Dangers of Macpherson

26th January 2001 at 00:00
Mike Berrill warns schools to beware a 'witch-hunters' charter as they start to use new racist incident forms drawn up as a result of Stephen Lawrence's murder

hile it is sad that it should be the politicking of William Hague that has prompted the reopening of the debate on the Macpherson report, it is nonetheless timely.

As schools across the country begin to use the reformulated "racist incident" forms introduced after Macpherson's report into the death of Stephen Lawrence, we need to pause and consider the dangers.

As the headteacher of a school in the Bedford education action zone, I am fiercely proud of staff and governors' commitment to confronting racism and promoting multicultural tolerance and understanding. While I am not complacent, I am confident that we are creating institutions where children from all backgrounds can feel safe and secure, and where they can be confident that all race-related incidents are dealt with promptly and positively.

There was the hope that implementing Macpherson's recommendations would strengthen our national determination to address inequalities in schools, but having explored the implications there is now unease. In its commendable effort not to fudge issues, the report has unwittingly stretched the meaning of the term "racist" past the point where it retains any real value; worse, it traps us in a form of language that is at best unhelpful and, at worst, dangerously counter-productive.

The word "racist" has become one of the most pejorative terms in the English language. We reserve it for attitudes and actions that we find repugnant. But, by making any action or institutional arrangement potentially "racist" Macpherson has rendered the term almost meaningless. He uses the term in two key definitions.

"Institutional racism" refers to any institutional arrangement that has an outcome which disadvantages an ethnic group in some way. Despite an inspection report describing my school's multi-ethnic harmony as "an outstanding strength", our Sikh pupils outperform white British pupils, white pupils outperform Pakistanis, and Pakistanis outperform Bangladeshis. We expend great energy trying to understand and counteract it. But despite this, these unequal outcomes mean we are, by definition, "institutionally racist".

In similar vein, a "racist incident" is any which is perceived as such by a victim or any other person. Sometimes when I reprimand pupils, they will, in the heat of the moment, suggest that I have done this because I am racist (ronically, an accusation which can come from ethnic minority and white pupils). Under the new regulations this is automatically recorded and I am entered into the statistics as a perpetrator of "racist incidents".

So despite a lifetime committed to combating racism and working to promote multicultural tolerance, I am now officially a perpetrator of "racist incidents" who presides over a school which is "institutionally racist". This is, quite simply, an absurd misuse of language.

Macpherson's supporters try to argue that while all perceptions of racism are, by definition, "racist incidents", these may not have any overt or latent racism in them. If this is so, why on earth do we stretch the term so far, and leave ourselves the absurd challenge of conceptualising a "racist" incident with no "racism" in it?

Howard Jacobson, the Jewish writer, recently wrote in his Independent column that despite the continuing threat from white supremacists, he feared the "sniffer-out" of racism more. I share his fear. The Macpherson Report is a witch-hunters' charter because, from now on, racism is anything anyone says it is. Surely it is not right that those who were responsible for the "racist incident" that led to the murder of Stephen Lawrence should be captured in the same concept as someone who unwittingly mispronounces a name.

My suggestion is that we replace the term "institutional racism" with "institutional inequality". This denotes a situation which is morally unacceptable but leaves open to analysis whether the outcome arises from conscious racism, from hidden prejudices or from the consequences of institutional arrangements. I would also replace the term "racist incident" with "race-related incident". This would ensure that incidents were investigated, recorded and pursued to resolution, but would leave open to professional judgment whether there was an implicit or explicit racist motive.

Racism, where it manifests itself in physical attack, abuse and conscious prejudice must always be challenged, named, and recorded. But the best memorial to Stephen Lawrence would be for schools to move away from a confrontational approach, and towards one based more on promoting understanding and tolerance through education and counselling.

We must work harder to understand how we overcome all forms of "otherness" above all, we must be very careful about how we use the term "racist" and be sure not to lose its pejorative force.

Mike Berrill is head of Biddenham upper school, Bedford


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