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Racism and Education: Coincidence or Conspiracy?

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Education policy is not designed to eliminate race inequality but to sustain it at manageable levels. This is the inescapable conclusion of the first major study of the English education system using 'critical race theory'. David Gillborn has been described as Britain's 'most influential race theorist in education'. In this book he dissects the role of racism across the edu Education policy is not designed to eliminate race inequality but to sustain it at manageable levels. This is the inescapable conclusion of the first major study of the English education system using 'critical race theory'. David Gillborn has been described as Britain's 'most influential race theorist in education'. In this book he dissects the role of racism across the education system; from national policies to school-level decisions about discipline and academic selection. Race inequality is not accidental and things are not getting better. Despite occasional 'good news' stories about fluctuations in statistics, the reality is that race inequality is so deeply entrenched that it is effectively 'locked in' as a permanent feature of the system. Built on a foundation of compelling evidence, from national statistics to studies of classroom life, this book shows how race inequality is shaped and legitimized across the system. The study explores a series of key issues including: the impact of the 'War on Terror' and how policy privileges the interests of white people how assessment systems produce race inequality exposes the 'gifted and talented' programme as a form of eugenic thinking based on discredited and racist myths about intelligence and ability documents the Stephen Lawrence case revealing how policy makers have betrayed earlier commitments to race equality shows how 'model minorities' are created and used to counter anti-racism how education policy is implicated in the defence of white power. Conspiracy? Racism & Education takes critical antiracist analyses to a new level and represents a fundamental challenge to current assumptions in the field. With a preface by Richard Delgado, one of the founders of critical race theory.


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Education policy is not designed to eliminate race inequality but to sustain it at manageable levels. This is the inescapable conclusion of the first major study of the English education system using 'critical race theory'. David Gillborn has been described as Britain's 'most influential race theorist in education'. In this book he dissects the role of racism across the edu Education policy is not designed to eliminate race inequality but to sustain it at manageable levels. This is the inescapable conclusion of the first major study of the English education system using 'critical race theory'. David Gillborn has been described as Britain's 'most influential race theorist in education'. In this book he dissects the role of racism across the education system; from national policies to school-level decisions about discipline and academic selection. Race inequality is not accidental and things are not getting better. Despite occasional 'good news' stories about fluctuations in statistics, the reality is that race inequality is so deeply entrenched that it is effectively 'locked in' as a permanent feature of the system. Built on a foundation of compelling evidence, from national statistics to studies of classroom life, this book shows how race inequality is shaped and legitimized across the system. The study explores a series of key issues including: the impact of the 'War on Terror' and how policy privileges the interests of white people how assessment systems produce race inequality exposes the 'gifted and talented' programme as a form of eugenic thinking based on discredited and racist myths about intelligence and ability documents the Stephen Lawrence case revealing how policy makers have betrayed earlier commitments to race equality shows how 'model minorities' are created and used to counter anti-racism how education policy is implicated in the defence of white power. Conspiracy? Racism & Education takes critical antiracist analyses to a new level and represents a fundamental challenge to current assumptions in the field. With a preface by Richard Delgado, one of the founders of critical race theory.

36 review for Racism and Education: Coincidence or Conspiracy?

