Poverty, crime and institutional racism

Submitted by cathy n on 8 April, 2007 - 12:15

Robin Sivapalan examines the educational and social background to gangster and gun culture and starts a discussion on how institutional racism still poisons British society.

Four young black men were shot dead this month in South London, sparking a new debate on gun crime. A just published UNICEF report ranked the UK last of the world’s 21 richest nations in terms of the material, subjective and educational well being of its children. The two events are connected.

Tory leader proclaimed his recipe for a better society and less juvenile crime: stronger family units. Cameron’s and our society is in “in deep trouble” because a quarter of families are single parent families. Half of all children live with only one parent. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once infamously proposed cutting all benefits to single mothers, stating that they should live in Salvation Army hostels or give up their children for adoption if their own families wouldn’t support them. Cameron the “caring Conservative” was concerned that too many children are growing up without father figures to instil in them a respect for authority and a work ethic, leading to disaffection and crime. He proposes tax incentives for married couples to stay together and a general reinvesting in the family: more flexible working hours so that parents can spend more time with their children and use of members of the extended family for childcare, with government subsidy. He wants a grass roots revolution in attitudes to marriage. For him, tackling poverty is not about redistributing wealth.

The Tories are re-cycling the ideas popularised by an American theorist, Charles Murray. Murray talks about an “underclass” in society created by factors that combine in a dangerous spiral of social degeneration: the breakdown of the family; divorce is de-stigmatised and easy; overly generous state benefits - all lead to drugs, crime and delinquency. Young idle men don’t need to provide for their kids because the state will step in. They drift into long term unemployment and then to crime. Young mothers let relationships fail knowing they’ll get better housing and more benefits if they’re by themselves. The children, especially boys, brought up without a strong authoritative father figure as role models, are troublesome at school, drop out and turn to crime. An underclass is created. Young women who aspire to single motherhood on benefits, and boys who won’t work, shag, take drugs and start on a life of crime; whole communities caught up in this cycle of wilful unemployment, benefit dependence, crime and illegitimacy, is the creation of “soft” left-liberal society.

The solution? Cut benefits for single mothers, end the dole, stigmatise “illegitimate” children, police the streets, lock up criminals. Bring in the church. Then the underclass will be made to sort themselves out. The family will revive.

Murray’s thinking is the ideological backbone of both the Democrats and the Republicans in the US. Murray embraced the nasty myth that black people have lower IQs than white.

New Labour has in general focused on “social inclusion” and the evils of “social exclusion” as a catch all framework for understanding most social problems. But in practice, increasingly, Blair’s government has adopted Murray’s right wing ideologising.

For Blair the shootings in South London are a “specific problem” amongst specific groups of people with “specific solutions”. He insists that gun crime has in fact declined overall, and that the problem is relatively isolated to certain areas where gang-culture is rife. New Labour’s gun law must be extended down to 17 year olds - a mandatory five year jail sentence for possessing a gun. A history of gang membership will be considered as an aggravating factor.

Childhood poverty

And the UNICEF report on the quality of life for young people in Britain, some of whom resort to gang culture and the carrying of guns? The government has wheeled out stories of minor success that have been the stuff of Labour’s mantra for years: “In many cases the data used is several years old and does not reflect more recent improvements in the UK such as the continuing fall in the teenage pregnancy rate or in the proportion of children living in workless households. The government had helped 700,000 out of relative poverty and halved the number in absolute poverty since 1998”.

In fact New Labour has discontinued funding for one of its few successful projects for ending child poverty, “Sure Start”. As part of the ongoing cull of the NHS in the poorest areas, children in vulnerable families are also to suffer the scrapping of swathes of services including school nurses, health visitors and local walk-in centres. Even the money that has been provided through child tax credits is ensnared in daunting bureaucracy and paper-work, which those most in need are the least likely to surmount. Yet Brown refuses to provide the universal non-means tested benefits that would stand a chance of reaching people most in need.

While this time round Blair didn’t choose to blame single teenage mothers, John Reid, the Home Secretary did. “We have to use a whole array of methods to tackle it [gun crime], from police and prisons right through to demanding family responsibility”.

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader also threw his weight behind the revive and strengthen the family solution. He said that would take years. Meantime? More police please!

What are the facts?

