How official anti-racism holds black children back

‘Institutional racism’ is the fashionable excuse for the poor educational attainment of black boys. But could the real problem be the modern culture of victimhood?

Adrian Hart

Topics Books

In recent years, the accusation that racism is rife in Britain’s schools has surfaced several times. It takes two distinct forms: racist teachers and racist kids.

Last year, government-funded research by the University of Warwick caused a stir by seeming to prove, conclusively, that African Caribbean children are the victims of ‘institutionalised racism’ and, more specifically, ‘teacher racism’ (1). In 2007, Channel 4 News used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain figures appearing to demonstrate a rising tide in racist incidents recorded by schools – with especially high figures amongst nine- to 11-year-olds (2). Channel 4 interviewed an Institute of Education academic who described these figures as ‘just the tip of the iceberg’. In the previous year a series of racist incident cases hit the headlines – including a 10-year-old boy brought before the courts for his insulting behaviour (3). There have been several other cases of this kind.

Yet by any objective standard, British society is less racist and more tolerant than it has been in decades. Arguably it’s the infrequency of racist violence and abuse that makes it so shocking to us (4). So why has the spectre of racism in schools emerged now? The answer lies not in any strange reawakening of racism in the classroom, the playground or, indeed, society as a whole, but in the advent of a new era of official anti-racism.

The 1999 Macpherson Report, following the inquiry into the murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence in London in 1993, quickly initiated amended race legislation. The report stated: ‘How society rids itself of [racist] attitudes is not something we can prescribe, except to stress the need for education and example at the youngest age, and an overall attitude of “zero tolerance” of racism within our society.’ (5)

And, as all modern anti-racists know, ‘institutional racism’ became defined by the report as ‘processes, attitudes and behaviour’ based on ‘unwitting prejudice, ignorance and thoughtlessness’. From the moment the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 came into force in May 2002, a new industry of official anti-racists began scanning schools for the tell-tale signs of institutional racism. Evidence for its existence included failure to identify and report racist incidents (as revealed by schools submitting low or ‘nil’ return-forms) and, in secondary schools, the failure of teachers to enter African Caribbean boys into the higher maths and English tiers for GCSE (the examination usually taken at 16 in English schools).

For its part, the government has been pleased to encourage a policy in tune with its managerial approach to ‘race relations’ (that is, to be seen to be anti-racist), but distinctly less keen when its own research appears to indicate institutional racism as the main explanation for certain inequalities. For the government, it would seem, there’s just the right amount of racism to justify intervention and show off its moral superiority over the bigoted herd (6).

In the slip-stream of Macpherson and new race laws, a flush of books appeared dedicated to the task of examining the scourge of racism in schools and scrutinising the progress (or lack of progress) in eradicating it. Initially buoyed up by the government’s apparent conversion to anti-racism, liberal academics have joined an increasingly irritable lobby branding both politicians and schools as indifferent to ‘race equality’. What began as euphoria over Macpherson (summed up by one activist as ‘we taught Macpherson and Macpherson taught the world!’ (7)) and which quickly initiated ‘the most radical equalities legislation on earth’ (8) has ended in a liberal helping of disappointment.

The book titles speak for themselves. They range from the race-equality militancy of Racism and Education: Coincidence or conspiracy? and Tell it Like it is: How Our Schools Fail Black Children to the race-relations managerialism of Racist Incidents and Bullying in Schools: How to Prevent Them and How to Respond When They Happen and Young Children and Racial Justice: Taking Action for Racial Equality in the Early Years. All these books share the Macpherson view that racism is endemic to British society, often hidden and impossible to prove, but ultimately the only reasonable explanation for things like black kids failing at school.

‘Racism’ becomes the ‘no-brainer’ default explanation for race inequality. This certainty lets academics and race experts get on with the simple task of lining-up facts like ‘for every three white British pupils entered for the higher GCSE tiers, only two black Caribbean pupils are entered’. They can then present these facts as more evidence of the institutional racism Lord William Macpherson has already judged as having an a priori existence.

