Pro-ethnic policies may fuel racism

24th January 1997 at 00:00
White identity crisis at root of trouble, says study. By Josephine Gardiner. High-handed approaches to anti-racism and crudely designed multicultural policies in schools are exacerbating racist beliefs among the white working class, says a study by the London Institute of Education.

Policies that take an accusatory line put white pupils on the defensive and can actually push them into racism, says Roger Hewitt, the author of the research. Racist beliefs need to be dismantled in a more subtle and intelligent way, he believes.

Mr Hewitt has also produced a video aimed at pupils holding racist views. This is likely to be controversial because it allows racist views to be heard and implies that racism among young whites is fuelled by schools that deny them the right to assert their English identity. "White pupils seem like cultural ghosts, haunting as mere absences the richly decorated corridors of the multicultural society," the report says.

Mr Hewitt repeatedly interviewed a cross-section of around 80 young people aged between 14 and 17 in the London borough of Greenwich during 1993 and 1994. He says that anti-racist education needs an overhaul if the entrenched ideas of this group are to be shifted, and should be "based on how young whites actually conceive their world rather than on moral or political agendas imposed from outside."

He believes that the fear of giving racists a platform has led anti-racist campaigners and educators to take refuge in blanket condemnations of racism that do little to change minds.

Greenwich, a predominantly white area, was chosen for the study because of a high incidence of violent assaults on ethnic minorities, such as the murders of three students, Rolan Adams, Rohit Duggal and Stephen Lawrence. But Mr Hewitt says that the attitudes he found are echoed in many other poor suburban areas nationwide.

Mr Hewitt discovered a large minority of adolescents on whom years of multicultural education has had no softening impact. In some neighbourhoods, open racism was ubiquitous, sometimes inherited from parents, but more often reinforced by the peer group.

These teenagers blended their racism with bits of knowledge from school in order to legitimise their arguments. One theory is that black people were brought to England as slaves, and have risen to a position of power over whites. But the most deeply held conviction was that those in authority are unfairly biased in favour of ethnic minorities.

The video records several white pupils who argue that if they start a fight with a black pupil, it is deemed a racist attack, while if the reverse happens, it is just seen as a fight.

Mr Hewitt says: "Certain schools at times dealt with conflicts or disciplinary issues involving white and ethnic minority pupils in ways that did more to demonstrate the school's anti-racist stance than to assert the underlying principles of justice and fairness."

The video shows how passionate young people are about "fairness", and how easily they can take refuge in racism if treated unfairly.

Multicultural education is criticised in the report for its simplistic "celebration" of other cultures. This can alienate pupils from ethnic minorities who barely recognise their complex background when it is reduced to well-meaning but naive wall displays, while for white English pupils, "the celebration of cultural variety seems to include all cultures that are not their own".

White pupils on the video point out that while black, Asian or Celtic-British pupils are free to celebrate their identity, any assertion of English identity is interpreted as racist. The Union Jack tends to be identified with the British National Party. This, says the report, can drive the young into the arms of racist politics simply because nothing else is available. Interestingly, young blacks also complain that specifically English patriotism is frowned upon.

The video, which will be tried out on groups of young people shortly, begins with groups of white youngsters explaining how they think teachers and other authority figures show a bias against them. This, says Mr Hewitt, is intended to capture the young viewers' sympathy.

It moves on to show how easily these sentiments can be translated into racist behaviour and ends with disturbing interviews with victims of racial attacks and harassment. It includes interviews with black and white youth workers, who stress how racist political groups can move into the vacuum created by the absence of any sense of English identity. The video is directed by Franco Russo in a neutral style intended to prevent young viewers feeling they are being lectured at.

"Routes of Racism" book and video will be published by the Institute of Education and the London Borough of Greenwich in April.

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