Institutionally racist: the dark side of social norms

education racism
“Students” by ludi is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The BBC documentary, ‘Subnormal: a British scandal’, revisited Britain’s recent past, uncovering a grave injustice done to Commonwealth citizens who were invited to the UK help to rebuild following the second World War. Many of the children of West Indian immigrants were wrongly placed into special needs education, following a poorly framed assessment that tested them for cultural knowledge that they would have been extremely unlikely to possess. It is an issue for which the British Psychological Society has recently apologised.

Children were asked about the properties of a ‘tap’, for example, which was called a ‘pipe’ in some parts of the West Indies. When unfamiliar terminology was clarified for them, they were then easily able to answer the questions; however, such clarification was seldom offered.

Historical racist practices

In order to relocate to the UK, West Indian people had to endure long and arduous journeys, deal with a drastically different climate, a hostile reception and the tenacious legacy of slavery, which depicted black people as inferior. During the 1960s and 1970s, many unethical, racist practices were routinely presented in a positive light.

The placement of their children in sub-standard education was one such practice, with ‘special education’ being presented to parents as providing small group enhanced tuition, while the reality was that their children were being categorised as ‘educationally subnormal’ and prepared for adult life in menial roles.

Modern day institutional racism

But surely, much has changed since those days? Activism has had some significant successes; for example, from the 1970s onwards, grassroots supplementary schools enhanced education for many ethnic minority children. But such piecemeal, voluntary responses proved to be not nearly enough, when the situation is closely examined.

Pupils with black Caribbean heritage are still twice as likely as white British children to be identified with social, emotional and mental health needs, for example. Such disproportionate identification typically results in an inappropriate or narrowed curriculum especially in secondary schools – a direct continuation from the days of segregation into ‘special education’.

Government-directed culturally narrow curriculum

Additionally, the recent promotion of a so-called knowledge-rich curriculum overwhelmingly rooted in white western culture has emerged as a stealthy strategy for discriminatory education, leaving many black students unmotivated, and all students within a multi-cultural society undereducated.

This curriculum was introduced by Michael Gove, based on his proposition that school-based learning should be principally rooted in direct instruction about ‘the best that has been thought and said’, mainly based on a canon of literature produced by dead, white, Anglophone men. This has created a cultural narrowing at the heart of the school curriculum, which limits the voices within it to messages purveyed from the most dominant echelons of white western society.

Such skewed notions of ‘cultural literacy’ narrows the curriculum to an extent that children are encouraged to memorise a set of responses that underpin assessment success in a series of tightly defined exams. But this doesn’t prepare them to effectively move beyond such ritual knowledge to develop the broader and deeper understanding that they need to engage with an international, globally connected society as they move into adult life.

And although this restricted curriculum negatively affects all children at school in England, not just those with ethnic minority heritage, the current education minister has pledged to extend the strategy. While such an approach is obviously problematic in general, it impacts most heavily on those who do not see people like themselves reflected in those whose cultural contributions are valued; it perpetuates ethnic minority low self-esteem, hence disadvantage.

The advent of ‘zero tolerance’ discipline and a reliance on a draconian exclusions policy has additionally resulted in higher school exclusion rates for children with black Caribbean ancestry. This issue was recently been glossed over by Tony Sewell, the chair of the Commission for Race and Ethnic Disparities. The commission’s report caused considerable concern both nationally and internationally

Systemic racism

Through such government initiatives, the majority population are conditioned to react viscerally to the very concept of systematic racism, and to view themselves as being unfairly accused if it is pointed out that they continue to reap the benefits of a post-colonial system that automatically and functionally disadvantages the non-majority population.

These issues are represented directly through inaccurate and misleading posts that circulate on social media, such as this one by prominent edu-blogger “Andrew Old”:

And they are represented in higher-profile debates around dismissive attitudes to black Caribbean culture which proliferate in schools:

Audre Lorde pointed out that, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”, and correspondingly, we find that as we move into the mid-21st century, ethnic minority pupils continue to be immersed in an education system that sidelines and misrepresents their heritage in order to inculcate a romanticised version of British colonial history.

Eugenics ideologies

Many of the key players are tainted by eugenics ideologies. Our prime minister is one who persistently ignores the scientific consensus that all human beings are 99.9 percent identical in their genetic makeup. And while explicit racist language was rife and more widely accepted in the less scientifically enlightened 1970s, we now have a government that subtly and insidiously promotes dismissing inequalities in the education system by constructing them as ‘victim narratives’.

Such government rhetoric fuels the stealthy normalisation of systemic racism. Efforts to dismantle such insidious and invidious messages requires increasingly extensive and sophisticated public understanding of the strategies and ideologies that propagate the contemporary reproduction of white cultural dominance, and in many ways, make this more difficult to challenge than it was in the 1960s and 1970s.

What have we learned since the Windrush generation?

The Windrush generation were blatantly estranged from their cultural and social contexts, explicitly judged and found wanting against white western cultural norms. Now, children of black Caribbean heritage are more subtly segregated through exclusions within ‘zero tolerance’ schools. And they are presented with a curriculum that divorces them from their cultural heritage, lambasts them for their ‘cultural’ exuberance, grooms them into believing that their music and culture is subpar, and treats all children as robots to be subjected to monocultural rote-learning designed to boost ‘performance’ on narrow assessment tasks.

If we do not tackle these issues head on, we will embed and perpetuate an education system that is rooted within concepts of white supremacy, colonialism and segregation. But such strategies are no longer in plain sight as they were in the mid-20th century. Modern strategies increasingly obfuscate this endeavour behind carefully erected veils, such as the one created by the Commission for Race and Ethnic Disparities, actively seeking to obscure and deny the deliberateness of systemic racism.

Over a generation, this risks creating a dearth of critical thinking within the population as a whole, resulting in growing societal division, which will in turn negatively affect the mental health and sociability of young people across the range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds in England’s diverse population.

What has really changed since the days of the Windrush generation?

Consistent, systematic gaslighting and brainwashing is still in full force in our education system. There are disproportionate exclusions of students from black Caribbean heritage, and subtle but devastating attacks on black Caribbean culture, including its exclusion from the curriculum.

How different life could be for all of England’s children, if our culture had developed the social and emotional maturity to take on board lessons learned from Britain’s colonial history, the part that it played in the construction of systemic racism, and the part that it could now play in dismantling it.


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