A future free of racism is a right

27th November 2009 at 00:00

One thousand and thirteen. That's the number of people in Glasgow North East who chose to vote for the BNP in the recent by-election - doing so only two days after the racist killer of Kunal Mohanty, an Indian naval officer, was sentenced to 18 years' imprisonment for slashing his throat, a short distance from Glasgow Central Mosque.

Some commentators have taken comfort in the fact that the BNP lost its deposit - but it's a cold comfort. They were a mere 62 votes behind the Tories and, with just under 5 per cent of the votes cast, their presence and performance should be ringing alarm bells.

That same mosque was threatened recently by the proposed presence of the Scottish Defence League - an off-shoot of the English Defence League. In the end, their march was cancelled, and a counter-demonstration organised by the umbrella group Scotland United attracted over 2,000 supporters, including many teachers and young people, vastly outnumbering the 50 or 60 SDL supporters who gathered in a city-centre pub.

Do schools have a role to play in challenging the racism and increasing xenophobia that is to be found in our society? Absolutely! We can't develop "responsible citizens" in a vacuum, and pupils need to engage with the problems in society. Anti-racist strategies should be explicit and vigorous in all schools.

During the 1980s, I was seconded to work as a staff tutor in multicultural and anti-racist education. Multiculturalism was never an issue, as it was seen by many to be a positive engagement, a sharing of community. Anti- racism, however, was always a more contested area as some teachers argued that it was too political an agenda.

It is political and one that schools must address. Racism is endemic and needs to be exposed and combated. The TESS recently highlighted, for example, the institutional racism present in the English education system and its impact on career prospects for black and minority ethnic teachers.

The furore over the BNP presence on BBC's Question Time is indicative of the continuing debate over how to challenge racism. I would have denied Nick Griffin the platform afforded to him by the BBC. That may offend some people's sense of free speech, but rights are balanced by responsibilities, and allowing a Holocaust denier to be presented as a legitimate politician is a negation of public duty, not an exercise of it.

Denying a platform to avowed racists is not censoring debate: it's creating acceptable parameters for democracy. The Scotland United rally had speakers representing every mainstream political party all pledging to fight racism. Beyond that, there remains legitimate and keen debate on issues like immigration.

I recently attended a conference run by the Tapestry Partnership, where Howard Gardner lectured on his theory of "multiple intelligences" and the "five minds" that we need to develop in school environments. He spoke in particular about the "respectful mind" and the "ethical mind", underlining the point that, in our rapidly-developing world of diverse individuals and populations, we need to go beyond mere tolerance and seek "to understand others, to work with them, to instil a respectful environment". Diversity, he argued, is simply a fact of modern life.

I have the pleasure of working in one of Scotland's most ethnically-mixed schools. On St Andrew's Day, we are holding an "interfest concert" - a multicultural talent show that demonstrates the truth of "One Scotland - many cultures". It will be chaotic as usual, uneven in terms of talent, but endlessly optimistic in its enthusiasm.

Racism thrives in times of economic uncertainty, and complacency is an enemy. We need to redouble our effort: young people have a right to a future free from racism.

Larry Flanagan is education convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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