  1. 4 out of 5

    Trevor

    I first learnt of Gillborn’s research through reading Impossible Bodies, Impossible Selves: Exclusions and Student Subjectivities by Youdell and in that she mentions research she had done with Gillborn into something they refer to as ‘educational triage’. I’ve explained this a couple of times elsewhere (see my reviews of both Youdell’s book and Ball, Maguire and Braun’s How Schools Do Policy: Policy Enactments in Secondary Schools where they find the same thing happening a decade later). The sho I first learnt of Gillborn’s research through reading Impossible Bodies, Impossible Selves: Exclusions and Student Subjectivities by Youdell and in that she mentions research she had done with Gillborn into something they refer to as ‘educational triage’. I’ve explained this a couple of times elsewhere (see my reviews of both Youdell’s book and Ball, Maguire and Braun’s How Schools Do Policy: Policy Enactments in Secondary Schools where they find the same thing happening a decade later). The short version is that the structure of education policy in the UK is such that black, working class, boys receive fewer resources while white, middle class boys end up getting a disproportionate share of educational resources because they are perceived to be more likely to improve in the areas that are measured in national high stakes assessments. I’ve repeatedly used this in various things I’ve done over the years to discuss unconscious racism and how it works. Gillborn’s research is mostly focused on antiracism, and he uses Critical Race Theory to understand how white supremacy works. One of the parts of this that I found particularly interesting was research he had done that showed that black students would literally never ‘catch up’ with white students at school and that, in fact, schools had set ‘performance targets’ (you know, ‘this is our best case goal because we like to aim high’) that actually meant that the difference between white and black student achievement in schools would actually increase. People got upset with him about this – saying that he didn’t understand statistics and that clearly they were actually proposing a much greater improvement in black attainment when compared with white attainment. The maths of this is worth considering for a moment – if only for the lies and damn lies aspect to it. Let’s say that the current white performance is 10 on some scale or other and the current black performance is 4. The school said it wanted to increase the white performance to 20 and the black to 10. That is, they wanted a 100% improvement in white performance but a 150% improvement in black performance, because they understand the nature of disadvantage and so more effort need to be put into improving these students attainment. How could anyone not think that was a good thing? The problem is that before the ‘improvement’ the ‘gap’ in performance was 6. But if they achieve their gaols, the gab will have grown to 10. That is, the gap is actually wider, while the school can claim to be working to narrow the gap (‘look, we improved black performance by 150%, while white attainment only went up by a measly 100%’). Of course, the point he actually makes is that if blacks were ever to actually catch up, then the assessment would be fundamentally changed so that could never actually happen. He shows this as actually happening in one of the chapters. Some of his own previous research had shown that black students come to school more ready than other students in the UK, but progressively, year on year, their performance declines relative to other groups. Institutional racism is his explanation for this result – but then the education authorities reconstructed the survey that measured student initial performance and suddenly black children were no longer coming to school with the best levels of preparedness, but instead with the lowest levels. This was particularly ‘useful’ as suddenly the narrative around black failure could be attributed to them ‘starting off so far behind’ rather than that schools actively put hurdles in their way. And how was this achieved? Well, mostly by making the assessment of children entering school entirely a matter of the subjective assessment of their teachers. Gillborn’s point is that white stereotypes of black behaviour are then enough to help them overlook what would otherwise be obvious markers of school readiness and to assess them as below standard. Stereotypes are remarkably powerful things, as decades of research has shown. This book ought to make white people uncomfortable. For instance, I didn’t really know the details of the David Lawrence case in the UK – this is discussed in great detail and an extensive timeline is also provided. It doesn’t exactly make for happy reading. Again, Gillborn’s point is to show that racism is institutionalised, or, rather, as he ends by saying, part of a ‘spoke and hub’ conspiracy. Now, this is where I need to jump out of the book and talk about things I was sort of hoping this book would spend more time talking about. Part of the problem is the word ‘conspiracy’, but my problem with it may not be quite the standard problem people have with that word. As Gillborn makes clear in his last chapter, he doesn’t really mean that there is a secret society of white people who get together and work out ways to disadvantage black people – you can judge a conspiracy by its consequences, rather than the intention of those thus engaged. The problem is that intention is, pretty much, the meaning of conspiracy that most people are going to assume. At one point in the book he implicitly criticises Erving Goffman for his dramatological theories (pages 169-171 more or less). Now, I’m really found of Goffman. So, let’s back up a bit. Goffman’s research focused on what people did in particular situations. For instance, he wrote a fascinating book on Asylums where he literally spent time in mental institutions watching and talking with all of those there (patients, doctors, visitors and so on). What he found in his research was that social situations contained lots of ‘roles’ and that the situation itself required these roles to be ‘performed’. Gillborn’s objection to this idea is summed up by him quoting Youdell, ‘The terms “perform” and “performance” imply a volitional subject, even a self-conscious, choosing performer, behind the “act” which is performed.’ Now, I sort of disagree that Goffman’s point was a ‘volitional subject’. In fact, I would argue that recognising the role and that one was performing it were exactly the opposite of what Goffman was actually intending. This is most clearly shown, I think, in his stunningly good book Gender Advertisements – where he analyses advertisements and shows how gender is ‘performed’ in them. Here this is particularly interesting, as these ads are literally ‘performances’, with actors and everything. But what is interesting is the meaning of these tableaus in relation to hyper-stylised visions they present of gender relations, rather than the ‘intention’ of those constructing these ads per se. What we see are over-acted visions of gender relationships – and these help us to see the nearly invisible ones performed by people around us every day that these exaggerate. And this comes back to the vexed question of conspiracy. You see, my problem is the argument Gillborn has used against the idea of performance – that it is volitional – is an argument he doesn’t consistently use against the idea of conspiracy. A conspiracy implies people conspiring and, while I absolutely agree that there is ample evidence of actual conspiracies by whites against blacks, I actually think the situation is much, much worse than even such a conspiracy would imply. That is, that the system doesn’t actually require conspirators to sustain itself. In some ways Gillborn and I end up arguing pretty much the same thing, and so you might wonder