racism in schools will now incubate and grow. In other words, the stats from the New Labour years were simply a wake-up call for how utterly racist British society really is – and official anti-racist policy in schools is the only thing preventing the cultivation of a generation of bad seeds. Moreover, the stats also showed that teachers will only tackle the malignant racism in their midst if they are forced into action by government policy.

None of this could be further from the truth. Today, instances of adult-world racism (both real and imagined) are far more likely to be dragged into the limelight than swept under the carpet. Unlike in the relatively recent past, today it is the rarity of racist violence and prejudice that makes its occurrence so shocking to us. I’m glad we are shocked, but to view such instances as ‘the tip of the iceberg’ is nonsense. And to view instances of playground namecalling, banter and children using words they don’t really understand as also ‘the tip of the iceberg’ is nothing short of surreal.

Twenty-first-century British kids are, if anything, doing anti-racism all by themselves. As the soon-to-be-published 2011 census will show, this is a generation more ethnically and culturally mixed than any before it. In fact, the exponential rise of the ‘mixed-race’ population is mindblowing. Every day, communities of schoolchildren invent a version of colour-blind, multi-ethnic interaction right under the noses of the handwringers. And yes, of course they insult each other and trade ‘inappropriate’ banter – they’re kids!

It’s a particularly cynical, miserable brand of ‘anti-racism’ that wants to convert the world of children behaving childishly into a maelstrom of racist word offences. No doubt this gives the modern-day anti-racist a new role in promoting state intervention in schools before racism takes hold of the wee ones. But while socially engineering a squeaky clean ‘anti-racist’ future may be a good fantasy for some, surely even the most ardent advocate of mandatory racist-incident reporting must know that the figures in the news are actually the product of anti-racist policies and not a reflection of genuine racism?

Sarah Soyei seems, at least, to know that the latest figures are an artefact of the reporting regime. On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, she accepted that ‘the rising figures are not necessarily due to a rise or fall in racism – it could be due to a local authority taking racism more seriously’. But for Soyei, it feels safe to assume that incidents are ‘notoriously underreported’. She’s right – if schools were pushed far harder, they could no doubt record many more instances of ‘chocolate bar’, ‘blackie’, ‘pastey face’, ‘broccoli head’, and so on. But this ain’t racism.

I appeared on BBC Radio West Midlands the same day to discuss this story. Responding to my criticism of the story, veteran anti-racist campaigner Maxie Hayles said, ‘Oh my God, what a sad day this is, what a sad day to hear someone talking about “trivial incidents” by children, childish behaviour… The reality is that the very fabric of this society is racist and institutional racism is rife here. The local authority and schools need to take over the playground… Some of those young people should be prosecuted. The parents should be held responsible and educated because we’re breeding a lot of young racist thugs. In a few years we won’t be different from any other countries in Europe.’ The presenter interjected: ‘I’ve got to say my experience of schools isn’t that at all Maxie, that’s a little harsh, we’re talking about a minority here!’ Hayles was irritated: ‘A minority! Are you kidding me? You just told me that we’ve got a situation where 80,000 incidents have been recorded in schools over a four-year period!’ Never mind the real lived experience of people in schools. There is now a statistic out there, with a life of its own, which seems to prove that racism is rife. No further discussion is required, no critical faculties need to be engaged.

The practice of schools reporting numbers of ‘racist incidents’ to local authorities began in 2002. So you have to ask, how is it that all those past generations of kids untouched by official anti-racist policy somehow managed to form such a liberal, overwhelmingly anti-racist society of adults? I suspect the answer Maxie Hayles or Sarah Soyei would give is that they didn’t; nothing much has changed and racism just went ‘underground’ to flourish in those nasty white working-class council estates or deep inside our unconscious.

The idea that nothing much has changed requires a grotesque bending of reality assisted, in no small part, by fashionable notions of rotten humanity forever on the cusp of something ugly. But it’s worse than that. Today’s anti-racist mindset erases all trace of politics and power. With racism redefined as a disease of the masses, state policy is held aloft as a righteous purifier.

Adrian Hart is author of Leave Those Kids Alone: How Official Hate-Speech Regulation Interferes in School Life and Manifesto Club report, The Myth of Racist Kids – Anti-Racism Policy and the Regulation of School Life. For more information, visit his website.

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