Racism is vile. Three weeks ago I would have thought that just about everyone in Britain would agree with that statement – even though some of those might still behave in racist ways. But in May the British Social Attitudes’ Survey reported that a third of all surveyed admitted to being racist . Why has this arisen when many suggest Britain is now a more tolerant society? The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 enabled important institutional and policy changes, engendered recognition of institutional racism and overt racist behaviour and language is no longer acceptable. During the period of the New Labour Government a raft of education policies targeting ‘race’ and education were initiated and in some areas, such as London (through the London Equality Challenge initiative) educational achievement for Black and Minority Ethnic children improved.
Although overt racial discrimination has become much less common over the years, racism is still prevalent and underpins our lives in Britain and White dominated societies. Fighting racism is and has to be an on-going endeavour but politicians do not recognise this. More recently David Cameron asserted that multiculturalism has failed, arguing that it has led to disharmony and fractured communities and he together with his Secretary of State Michael Gove, are now seeking to impose a notion of ‘Britishness’ onto the school curriculum in order to ensure assimilation of all citizens. Not that anyone seems to be able to define what this Britishness is or what British values are.
Policies and debates on ‘race’ and racism swing like a pendulum, depending on the government of the day but what we are now more clearly seeing, is how globalisation and the economy are impacting on public attitudes – fuelled of course by the right wing media. Two other dimensions contribute to racialised angst – hype about ‘Islamic terrorism’ and migration. Although these two are not related, they are often presented in the media and political debates in an associative way, exacerbating fears of difference and Othering.
The political, social and economic context impacts directly on what happens in education at different levels, including policy, professional practice, attitudes of professionals, teacher expectations, student experiences, academic achievement and emotional well-being. Societies are forever changing and with those changes racism manifests itself in different more complex ways. The very basis of racism is debated such as, is it colour or culture or both? Can antagonisms towards Central and Eastern Europeans be described as a form of racism? Race politics has always agonised over terminology and whilst the language is important, such arguments have often led to polarisations and hierarchies of oppression. The discourse of white working class underachievement versus Black underachievement is a further example of this. Politicians want us to believe that race is no longer an issue but now ‘we’ need to address class. As well as shifting the collective concern away from ‘race’, we have also seen ‘race’ related policies, funding and initiatives removed from the policy agenda since the Coalition Government took office.
Approaching change in stages clearly exposes the failure to understand relationality. It also plays into the hands of the Right’s agenda of divide and rule. The white working class are underachieving and so are some Black and Minority Ethnic groups – namely Black British Caribbean, certain Black African groups and Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage young people, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children. Besides the Standard Assessment Tests and GCSE results there is plenty of other evidence to show that Black and Minority Ethnic young people are being failed by the system: disproportionate exclusions from school; lower degree classifications than their White counterparts; disproportionate unemployment amongst Black young men, for example.
The issue of polarisation and hierarchies of oppression highlights the importance of theories of intersectionality, particularly in relation to ‘race’, class and gender, together with power as a central dynamic. Theories of Whiteness and Critical Race Theory remain important but we need to be more prepared to utilise these ideas in a less territorial and competitive way.
Having said that I do not want to suggest that the power of Whiteness is ignored or diminished. White culture is asserted as the basis for “civilisation”, as Robert Young argued. Whiteness as a focus for study is thus central to understanding racial dynamics and discriminatory practice. But Whiteness studies are also problematic, potentially giving rise to essentialism, reification, dualism and privileging Whiteness when Whiteness is already a source of privilege. There is a clear need to address the invisibility of White privilege and White normalisation but this has to be part of a critical challenge to racism and a challenge to hegemonic culture and values.
With the rise of the Far Right in Europe race politics appear to be on the defensive. However, we have to remember that these groups are still in the minority. We now need to build on and utilise our much more sophisticated understanding of racism and how it operates to challenge this movement; to challenge racism in all its complexity, to challenge Islamophobia and to challenge the British Government’s assimilationist agenda. The very least we have learnt from history is that structural, institutionalised racism can be opposed and undermined and racist attitudes can be changed. What we have also learnt is that this work has to be on-going and has to be undertaken collectively.