Ethnic minorities are especially likely to be involved in crime. The number of shootings and murders involving black people under 20 in London has more than doubled in the past four years from 31 cases in 2003 to 76 in 2006. Over 50% of all murder victims are black people. Murder is one of the highest causes of death for young black men between the ages of 20-29. For years high levels of crime among black people were attributed to, or rather blamed on, “Yardie culture” imported from Jamaica. Recently, the right-wing imagination has attempted to attribute it to something of a dangerous and tragic social fad, with guns representing a must-have accessory for the black boy who models himself on images and music imported from America’s black ghettoes.

Similarly, many of the anecdotes that touted in the mainstream media about gun crime attempt to portray escalating cycles of petty revenge among trigger happy youth.

To put gun crime in the UK in context: ninety-five percent of guns are linked to the multi-billion pound drugs trade, worth around three percent of the UK GDP. The rise in gun crime coincided with the arrival in the UK of crack cocaine. A recent killing in South London seems to have been is a direct result of the jailing of two prominent drug dealers a couple of weeks ago; it created something of a power vacuum and a scramble to fill it.

The illegality of harder drugs does little to curb its use and probably exacerbates addiction by isolating the addict and making it more difficult to seek help. Prohibition creates a whole underground economy with its own means of distribution and market competition with guns. It creates gangs and their gun culture. It creates openings for new batches of “workers” as others are imprisoned. The drug trade will continue to attract those people that society pushes to the educational and economic margins. The underlying racism that fuels many police stop and search operations has a self-perpetuating effect and ensures a disproportionate focus on black (and Muslim) people that in turn breeds alienation and the desire to act in self-defence.

The courts already have power to jail 17 year olds for up to three years. It is very unlikely that a potential two years more will be a greater deterrent. The case for legalisation of all drugs is a strong one.

Institutional racism

In June 2005, black unemployment stood at 11% compared to 5% for white people. For years we’ve known about the racial hierarchy of achievement at school. Black Caribbean, Traveller and Roma children get the worst qualifications, or often none at all. 22.7 percent of Afro-Caribbean boys achieve five top-grade GCSE passes, compared with 36 percent overall. Black children are three times more likely than white children to be permanently excluded from school and five times less likely to be included in the well-funded “gifted and talented” programmes in schools. A government report leaked in January stated: “A compelling case can be made for the existence of ‘institutional racism/ in schools”. Education Minister Alan Johnson refused to describe the situation as such.

According to Home Office (2003/4) Race and the Criminal Justice report, black people are just
over six times more likely to be stopped and searched, three times more likely to be arrested, and seven times more likely to be imprisoned than white people. Over the last ten years, the black prison population has shot up by over 60%. More black people are in prison than at university. The rate of referral to the psychiatric services by both the police and by the courts is almost double for Black Caribbean and Black African people to that of white people.

Despite the statistics on how black people are faring in terms of mental health, education, the criminal justice system and, crucially, employment, the government consistently refuses to talk about institutional racism. Indeed, racism is now never applied as a concept by government to any of society’s major institutions. The proper vague language talks of “disadvantage”, “falling behind” and “disproportionality”. It serves to let them off the hook. Moreover, it fits in well with an emerging rhetoric that suggests that too many resources have been focused on ethnic groups at the expense of other groups and the white working class.

Talk of getting to grips with racism and class inequality has been replaced by creating a new political emphasis on “tackling extremism”, imbuing “Britishness”, fast-tracking deportations of “failed asylum-seekers” and “foreign criminals”, a need for more discipline, authority and “respect” in society, getting more mothers off benefit dependence and into work etc etc. More prisons are being built.

“Behavioural problems”

The rhetoric is taking hold in schools and even in teacher unions. Teacher training focuses on behaviour and classroom management, instiling a culture that uses draconian authority in place of an attempt to understand the politics, sociology and philosophy of education that includes strategies for combating race, sex, disability and sexuality discrimination and an understanding of socio-economic class.

A lot of research shows the tendency among teachers to fall into the trap of problematising individual students, parents, families, areas and foreign languages as a reaction to the inability of teacher unions and the left more generally to mount any notable defense on the level of ideas and organisation, of “progressive education”.

