Young, racist and white...;Opinion;Platform

4th June 1999 at 01:00
... and in need of help from youth workers if the evil that killed Stephen Lawrence is to be vanquished. But, Roger Hewitt says, the service hasn't got enough money to even show an anti-racism video

Few AS they may be, the recommendations on education in the Macpherson report on the Stephen Lawrence murder inquiry are significant. So too were the statements by the Prime Minister and others on the responsibility of schools to counter racism.

Much emphasis has been put on the need to talk to very young children about racism, as well as the impact on racism of primary schooling. Sadly, whatever the benefits of tackling younger children, they do not always last as they grow older. For many, the teenage years can reverse almost any good work in social attitudes.

From my research it is evident that these years are fraught with changes that leave some young whites vulnerable to the attractions of racism. Young men of 15 to 20 years feature more prominently than any other group in the profile of perpetrators of racial harassment and assault in the UK. This is also typical throughout Europe. It was young men of this kind who are alleged to have killed Stephen Lawrence, yet it is curious how little the implications of this have been confronted post-Macpherson.

The reasons for this silence are not hard to find. The group most involved in extreme forms of racist behaviour is also that implicated in other forms of criminal activity, and overlaps to some extent with a corner of that category of white working-class boys who struggle at the bottom of the attainment ladder.

They present difficulties to any institution they pass through. Who would not balk at carrying out anti-racist work with them? Yet, on an individual basis, teachers often do try. It happens in a vacuum, is rarely regarded as needing special resourcing, and is a far cry from the institutional commitment needed.

Given the difficulties of dealing with such boys within the classroom, it is even more surprising that not a word has been uttered about the importance of the youth services.

Very often, particularly after young people have left school, the youth services are the last point at which they have contact with anyone who is part of the system. Youth workers, properly resourced and trained, are in a good position to tackle adolescent racism. They can conduct one-on-one and small-group work; often know the family and neighbourhood circumstances; and do not have conflicting agendas. Yet, while adolescent racism has been the ghost behind innumerable press headlines, the youth services have been suffering deep cuts.

The increasing awareness among youth workers of the need to work with white young people was evident last month at a conference organised by the National Youth Agency and the Commission for Racial Equality on this topic. The first of its kind, it was massively over-subscribed.

Recognising the need and being in a position to do anything about it are, however, different things. A case in point is the video Routes of Racism, made within the London Institute of Education's International Centre for Intercultural Studies. Following research into adolescent racism in the London borough of Greenwich, it was designed to help youth workers involved with young white people in danger of being drawn into racist activism.

Directed by documentary film-maker Franco Rosso, the video was hailed as a new departure in anti-racist education by Alison Moore, the black primary teacher brutally attacked last year by white youths, and has been used widely in teacher-training in Greenwich. Ironically, however, the video has yet to be used there with its target audience because, despite all three of the racist murders that occurred there in the early 1990s being perpetrated by white teenage males, the very youth service it was designed to help has not enough money to use the video.

The problem, sadly, is not confined to GreenwichI it is a national issue. The Institute of Education is shortly to commence training for youth workers and trainers in the use of the video. My guess is that there may be few in a position to take it up. If youth work is to remain non-statutory, the Government needs to find a reliable way in which the youth services can be adequately funded - if its commitment to combating racism is to go beyond rhetoric.

Book of the Week, Friday Magazine, page 10

Roger Hewitt is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Urban and Community Research, Goldsmiths College, University of London

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