Face up to racism;Platform;Opinion

5th March 1999 at 00:00
WHAT is institutional racism? Sir William Macpherson, in his report into the investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence has offered a new definition. Institutional racism is, he says, the "collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitides and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people."

In common with most previous definitions, Sir William emphasises outcomes over intent. The issue is whether actions and beliefs have the effect of discriminating regardless of whether any discrimination was intended. This is both a strength and a weakness. It allows us to get beneath the surface of "good intentions" and address deeply rooted racist inequalities. At the same time, however, there is a danger that its "unwitting" nature might present institutional racism as somehow less serious than crude and violent examples of race hatred (such as the murder that led ultimately to the inquiry).

Let's be clear, institutional racism is no less of a problem than overt racism. In many respects the facade of good intentions makes institutional racism even harder to identify and eradicate.

The Lawrence inquiry argues that a failure to acknowledge institutional racism is a major barrier to progress. And yet this is just what happened recently when Sir Herman Ouseley suggested that the education system is institutionally racist (TES, February 19 and 26). Seeking to deny the problem or shift blame on to black pupils and parents is exactly the strategy adopted, and now abandoned (we are told), by the Metropolitan Police. Education must do better.

Sir Herman's verdict on the education system is not "wild and unsubstantiated", as one union leader asserted, it is measured and well founded in research. Racism in schools is not limited to pupils. Many minority ethnic groups do not share equally in the rewards of the education system. Black children of African-Caribbean origin, for example, are less likely to attain five or more higher-grade GCSE passes than their white classmates - a pattern that is true even when account is made for differences in gender and social-class background. On the other hand, these same children are much more likely to be suspended and expelled.

In view of such significant, systematic and repeated inequality it is difficult to argue that we provide black children with "an appropriate and professional service" - the first part of Sir William's definition. There is considerable evidence of racial stereotyping by teachers, sometimes overt but often "unwitting". The evidence lies in a range of studies, by different authors, usually working independently but arriving at the same conclusion. A summary of the relevant research, published by the Office for Standards in Education in 1996, is frequently quoted in policy documents, but seems to have little effect on policy itself. In the wake of the Lawrence inquiry, what can be done to change this situation?

First, we must recognise that the entire education system is implicated. Heaping yet more blame on schools, teachers and teacher-trainers is simply not good enough. The reforms of the 1980s and '90s have pushed equal opportunities from the agenda. Policy-makers still insist on approaches that are known to disadvantage black children. The concern with measurable "standards" and league tables provides exactly the context within which institutional racism flourishes. For example, "setting by ability" is currently promoted as a way forward regardless of decades of research (in the UK and USA) demonstrating that this kind of selection systematically disadvantages black and working-class children.

The Lawrence inquiry makes several recommendations for education. Many of these are long overdue and could make a real impact. The report calls on education authorities and schools "to create and implement strategies ... to prevent and address racism". Report after report has called for more use of ethnic monitoring and anti-racist approaches to curriculum content and delivery. There is good practice in this field for those willing to challenge racist assumptions.

Sir William also calls for the national curriculum to aim at "valuing cultural diversity and preventing racism". This is a major step forward but must not be watered down so as to reinstate the superficial multiculturalism of the 1970s, dominated by "the 3Ss" (Saris, Samosas and Steel bands). Anti-racism is about challenging racism and working with all communities, not settling for "tolerance" and superficial celebrations of difference that can reinforce stereotypes rather than attack them.

However, in this most complex of fields it is possible that at least one recommendation will actually work against progress. In line with the current political obsession with league tables, Macpherson requires that "the numbers of racist incidents are published annually, on a school by school basis". This will generate headlines about "the most racist school in Britain" and set back anti-racism.

When schools start to take racism seriously the number of reported incidents usually rises, at least initially, as a greater proportion of incidents are reported. It is vital that pupils are encouraged to report incidents and that appropriate action is taken. But creating league tables on this basis would block progress by encouraging schools to minimise the number of reported incidents (say by reclassifying them or, worse still, discouraging disclosure) rather than dealing with the root causes. League tables are part of the problem of institutional racism, not a solution.

David Gillborn works at the Institute of Education, University of London and is writing here in his capacity as editor of the journal 'Race Ethnicity and Education'. Maud Blair is lecturer in Race and Education at the Open University

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