The minute by minute constraints of the national curriculum and league tables imposed on teachers force them to minimise spontaneous discussion around social issues that spring up in the classroom - to see real life as a behavioural problem impinging on the lesson plan! The focus on league tables often leads to a form of educational rationing in schools, where resources are focused on target groups that may boost scores while other students are not entered for exams or are excluded. Under this government’s selective regime there will be an active disincentive for schools to accept students with more educational needs: they get more money for being “beacon schools”, and teachers are on performance related pay.

More than 30 years have passed since the publication of the seminal text by Grenadian scholar Bernard Coard How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in The British School System. Coard caused a political storm and provided a call to action among black parents and NUT members when he exposed how black children were routinely being dubbed as educationally subnormal. Today the catch-all phrase to justify labelling and segregating black children is Special Educational Needs. Black children are routinely sent in the highest proportions to Pupil Referral Units. Bangladeshi children and other children with English as a second language have been blamed for their own underachievement and educated separately to learn English when all evidence suggests that integrated classrooms accelerate second language acquisition.

Exacerbating this vile quasi-systemic segregation is practically every other aspect of the government’s trajectory for education. The cornerstone is the drive for “choice” in an educational service market. The government has ignored what teacher unions think, contemptuously dismissed significant back bench and ministerial rebellions against the 2005 Schools and Inspections Bill that introduced Trust schools.

The “choice agenda” facilitates racial and class segregation. Many black people understand that talk of a bad school is often a cipher for a school with large numbers of black people. Similarly, 61 percent of school children not in receipt of free school meals - the most accurate measure of child poverty in schools - obtained five A*-C grade GCSE passes in 2006, compared with 33 percent among pupils from poorer backgrounds.

What fuels educational segregation is the same kind of class and race segregation that can be seen in gated communities, private forms of transport, pubs and bars, universities and workplaces compounded and encouraged by the publishing of league tables. The government’s plan to rapidly increase the number of faith schools is set to deepen the social divisions that already exist.

In primary schools social segregation is enforced and perpetuated by an exam-focused regime that kicks in from early years - before much of the potential force of an egalitarian comprehensive school system can be brought to bear to redress the educational impact of class background.

All the evidence, as well as the opinion of the NUT point to the need to end the privatised, marketised, faith-based, “specialist”, selective system regulated by exams, league tables, on the spot Ofsted inspections and “parental choice”, and attacks on national pay bargaining for teachers. And the need for a “good local school for all”, with better resources, better trained and paid teachers, smaller classes, no selection, less streaming, a phasing out of the exams regime, and a “balanced” “academic” and “vocational” curriculum.

Brown and Johnson now propose the introduction of compulsory vocational training until the age of 18. These plans were announced following a conference of “stakeholders”, including businesses and the new “skills envoy”, former CBI director Digby Jones.

The government’s much trumpeted New Deal for Young people has done little to increase employment of young people beyond existing patterns. For many, the experience has been of a revolving door between training, short-term low-paid jobs and further training. In one of the most deprived parts of the country, Teesside, 52% of employers participating in New Deal schemes admitted that it helped keep down their labour costs.

This spread of compulsion will further impoverish working-class young people and their families and coerce more young people into a rigid system of examination at the behest of business interests. A system of compulsory non-paid adult labour goes against the very fundamentals of the International Labour Organisation conventions that rule out slave labour, which is surely what this is. The cross over between punitive forms of compulsory service that operate under the penal system, that the government has already tried to apply to refugees is spreading to children as young as 14 under the guise of vocational training.

Trade unionists need to fight for bargaining rights with bosses in the domain of skills and training, rather than conceding training as something workers’ must be individually responsible for paying for.

Young people, the victims of the current ASBO regime, and battery farm schooling, know they are being exploited. Disgraceful rates of self harm, eating disorders, mental ill-health, suicide, bullying, violence and crime are displayed every day in classrooms, homes and on the street.

The UNICEF report and the spate of killings in South London have served to highlight the need for the labour movement to urgently step up the struggle, industrially and politically. To create the unity of black and white workers, women and men, migrant workers and those who happen to be born here.

Crucially this struggle must embrace young people as equals. It must take seriously the right of young workers to meaningful, creative and productive well paid-work. It must find a way to harness the daily rebellion that takes place in schools and on the streets as a vital energy and optimism in the struggle for a socialist society.

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