Violent clashes between groups of African-Caribbean and white boys aged only five and six are documented in a disturbing research paper on racial stereotyping published in the current issue of the British Journal of the Sociology of Education.
Researcher Paul Connolly witnessed several fights involving up to 15 infant boys during the year he spent studying three receptionYear 1 classes in a large primary school on an English inner-city council estate. "As the days went on ... infant African-Caribbean boys gathered outside the main door of the school at the start of playtimes waiting for the white boys to come out. The fights that ensued were particularly vicious with boys from both sides being prised away from their friends and pushed and kicked to the floor before then being kicked in the back, and sometimes the head, before their friends regrouped to rescue them. Possibly because these running battles were spread out over the playground and because events happened so quickly, successive teachers on duty appeared to be largely unaware of what was going on.
"Whilst the fighting on that scale petered out over the weeks that followed . . . the tension and resentment would flare up, on occasion, throughout the rest of the year."
Connolly, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Ulster, explains that the most violent incidents he witnessed were triggered by an argument over girls that involved boys from two classes. But he argues that the cause of much of the playground strife in such schools is more deep-rooted.
Connolly blames some of the tensions between the two racial groups on teachers' tendency to over-discipline African-Caribbean boys. That helps to construct and reinforce their reputation for being aggressive, hard and disobedient, he says. "The more that African-Caribbean boys are publicly disciplined, the more they are likely to attract confrontations from white boys. The more that African-Caribbean boys attempt to defend themselves, the more they are publicly disciplined."
White boys feel threatened by African-Caribbean boys' displays of masculinity and consequently need to "prove themselves"in the status-ridden school playground, he says. Connolly noticed that tensions rose when white boys considered they had invaded their "territorial spaces".
He also says that the children in his study tended to blame African-Caribbean boys for a wide range of misdemeanours regardless of whether they were involved or not.
He says that one of the three teachers he worked with was genuinely interested in anti-racist education and fully accepted her potential role in the "labelling" of African-Caribbean boys.
Nevertheless, she said that most of the African-Caribbean boys she had taught in recent years had presented "behavioural problems" and she frequently had to intervene when they became involved in fights.
"The over-representation of African-Caribbean boys in such confrontations is not simply a figment of her (racist) imagination," Connolly says. "It is an inevitable result of racism manifest within the children's peer-group cultures. Focusing on her (the teacher's) racism remains important, but if it is at the expense of developing an understanding of this broader context then teachers will be made to feel more alienated and black children will continue to be racially harassed and failed by the education system."
In a second paper on the same study that appears in International Studies in Sociology of Education, Connolly describes how one of the school's anti-racist strategies backfired. In an attempt to combat older African-Caribbean boys' disaffection with education the head promoted football, but this proved counter-productive as it marginalised girls and led to the victimisation of Asian boys.
Most of the Asian boys were excluded from playground soccer by their white and African-Caribbean classmates and the few who were allowed to join in were far more likely to be subjected to racist abuse than the other players.
The British Journal of Sociology of Education, Carfax Publishing Company, PO Box 25, Abingdon, Oxfordshire OX 14 3UE.International Studies in Sociology of Education, Triangle Journals, Ltd, PO Box 65, Wallingford, Oxfordshire OX 10 0YG.