Elsewhere, more academics and more books are on hand to warn of the danger to children of the prevailing ‘white, Western mindset’. ‘And this mindset is racist’. points out the sleeve notes of a new book by Dr Sally Elton-Chalcraft, just in case we were in any doubt. It’s strange though, because in her book, It’s Not Just About Black and White, Miss: Children’s Awareness of Race, Elton-Chalcraft reveals that the majority of nine- and 10-year-olds in her study displayed ‘an anti-racist stance’. But this hasn’t stopped her from concluding that these children were in denial ‘of the existence of white privilege’. Teachers are also in denial and need training out of their foolish tendency to disregard race. ‘Colour blindness’, she asserts, ‘denies a child’s identity and may also deny that prejudice exists’.

But inculcating a positive attitude toward ‘race’ and chasing up racist incidents in the playground is, it seems, not enough for race experts. Children need to be actively taught about the ingrained racism that characterises society. Jane Lane, author of a 2008 guidance manual on ‘early-years race-equality’ puts it this way: ‘from the day they were born [children] are learning the beginnings of racially prejudiced attitudes… we cannot make the world free of racism and a safe place to be, but we can do our very best to ensure that our early-years settings are small models of what we would like the world to be’ (9).

In Racism and Education: Coincidence or Conspiracy?, Professor David Gillborn uses Critical Race Theory (CRT) to re-frame a substantial body of research he and others like him have carried out into race inequality in education. Gillborn is a young, highly adept scholar passionate about anti-racism and tireless in his efforts to scrutinise education policy and assessment procedures for evidence of race inequality. In many instances, he offers up convincing evidence of the smoking gun of institutional racism. For example, why is that black children seem to enter compulsory education 20 percentage points above the achievement average for all children, but then nose-dive? Between the end of primary school and the end of secondary school, on average, the attainment of black pupils slumps to 20 points below the national standard.

That’s the ‘race inequality’ part. But Gillborn isn’t finished yet. Why has the system of assessment that revealed this initial high performance been abruptly replaced by a new system reversing the pattern to show black children, not as over-achievers, but as under-achievers? By shifting to a system which the government acknowledges as ‘patchy’ and ‘experimental’, the only part of schooling where black kids are relatively successful is erased from the records – almost overnight.

For Gillborn, this is all evidence of the manner by which a racist system ensures that black children fail. He argues that the fact that black children appear to enter the system, on average, as high achievers is a contradiction that the system must quickly paper over. The fact that African Caribbean boys are then subjected to a process that allows teachers to stereotype them as having bad attitudes and condemn them to the lower sets and tiers is a fact that a racist system is bound to deflect. It does so by ever artful ways of ‘blaming the victim’. Problems rooted in systematic racism are, the argument goes, obscured by recourse to an inherently racist ‘deficit model’ which typically holds black culture (especially youth culture) as responsible for its own woes.

But there are problems with this kind of analysis. ‘Race’ and ‘culture’ seem to merge into a single meaning to such an extent that even to suggest that there may be causes rooted in African Caribbean culture is ‘racist’ and therefore ruled as off-limits in this debate.

As Kenan Malik has argued (10), it is also a problem when we insist that a category like ‘race’ should be our starting point in addressing a problem that really ought to start with the question ‘why do boys from poor backgrounds of whatever race do so badly?’ Racism may well play a part in the poor performance of African Caribbean children, but so does class (they’re disproportionately from poorer backgrounds), gender (it’s mostly working class boys that are failing), location (being over-represented within less effective or lower-quality schools, within run-down neighbourhoods) and so does culture.

In an atmosphere of liberal ‘you can’t say that!’ sensitivities and cries of ‘race traitor!’ from the black community, the African Caribbean educationalist and former teacher Tony Sewell is a very brave man.

For some years he has been arguing that there is indeed trouble at the heart of UK African Caribbean culture (and in case you’ve been slightly over-trained in the current anti-racist orthodoxy we’re talking about culture here – Tony Sewell is not a racist). Put simply, his argument is that the new force oppressing young African Caribbeans (and boys in particular) is the notion of ‘blackness’ itself – black identity reduced to ‘a badge of victimhood’ (11). Sewell is frequently labelled a racist, yet his message is intrinsically anti-racist: there are no innate ‘racial’ flaws in these boys just as there is no exotic ‘racial magic’ in why Chinese pupils perform well. Their problems stem, argues Sewell, from a culture of low expectations that views working hard at school as ‘acting white’.

