The hunt for hate is getting out of hand. This week police figures revealed that 138 incidents of racial or religious abuse, committed by children under the age of 10, were reported in England and Wales last year. One case, in Manchester, involved a three-year-old, who was said to have caused ‘harassment, alarm or distress’ to his ‘victim’.
Let’s get one thing straight: children cannot really be accused of racism. By investigating children for racial abuse, the police are granting children a level of political agency that they simply do not possess. If they sometimes utter racist speech, it’s most likely because they’ve regurgitated it from films, TV, song lyrics, or perhaps their parents. Children do not see the world through the racially tinted lenses that some adults do.
The focus on rooting out racist, homophobic or sexist kids has been a feature of education for more than a decade. And it is completely detached from reality. Playgrounds are not ridden with prejudice. Young children often use language that adults finds offensive or problematic. Often because they don’t know any better. It’s adults’ job to guide them in their development, not criminalise them.
This obsession with policing children’s speech is extremely damaging. Before they have learned freely to consider the world and express themselves, children are being taught to watch their words and see those of a different skin colour as different to them. The increased involvement of the police is even more worrying. We commit a great disservice to children if we allow them to be branded racists and harassers before they’re even out of primary school.
There is also a clear risk of children being used as a political weapon. It is a shameless practice, but it is all too common. A panic is created by a shock statistic, a policy or initiative is launched, and said statistic is used to bat away any criticism of it. After Brexit, we have already seen many politicians and commentators exploiting the alleged spike in post-Brexit hate to serve their own political ends. If we’re not careful, they will do the same with schools, too.