The myth of anti-racist kids

November 5, 2009 — Comment

Written by Jenny Bourne

The Manifesto Club should not get away with its scurrilous attack on schools’ anti-racist policies.

They are at it again – attacking anti-racism. The kind of arguments we got used to from Thatcher’s hangers-on and advisors in the 1980s are re-emerging, but this time under the guise of advice from younger, trendier, media-savvy ‘interventionists’. Anti-racism breeds racism, anti-racism punishes where there is nothing to punish. Human nature, untrammelled, finds a natural modus vivendi with the ‘other’. And the area which is of most concern and most open to derision is the anti-racist indoctrination of the young.

This time the attack is coming from the libertarian Institute of Ideas, specifically from its cultural sidekick the Manifesto Club which ‘campaigns against the hyperregulation of everyday life’. It believes that ‘any attempt to transform our society towards a freer, more enlightened future, must begin from the conviction that people have a tremendous capacity to organise their own lives, both individually and collectively.’ (It has previously campaigned against such things as the eyesore of public safety notices, the vetting of those working with children and, against climate change activism, in celebration of flying.) Adrian Hart has produced a report called The Myth of Racist Kids: anti-racist policy and the regulation of school life.

Its main theses are that because of the requirement of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 (and the adoption of the overly-wide Macpherson definition of a racist incident) ‘an estimated 250,000 incidents’ are being reported each year by schools to their local authorities, many involving very young children. Prosecutions of the young (those aged 10-17) for racist or religious offences soared to 2,916 in 2007/8. Three hundred and fifty primary school pupils were excluded (either temporarily or permanently) for such offences in the year 2006/7. Teachers have to spend an inordinate amount of time filling in incident sheets and going through specific procedures rather than informally resolving situations they come across.

Special criticism is heaped on educators who advocate anti-racist work with children as young as three and the training of those who might care for this age group. According to Hart very young children cannot be racist ‘at least not in the way that adults imagine’. ‘The notion of racist kids is in large part a myth … indeed, anti-racist policy itself has become a key racialising influence in schools: its result is to encourage children to identify with their ethnic group, and to consider their relationships with children from other ethnic groups as fraught and somehow different.’ And finally the Manifesto Club asserts, just as the ultra-right does, that there is a conspiracy of silence around anti-racism. They are bravely breaking a taboo.

There are many holes to pick in such arguments but an essential one is that there is absolutely no sense of history in their narrative. If children do, as the author asserts, all get on so well, in what is termed ‘a spirit of enthusiasm for growing social diversity’ it is precisely because there has been a long and distinguished struggle against racism in this country. In other words it is that struggle and the efforts of generations, including of teachers, social workers and others in liberal professions, that has raised the threshold of what is now generally acceptable behaviour. Such behaviour is not innate or natural in parts of society where a racist culture still prevails. Which is precisely why it is important to begin to show youngsters, even as young as three, that the racialised views they might have imbibed from home or popular culture, are not going to be sanctioned in their playgroup. ‘Catching them young’ is a way of ensuring that subliminal notions do not become fully fledged prejudices and go on to lead to racist behaviour.

Hart, by parodying anti-racist work with very young children and giving prominence to the rarest of rare occasions when police have been involved by schools, implies that any censure of children’s racism must be an over-reaction – some Big Brother behaviour from a thought police. Young people are just not racist. But anyone who watched the BBC’s undercover report on an estate in Bristol in October saw young people in the 10-17 age group not just constantly jeering at Asians, but systematically attacking them with bottles and bricks on the street in broad daylight. Almost weekly the Institute of Race Relations is called up by parents at their wits’ end because their child’s school is not taking the racial bullying of their child seriously. Children take their own lives because of such bullying.[1]

There are a few kernels of truth lurking under the dross – but not actually brought to light in this report. There is a tendency within some sections of the liberal professions to be panicked when the issue of racism emerges. Because of the emphasis in the 1980s and ’90s on psychologising racism via ‘awareness programmes’ which was then reinforced by the subjectivity in the Macpherson definition of a racist incident, people sometimes do not distinguish between levels of racism. Everything from thoughts, prejudices and name-calling to harassment and gang violence gets lumped together and then commonsense may not prevail. And monitoring a problem via form-filling is always going to be a somewhat blunt instrument.

But then the author of this report never really questions the overall purpose of the racist incidents reporting. I would argue that though you might have schools which take racism and racial bullying seriously, you may well have schools that do not and certainly teachers may not all be equally attuned to such issues. One way to raise awareness of staff and standardise the treatment of the issue is to introduce such monitoring. This ensures that all schools are made aware and also oversee what steps are being taken in individual cases.

And the author also appears to divorce the whole issue of racism in schools from schools’ overall policy on bullying – and every school has to have one. All kinds of bullying – whether based around homophobia, religion, culture, ‘race’, on the internet or whatever- are covered in such a policy; race is not being singled out.

And who is Adrian Hart? Anyone would think from the emphatic tone of the report, in which he puts down those conversant with the issue of racism in children, that he has a long track record in educational research. But he is in fact a filmmaker who has recently worked with young people. And his methodology leaves much to be desired. He relies on a small number of scare scenarios and gossipy anecdotes to support his thesis, uses a couple of examples from local authority statistics to make sweeping statements and his use of statistics is anyway in question. (Already a senior education officer has denied Hart’s allegation that incidents in Birmingham have doubled over the last seven years.[2] Hart also misrepresents advice issued by local authorities and the Department for Children, Schools and Families.[3])

At a time when the BNP is targeting children for its youth wing[4] and yet teacher training still does not contain a compulsory element on race and diversity, the Manifesto Club’s position on children and racism cannot be dismissed as some esoteric, polemical posing about childhood innocence à la Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is downright dangerous, especially at a time when the rightwing press just cannot wait to champion such half-baked views.

Related links

Read an extract of the The Myth of Racist Kids: anti-racist policy and the regulation of school life

The Manifesto Club

The Myth of Racist Kids: anti-racist policy and the regulation of school life by Adrian Hart, The Manifesto Club, October 2009. £8. (Extract available to downlaod below.)[1] 14-year-old Natasha spent over six weeks in a psychiatric hospital after she tried to take her own life in January 2009 after suffering a sustained campaign of bullying by a 14-year-old boy at her school in Lincoln, see BBC News (28.7.09) ''Bully made me suicidal', for an interview with Natasha and her mother. In July 2009 an unnamed 15-year-old boy was convicted of one count of racially aggravated harassment and sentenced to a six month supervision order, 10 hours of indirect reparation - the equivalent of community service. His parents had to pay £500 compensation and £300 court costs. Another 15-year-old boy facing the same charge was found not guilty. [2] See Birmingham Mail (2.11.09) 'Rise in racist incidents in Birmingham schools is denied by senior education officer'. [3] See the Insted Consultancy critique (pdf file, 60kb) [4] See The Times (17.8.09) 'BNP targets children as recruits for party's youth wing'.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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