Letters extra: Racism

16th February 2001 at 00:00
Time to face the subject

As one who has been actively engaged in the debate about racism and education for the past twenty-five years I can well understand Mike Berrill's anxieties ( Opinion, TES 26 Jan) about the unthinking or overzealous application of some of the proposals contained in the report of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. As he acknowledges, that inquiry was a vital landmark in the recognition of racism as a serious issue in the public life of our country, and has led to a more open discussion of the nature of racism and the possibility of effective anti-racist strategies than ever before. However, we should not let the great merits of the report as a whole lead us to regard its every detail as beyond criticism.

Mr Berrill is surely right to draw attention to the unfortunate effect of MacPherson's proposed definition of a 'racist incident' ("any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person"), which comes perilously close to Humpty Dumpty's dictum, "When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean." The suggestion that the sole test of racism could lie in the eye of one beholder certainly does not do justice to a concept, which however contested, has a long history of use in political debate and academic discourse.

However, I think Mr Berrill is mistaken in linking the absurdity of this formulation with his worries about institutional racism. Macpherson's lengthy and carefully undogmatic analysis of this well-established term (chapter 6, pp. 23-33) makes it very clear that it carries no necessary implication of individual racism, and indeed that its explanatory value is most evident precisely where individual racism is least observable. The alternative term 'systemic racism' perhaps suggests more clearly the depth at which structures and processes operate to produce discriminatory outcomes.

In Mr Berrill's school, as in many others, it is no doubt a combination of social and economic inequalities and of general features of our education system that largely accounts for the differential achievement of particular minorities. The term 'institutional racism' at least reminds us that these deep-seated flaws in our society can be as damaging in their outcomes for members of minority communities as the more obvious manifestations of individual racism.

As a footnote to these reflections on Mike Berrill's timely plea for care not to trivialise the concept of 'racism' I would like to ask all those who espouse 'tolerance' as a main objective in teaching for a multiracial society, what might be the implications of telling our neighbours, not that we love them, but that we tolerate them? No doubt better than not tolerating them. But ... "Impenetrability", as Humpty Dumpty said. By which he meant, "Time to change the subject".

Ralph Braunholtz
89 Livingstone Road
Kings Heath
Birmingham B14 6DHnbsp;nbsp;nbsp;nbsp;nbsp;nbsp;nbsp;

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