why I’m making trouble. You know, this might all seem like one of those ‘furious agreement’ arguments. But the thing is that I’ve been worrying about this stuff an awful lot lately and I really do think this is important. A couple of years ago I gave a presentation on my research and an academic in the room said something to the effect that I needed to be very careful with what I was arguing as it sounded like I was ‘going back to 1970s Marxism with its ideas of false consciousness’. This got under my skin and so I started reading – well, first off some 1970s Marxists – but then lots of people about the idea of false consciousness: Hall, Gramsci, Bourdieu. That is, I wanted to know why people support ideas that seem to be so fundamentally opposed to their own self-interest? I’m raising this because one of the things I was somewhat surprised at with in this book was the idea that is repeatedly implied that non-white people ‘know’ stuff about white supremacy that white people refuse to acknowledge due to a kind of ‘motivated blindness’. Look, I’m prepared to admit this is perhaps often the case – but as an explanatory theory I don’t think it works. I have lots of problems with this idea. The first is, as I have just said, the oppressed often don’t know they are oppressed. This is what Bourdieu refers to as ‘misrecognition’. That is, they do understand that their life is crap, but that they end up blaming this crappiness on things that seem tangentially related at best to why – foreigners stealing their jobs, blacks not working hard enough, Chinese investors buying up housing stock. What they don’t do is blame those actually responsible – the person paying them shit wages for the work they do, for instance. This ‘misrecognition’, Bourdieu says, is like a magic trick (he doesn’t actually say this, I’m saying it for him) where you are encouraged to ‘see’ what you ought to know you can’t be seeing. The difference is that the magician isn’t ‘performing a trick’ – it is very likely that the magician also believes this misdirection too. This is why I feel uncomfortable with the idea of a conspiracy. It makes it too easy. Women’s oppression is not caused by a group of guys sitting around saying we need to do all we can to keep women in their place. It would be so much easier if that was the case. Then all you would need to do would be to get those guys and give them a slap on the back of the head every time they suggested such a thing. The problem is, unless I just haven’t been invited to them, there are no such meetings, and there doesn’t even need to be. Now, I know this isn’t exactly what Gillborn is proposing, but I think it sort of is with his spoke and hub conspiracy idea. This conspiracy idea doesn’t take into consideration the impact of the victim perpetuating their own victim status. For instance, it would be really easy to argue (and people do this all of the time) that women are genetically pre-programmed to do certain types of work. Mostly this is work in the ‘caring professions’. So there are large numbers of ‘pink collar jobs’ that women find themselves irresistibly drawn towards – presumably because they have too many X-chromosomes or something. Now, any logical assessment of the situation might make you think that a sensible woman would be immediately repulsed by these jobs. They have virtually no status in our society (think social worker rather than psychologist) and the pay and conditions are also appalling. What is it that makes so many women make this seemingly obvious mistake? I guess my point is that it isn’t a mistake, it is a kind of social corralling that happens because our society structures our tastes in such a way that makes certain choices almost inevitable. What otherwise looks like free will is actually remarkably constrained – but even so, even given the fences directing the way we are to walk, we are still convinced we choose freely. I wanted more of bell hooks here. Her stuff about black people actively wanting the white person to win. Her stuff about black people’s loathing for blackness and their shame at black lifestyles. This is the tragedy – this is the horror of racism. Not that it convinces white people they are superior, but that it convinces (CONVINCES) black people they are inferior. There is no ‘conspiracy’ of black people to convince themselves of this. There is no secret meeting where black folk sit around and decide they should willingly allow themselves to be treated like second-class citizens. But so many of the actions of black people amount to exactly that, as bell hooks repeatedly makes clear. This is similar to how so many of the actions of women amount to a willing acceptance (an active choice) of a lessor social position. Just as so many of the actions of working class people amount to just the same. The system makes the disempowered believe they deserve their lack of power. In fact, the system makes them believe that they have chosen their situation in life, and so deserve to be disempowered. So much so that when confronted by those in power, they don’t rise up and take from them what has been denied them, rather they are much more likely to cringe and fawn and turn away in shame. I don’t for a second blame anyone for this – the system is constructed so that this is almost inevitable and that any other response is to be greeted with shame on the part of the perpetrator of the transgression or disgust on the part of society as a whole. That is, not just disgust on the part of the powerful who are seeing their privilege undermined, but on the part of everyone in society, no matter what their ‘station’. My point in saying all of this is that I’m worried that not saying it implies the solution to the problem of racism is much easier than it actually is. You know, it is the false consciousness idea again. All you need to do is convince people that racism is wrong and then they will stop doing it. But this book is full of instances where people say racism is wrong and then go on to do the most god-awful things that actively disadvantage people of colour. The mistake is to think these people weren’t being ‘sincere’ when they said they weren’t racist. The uncomfortable truth is that they are acting out social roles, almost as automatons – and that we all do that most of the time. The problem is that those automatic roles are deeply racist, sexist, classist and so on. I think if we are ever going to change these ways of being, we need to literally change the way we perform these acts. We need to find ways to shift the disgust response away from acts of transgression of the rules of the white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy (as hooks calls it) so that we are disgusted by acts of racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and so on. I think this is where Goffman is useful – that these performances may not be performed consciously, but that they compound with interest in their unthinking repetition. Changing these socially approved ways of being and the ways of thinking that spring from their enactment is bloody difficult. And no one will give you credit for trying, in fact, quite the opposite. But we must try all the same – as it is only by changing these ‘performances’ that we have any hope of changing anything. I knew this was going to end up being lots of me talking about something sort of sideways from the page of this book, which I’m annoyed about in a way. This is a really interesting book and his research will have steam coming out of your ears. The stuff he brings up about model minorities, IQ and so much more makes this a long silent scream of a book for any reader with any compassion at all. I’m not sure if this review would encourage you to read the book or not – but I have given it to my daughter to read after me, that’s about as much of a recommendation as I can give to any book.

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