In his latest book, Generating Genius: Black Boys in Search of Love, Ritual and Schooling, Sewell digs a little deeper into the fractured legacy at the root of this malaise. Unlike their West African counterparts, argues Sewell, African Caribbean boys lack the immigrant mentality that tends to view education as an opportunity to increase status. Indians, Chinese and West Africans do better in UK schools not because they’re inherently brighter or because teachers only go racist at the sight of African Caribbeans. Whether its through the aspirations supplied by social class or the forward-drive supplied by ‘immigrant mentality’, these kids just work harder, watch less MTV and feel less like the victims of a permanently racist society. They are also less likely to be fatherless.

Sewell seems genuinely sensitive to the plight of these boys. The project ‘Generating Genius’ rests on the premise that African Caribbean boys – given the right conditions – can flourish. In the book, Sewell describes how, in 2005, he took a small group of black British boys aged 12 to Jamaica and created a science summer camp at the University of the West Indies. The boys lived for a month as University undergraduates ‘attending lectures, going on field-trips and encountering a life-changing experience’. ‘Genius’ for Sewell is simply code for attitude, hard work and a certain ‘cultural legacy’ – something ‘ecological rather than innate’. In a new environment, away from home turf, Sewell showed how an ‘eco-system of success’ could be quickly established.

In the following years, Sewell tried out British-based programmes placing similar groups on an intensive three-week summer course dedicated to science, technology, engineering and medicine. In the alien setting of London’s Imperial College. the boys were divided into groups and challenged to compete for prizes at the end of the programme.

The results for both Jamaican and UK programmes were that, back at school, 90 per cent of the boys who took part achieved significantly better academic results than their peers.

It sounds like a withdrawal programme or a boot-camp for bad boys. Sewell, however, is having none of that. He’s opposed to separate black schools or quick-fix remedies, insisting Generating Genius is simply a community summer activity supporting boys to be strong and resilient in their multi-ethnic daytime schools. Building on and valuing resilience is clearly a key to this initiative. But Sewell’s approach breaks with the idea that resilience should come through access to more black history and culture. From his days as an inner-city school teacher, Sewell noticed that these boys tended to be ‘contemptuous of teachers who allowed them to get away with bad behaviour’ and respectful of those who seemed to care enough to challenge them. For Sewell, his role as a leader in Generating Genius was that of ‘loving patriarch’: ‘I was Mr High Expectations, who would boot them off the project if they dared mess up.’

Whichever way Sewell wants to describe either the programme as a whole or the precise ingredients of ‘love, ritual and schooling’ that make it work (the chapters on these elements are fascinating), Generating Genius demonstrates something very important. These boys, by themselves, have the capacity to achieve just like anyone else. But they flourish by escaping a set of constraints that have very little to do with racism and a lot to do with the cultural terrain they inhabit. Anti-racist researchers have, as Sewell puts it ‘attempted to make the data fit their theory… They have no answer when black boys say they are the victims of enormous peer pressure. It’s too easy to blame everything white. This stuck way of thinking has to be challenged if anything is to change.’

The gaping chasm between the militants and managers that make-up official anti-racism in education and the likes of Tony Sewell seems irreconcilable. Like the University of Warwick research, David Gillborn’s tenacious work struggles to be sure that all ‘measurable factors’ are taken into account. But the default explanation of racism keeps coming up. Sewell is right: ‘[these] researchers have positioned black pupils as being on the spectrum of child abuse, in a world where adults can never be trusted’. They refuse to ask the ‘hard questions’ and end up with ‘the answers they already expect’. In Gillborn’s case, CRT pretty much seals off any possibility he might have had to ask Sewell’s harder questions. CRT (and its damning view of a homogenised conspiracy of interests linking every white citizen) designates these questions as racist by their very nature. Not unlike Sally Elton-Chalcraft’s ‘white, western mindset’, Gillborn views racism as deeply ingrained within a culture of white privilege – a permanent condition of racism which locks-in race inequality as an eternal feature of the system.

Although wary of the more excited theories cherished by some of its researchers and academics, state official anti-racism is more than happy to issue (if not fully endorse) statements like this from the Department for Education and Schools (DfES) in 2006: ‘Properly understood institutional racism is not such a scary thing for an institution to admit to. Admitting its existence is merely an acceptance that the institution is subject to the same sub-conscious conditioning as the rest of society.’ (12)

The state has no problem at all in inferring a certain rotten-ness in the hordes that it must govern. And so inviting schools to accept fault, renounce their subconscious flaws and accept the medicine of official anti-racism is pretty much par for the course. The same applies to the spectre of bullying, racist kids.

