The myth of playground racism

The obsession with racist kids is driven by class prejudice.

Adrian Hart

Topics Politics

For anyone keen to exaggerate the presence of racism in schools, 2017 seems likely to be a good year. In July, as part of its Hate Crime Action Plan, the government proposed fresh intervention into schools and new guidance on how to report hate crime. Next week it will publish the results of its audit into racial disparities in public services (research which, according to Theresa May, ‘reveals difficult truths’). So the scene is set. Teachers, pupils and parents must be made aware of the problem of playground racism and be ever-vigilant in hunting it down. And this will only exacerbate the post-Brexit fearmongering about hate crime in schools.

Headlines like ‘School hate-crimes spike following Brexit and Trump votes’ have presented it as just plain fact. The figures supposedly bear it out. Hate crime in schools, we’re told, has ‘almost doubled’. And teachers confirm it. A recent Association of Teachers and Lecturers poll of 345 of its members apparently found that ‘more than a fifth of teachers (22 per cent) were aware of incidents of hate crime or speech happening in their schools during the current academic year’.

This is being used not only to damn schools but society at large. Racism in schools is ‘a cause for massive concern’, a spokesperson for Stand Up to Racism told the Independent: ‘Schools are a microcosm of what’s happening in wider society.’ Misogynist and racist language is ‘being normalised as our little sponges are absorbing and regurgitating it’, said a National Union of Teachers delegate, speaking at this year’s annual NUT conference.

But there is no problem of racism in schools, and these claims need to be put into perspective. The freedom of information survey cited in the reports above suggests a ‘staggering 89 per cent hike’ in hate-crime reports to the police by schools. But what’s really staggering about these figures is the infinitesimally small numbers involved. The increase sounds concerning when converted to a percentage, and when all forms of hate crime are lumped together. But if we scrutinise the data we see that, in 2016, the number of race- or religion-related hate crimes (those supposedly sparked by the EU referendum) in English schools rose by just under 300 cases, reaching a total of 935. If percentages are your thing, then that’s 300 incidents out of 8.2million pupils attending 24,372 schools – or 0.003 per cent of English schoolchildren involved in apparent hate incidents.

So, there was a spike, but a very, very tiny one from an already tiny base. Does it represent a microcosm of nationwide racism swirling outside the schoolgate? Is this the tip of the iceberg? Don’t schools under-report this stuff, anyway? In truth, it represents the rising trend in the reporting and recording of hate crime. This has been exacerbated, I would argue, by those so horrified by the Brexit vote that they have developed a heightened attentiveness to alleged racist incidents. There is an eagerness to imagine that the EU referendum result turned over a rock exposing Britain’s racism problem.

When politicians warn of racism unleashed, they quote reported race and religious hate-crime stats from England and Wales for 2015/16. These show a 7,664 spike compared to the previous year. But seldom do they point out that all hate crime has been trending upwards every year since the reporting drive began. Race-relations legislation passed around the millennium defined what was considered a racist incident in very broad terms. And the definition the police use today is broader still: ‘A hate crime is any criminal offence which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice based on a person’s race or perceived race.’

As actual racism in British society has declined, the hunt for it has increased. There has even been a perverse desire to bend the trend upwards. The Brexit schools hate-crime spike, and the claim that there was a society-wide unveiling of anti-foreigner sentiment in 2016, is risible. Figures have been rising year-on-year because the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) have actively encouraged reporting. In 2013/14, hate-crime reports were at 39,839. In 2014/15, the number rose to 46,155. And to 53,819 the year after that. Each year, the CPS boasts of its achievement in increased reporting leading to the highest number of prosecutions to date.

The tendency to lump together all categories of hate crime also needs to be underlined here. In Tower Hamlets schools, there was a reported increase in hate crime of 57 per cent after Brexit. That is only a rise from 14 to 22 incidents, but, again, the percentage sounds more concerning. What’s more, this spike includes homophobic and anti-disability abuse, as well as domestic abuse. On the latter, universities and colleges were lumped in with schools, and domestic abuse – occurring, presumably, in halls of residence – accounts for 11 of the 22 reported hate crimes. When these categories are taken out, you see that race- and faith-related hate crime in Tower Hamlets actually decreased by 17 per cent last year (from six incidents to five).

