Do schools inadvertently perpetuate institutional racism?
Growing up in a mostly white town, I had first hand experience of the racism that is interwoven into society. A combination of stereotypes, misconceptions and cultural influences contributed to the subtle presence of racism around me. Yet I didn’t grow up with race riots or lynching’s, instead, the racism I saw was quiet and evasive. It was a type of racism that attacks your own perception of reality; I felt as though everything was too subtle to be called racism, yet I still felt victimised.
This is the vague system of discrimination that is referred to when people talk about institutional or systemic racism. In this system, there is no need for individuals to actively commit racist acts, rather it is the power of the collective society that impacts on individual racial minorities. Even now, I doubt that you would completely understand or believe what I am saying, because it sounds so ambiguous, but that’s precisely what makes it so hard to talk about it. I found it hard to see it for myself, so I don’t expect any members of the racial majority to see it. It was only through seeing the experiences of dozens of other black British friends and family that I started to see parallels in our stories.
Institutional racism manifests into all of society, including schools. But in what way, if at all, do schools discriminate against minority students? Is it purposeful? And if it’s happening, then who is to blame?
In schools, institutional racism is perpetuated by a tendency for teachers to punish black children much more harshly than white children, particularly for boys. According to a study by the UK government website, Black Caribbean pupils were 3 times more likely to be permanently excluded from schools than White British children were. The website also claimed that “across the broad ethnic groups, Black and Mixed ethnicity pupils had the highest rates of both temporary and permanent exclusions.” It could simply be that Black children misbehave more than white children, but this would be an unfair and ignorant argument to make.
Compare this statistic with the fact that in the period of 2016/17, there were 4 stop and searches for every 1000 White people, while there was 29 for every 1000 black people, and that “between 2010/11 and 2014/15, the likelihood of Black people being stopped and searched fell from 6 times that of White people to 4 times that of White people; it then rose again to just over 8 times more likely in 2016/17”, so the compared rate of stop and search has risen recently. Despite the discrepancies in searches, another government study about drug usage among adults showed that about 11% or black adults had used drugs 12 months prior to the tests, compared to 9% for White adults, a 2% difference. This evidence Could suggest that the level of expulsions for black children is more likely due to discrimination than anything else.
Looking at these statistics in isolation, I wasn’t yet convinced that there was something systemic about it, but then I began thinking about other Black boys around me – brothers, cousins, uncles and so on. I noticed a trend in that they all had problems with schools where they were punished before doing anything serious. In one case, a cousin of mine was being barred from trips and isolated from lessons at the age of 8! An investigation later confirmed that the school was using discriminatory, unjust methods against him.
At my own school, I was the only black child in my classroom, and I was careful to stay away from any trouble whatsoever, but I had multiple White students in my class who did more than just “distract” – chairs were thrown, fights were had, and yet no exclusions and no isolation came. These boys had special teachers who would stay around them and understand where their anger comes from so that they could try and handle them, but that wasn’t happening for my brothers and cousins. For them, one mistake led directly to a phone call home, or isolation. No teachers were there to understand the source of their behaviour, they were just punished before getting any chances.
Over time, this vague issue – the problem that I couldn’t put my finger on – started to become clearer. I heard more and more stories of relatives, and even characters in books written by black authors that reflect real life experiences, and I became sure that there was something happening. In our schools, cultural racism filters through the students. For example, I faced many instances when children called me the “n” word, or ridiculed me and my culture, or just said insensitive things, but I always knew that this was just a part of society. Peers aren’t aware of the racial influence around them, and a similar thing goes for teachers. Because of this, many Black children never report racism, because it seems futile.
In addition to this, teachers are often insensitive to the racial feelings of Black children Because they aren’t aware of the mental effect of racism. Black student are also often mistreated in the few times that they speak up. Black children are sometimes moved to different classes when they report an incident, and this feels like a punishment for them. Why should the victim be moved away from the perpetrator?
Finally, teachers often punish misbehaving Black children more than they do White children who also misbehave. The same behaviour that would be considered “boyish” for White boys is seen as “disruptive” for Black boys. All together, these separate aspects combine to create a pressurising atmosphere for young Black boys who feel unable to express themselves fully.
Institutional racism is hard to understand or explain unless you have witnessed it. It is about the collective effect of society. No one is to blame specifically, it is just a product of the world that we have come from. Just a few generation ago, Golliwog dolls were sold to young girls and the Conservative party was spreading campaigns saying “if you want a n***** as your neighbour, vote Labour.” Although we have definitely progressed since then, there is not doubt that there are more subtle issues that are hard to get rid of.
Institutional racism in schools is not a purposeful action, but that doesn’t mean it’s not hurtful to its victims.