In 2007, DfES’s successor, the Department for Children Schools and Families (DCSF), issued the following guidance on dealing with racist incidents: ‘Racism is a problem affecting society as a whole: it is not something that occurs in isolation in schools and one key step towards creating a safe learning environment is ensuring that all forms of racism are tackled firmly as and when they occur, because no child can feel safe in an environment where racism is not challenged.’ (13)

Here ‘society’ is code for a population tainted by racism. Government policy then positions itself as the only trustworthy mechanism to stop the rot.

Generating Genius is a welcome breath of fresh air in a climate that’s increasingly mistrustful of human beings. Sewell is quite right to demand more from African Caribbean boys and to stand up for the teachers blamed for keeping them down.

But I’d go a little further and suggest that when he speaks of a culture of low expectations, of the correlation between victimhood and a new, hunkered down version of ‘blackness’, there’s one quite definite elephant in the room we should name: anti-racism itself. Few stop to consider how the miserable messages of anti-racism serve to construct an exaggerated sense of a society dripping in racism. This must surely be a factor in the academic slump experienced by black children. As resilient as they are, the last thing any child needs is to be subjected to a stream of messages informing them that they belong, inescapably, to a permanent victimhood defined by their ‘race’.

What is to done? If we abolish policies like incident reporting (and the endless books, DVDs, assemblies and drama workshops official anti-racism spawns) and restore trust in schools to deal with problems as and when they arise (and with an operating principle of ‘first, do no harm’), the result could be to free a generation of kids who will be uniquely placed to transcend race.

They’re uniquely placed, and not just because schools are crucibles for diverse groups to interact. There’s something else going on. The current social-reality of this generation is enough to reveal exponents of official anti-racism as a little out of touch. That’s because Britain’s fastest growing ethnic minority is the category formerly known as ‘mixed race’. This is from research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission: ‘Almost 20 per cent of [UK] children under the age of 16 are from an ethnic minority. Nearly 10 per cent of children live in a family which has multiple white, black or Asian heritage.’ (14)

The research also found the category ‘black Caribbean’ to be in steady decline, with the number of children under 16 now poised to be overtaken by children from the fast-rising category ‘mixed white and black Caribbean’. This is the kind of social reality that annoys anti-racists and racists in equal proportions. But it cheers me up (seriously) because this generation has the capacity to transcend race.

Today’s flourishing diversity is like a hot-air balloon trying to rise. We need to throw official anti-racism, and its academic counterpart, out of the basket.

Adrian Hart is author of a Manifesto Club report on anti-racist policies in schools, to be published in the autumn.

Generating Genius, black boys in search of love ritual and schooling, by Tony Sewell, is published by Trentham Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Racism and Education: Coincidence or Conspiracy?, by David Gillborn, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) It’s not just about black and white, miss; children’s awareness of
, by Sally Elton-Chalcraft, is published by Trentham Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Minority Ethnic Pupils in the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England, Steve Strand, University of Warwick/DSCF, 2008

(2) Revealed: racism in schools, Channel 4 News, 24 May 2007

(3) Sticks, stones and hate speech, by Josie Appleton, 11 April 2006

(4) Chaining black youth to the victim culture, by Neil Davenport, 23rd March 2007

(5) The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, Lord William Macpherson, 1999

(6) Are we all racists and victims now?, by Mick Hume, 6February 2007

(7) Macpherson and after, A Sivanandan, IRR, 19 February 2000

(8) p97, Tell it like it is: how our schools fail Black children, David Gillborn,Trentham/Bookmarks, 2007

(9) pp88-98, Young Children and Racial Justice, Jane Lane, National Children’s Bureau, 2008

(10) Thinking outside the box, Kenan Malik, Catalyst, January/February 2007

(11) Cited in Where white liberals fear to tread, Guardian, 30 March 2004

(12) Exclusion of Black Pupils: ‘Getting it. Getting it right’, DCSF, September 2006

(13) Recording and Reporting Racist Incidents guidance, DCSF, 2006

(14) Ethnicity and family, Lucinda Platt, EHRC/ISER/University of Essex, 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today