We also need to look at the content of these reported hate crimes. A rise in school hate-crime in the West Midlands was at the centre of the recent panic. One report states that ‘statistics obtained from West Midlands Police, covering Birmingham, reveal a 16 per cent rise in the number of hate crimes in schools across the area in the summer and autumn terms of 2016, compared with the same period in 2015’. That is only a rise from 31 to 36 incidents. Given that it is unclear what kind of hate crimes these are, I submitted some information requests to Birmingham schools. The responses I have received often refer to cases of black boys using the n-word. Other incidents that catch the eye include a child who ‘mocked a teacher’s French accent’ and another who said ‘all Christians are tramps’.

Responses to inquiries I made into one inner London borough reveal a similar situation. The coordinator I spoke to sent me a log of race-hate crimes involving under-18s between January and September 2016. Of the 25 incidents, only 12 involved non-white victims and white suspects. The remainder of cases were either the other way around or involved non-white victims and non-white suspects. Almost all involved verbal insults, while a few involved voicemail threats. Alongside the Birmingham school incidents, this log suggests that the narrative of white working-class students turning on their non-white peers is simply not true. One thing we can deduce is that young people of all ethnicities can be equally unpleasant little sods. In any case, presenting the childish trading of insults, such teenage incivility and nastiness, as hate crime is ridiculous.

Schools today host a population of children more at ease with ethnic difference than ever before. They are, themselves, more likely to be mixed-race than at any time in history. And most teachers will confirm that children today have developed their own colourblind, multiethnic and multicultural model of interaction. They also insult each other. But the fact that children frequently behave childishly should hardly surprise us. The playground is a whirl of experimentation, of falling out and making up, of teasing and banter. Of course they insult each other: they’re kids. And it is through unfettered peer interaction that children discover the negative consequences of cruel behaviour. Those moments that require skilled teacher intervention can only be determined by teachers themselves. We should trust their professional skills.

The desire among education officials and modern anti-racist campaigners to ‘nip racism in the bud’ at a young age reflects a worrying trend. Schooling has become reconceptualised as a sphere into which various forms of official intervention can sow the seeds of a future society free of hate and incivility (schools are, as one guidance book puts it, ‘small models of what we’d like the world to be’). But this zero-tolerance approach to recording hate incidents reveals not only a profound mistrust in teachers in favour of the state, but also a profound mistrust of the population as a whole.

From the standpoint of today’s official anti-racism, it is not just schoolchildren who need policing, but all of us. Without intervention, we risk becoming either the perpetrators or victims of hate, apparently. Therefore, tolerating low-level banter and name-calling risks allowing racism to grow into greater tension, violence, even genocide. In this ‘Pyramid of Hate’, a concept referred to in many schools’ anti-racism guidance, each of these stages lay the groundwork for the next. Children and adults are presumed to be incapable of free thought or self-reflection: gullible fools who can only do the right thing under the supervision of the state.

For decades, racism in British society has been ebbing away. And yet handwringing over the most infantile transgressions abounds. The reason for this is simple. Unlike 30 or 40 years ago, racist intimidation and violence is a rarity today. It is the absence of outright racism that makes occasional instances so profoundly shocking. The zeitgeist today is anti-racist. Yet the official hunt for racism has never been more feverish. From carelessly insensitive language to drunken insults, from bad jokes to poor choice of fancy dress, all now count as ‘racially offensive’ and hateful. No incident is too trivial. They all point to dark clouds forming, especially for news editors hungry for a shocking headline and politicians eager to pose as virtuous.

Given modern anti-racism bears such a degraded view of the public, it is not surprising that many swallowed the idea of a post-Brexit explosion of hate. The fact that the Leave vote was fuelled by unprecedented working-class turnout fed the narrative that the racism of the small-minded lower orders had been awoken. The post-Brexit spike in hate crime, either in schools or wider society, is a myth. It is propped up by bad evidence and prejudice. One hopes that the lived experience of super-diverse, post-racial young people will enable them to see through the sheer mendacity of those who would have us believe that Britain is ridden with hate.

Adrian Hart is the author of the controversial 2009 Manifesto Club report The Myth of Racist Kids. His latest book is That’s Racist!: How the Regulation of Speech and Thought Divides Us All. He is speaking at the Battle of Ideas satellite event, ‘Brexit hate crime in schools: shocking truth or over-hyped?’, in central London on Monday 13 November.

Picture by: Getty

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Topics Politics


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