Racism in the education system: why black authors won’t make a differenceMarch 12, 2018
Statistically, black children are more likely to be in poverty than their white counterparts. With child poverty drastically increasing as the capitalist crisis deepens, black and other ethnic minority children will be hit the hardest. In fact, the poorest black households are expected to experience a 20% drop in living standards by 2020.
In 2017, the Education Policy Institute published an article which proved what we already knew to be true. To be poor and to be black leaves you at the bottom of our rotten education system. Students on free school meals are four times more likely to be excluded. Black Caribbean pupils are three times more likely to be permanently excluded compared with white British pupils.
Moreover, these exclusions are becoming less regulated. Students with special educational needs, through formal measures or informal pressure on parents, are ten times more likely to be excluded. Therefore, the most vulnerable in society, for example a black boy on free school meals with special educational needs, is 168 times more likely to face exclusion than the average child.
Young black boys are viewed as problems before they’re ever allowed to be children. Young black girls have an ‘attitude problem’ before they’re ever given a chance to speak up for themselves. The education system is a minefield – one wrong turn and they’re faced with permanent exclusion.
What are the grounds for exclusion? Typically, repeated and persistent breaches of a school’s behaviour policy. In addition, any weapon or drug usage will mean you’re out. The safety of other students is paramount. But no one seems to care about really tackling why kids bring drugs or knives to school in the first place.
Everyone is worried about violence in schools, but that’s nothing compared to the attacks on the working class that create these problems. Ten years into the economic crisis, and the working class is still being forced to bail out the bankers’ mess. When the capitalist social system is wrecking our lives, is it surprising that kids behave in an “anti-social” way?
On top of this, racism comes part and parcel of the capitalist system in order to divide the working class. We see the ruling class perpetuate the myth of black criminality. They constantly dehumanize black men – turning them into targets and threats – no matter their age. This is in order stir up distrust in the working class.
Add this to the education system, and it’s clear how our educators become complicit in the system’s racism. Children growing up in deprived areas are more likely to be disruptive, have mental health issues, and other behavioral problems that justify exclusion. The class system disproportionately affects black children, and it does so deliberately.
Once excluded, most students are sent to Pupil Referral Units, which tend to offer a very limited range of courses. A study by the independent think tank, Demos, found that only 1% of excluded children received the equivalent of five A* to C grades at GCSE level, compared with 70% of pupils who remained in school. To exclude a child is to doom them to a life with little-to-no opportunities to succeed.
Why is the education system so racist?
Ultimately, education under capitalism is just a way to reproduce the working class and to disseminate the ideology of the ruling class into society. The establishment doesn’t care how, or if, that disproportionately disadvantages black children.
In Higher Education there are movements that are rightly drawing attention to issues such as the BME attainment gap (BME students are less likely to achieve a 1st or 2:1 classification than their white counterparts). In addition to this, the curriculum is, for obvious reasons, heavily dominated by material which distorts reality to fit with the viewpoint of the ruling class.
Students at UCL have started the campaign ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ which says that “pervasive whiteness is a system of power that must be destroyed” to combat the attainment gap. White supremacy, a product of imperialism, undeniably still exists in institutions that frame how society is governed.
However, to fight this, students have called for more black authors to be added to our reading lists so that black students are able to relate to their course. While we as Marxists fight to improve education and to counter the propaganda of the ruling class, this is not done by changing the skin color of the authors on the curriculum. To suggest that the symbolic addition of black authors will make a material difference to the lives of black students in education is utopian. Racism is, at bottom, the result of the ruling class trying to divide the working class in order to continue ruling and exploiting it. Changing the skin color of those perpetuating this rule will not change anything fundamentally.
In fact, the attainment gap begins long before university. Primary school kids whose parents work long hours and cannot sit with them to check their homework won’t be saved by reading Chinua Achebe. Children whose parents work multiple jobs but still can’t pay their bills and still can’t provide nutritious meals are suffering because capitalism as a system is unable to provide for millions of people. Reading more black authors doesn’t come into it.
This campaign is not a solution to the racist education system and must not be presented as one. Inserting black authors onto reading lists will not engage young black kids who are disenfranchised in every other way possible. Any anti-racist campaign must be anti-capitalist otherwise it is futile.
Imagine instead a world in which the economy is democratically run in the interests of all of society, rather than the top 1%. With such a system, housing, education and healthcare would be guaranteed for all. From this, education could be a genuine opportunity for everyone to thrive, no matter their background, race or age. In such an education system, the curriculum, formulated by the working class in collaboration with students and educators democratically, would be able to reflect society as it really is. It could be based on what we need to study to make the world a better place, instead of what we need to study to make more money for our future bosses.
It is only through the socialist transformation of society that education would celebrate the best, most profound, and most correct writing from around the world. Currently, the black academics and authors that are allowed on university curriculums, reflecting the interests of the ruling class, are either right-wing or are completely stripped of their radicalism.
Of course we must fight to expose how the ruling class distorts education to fit its own class interests, but we cannot be under the illusion that education under the capitalist system will ever liberate us. Black people and all the oppressed in society will only be liberated when we own the means of production and live in a society free from profit. So, let’s go beyond our reading lists and fight for a socialist revolution.
by Fiona Lali, SOAS Marxists