Hampshire in the mid-1980s wasn't a very friendly place for black people – my schoolmates helped make sure of that. I was five years old, and our first-year class had the sum total of one non-white person in it – the first most of us had ever seen. Her name was "Janu", and a round-faced little bully in the class dubbed her "Janu the Poo".
That five-year-old bully didn't even know how to swear properly, but they did know how to be racist. I could write some easy, cynical lines here about how sorry I am for not stepping in and doing something about it, but honestly, looking back almost 30 years, I don't even recognise that toddler as me in any meaningful sense. Saying sorry now would be like apologising to my parents for shitting my nappy.
All kids are relatively stupid. That's why we have minimum age limits for things like driving, sex or being a criminal. We don't have an age limit for being a prop in a political campaign though, which was a shame for wannabe Labour leader Tristram Hunt during the election campaign when he made the mistake of asking a kid who he'd vote for, given the chance. "UKIP," came the reply. The kid wanted to kick foreigners out of the country, which was a bit awkward.
Was Hunt unlucky? Not really, according to the charity Show Racism The Red Card, which has just published the results of a survey of over 6,000 schoolchildren and found some pretty worrying results.
The survey asked the kids a bunch of questions that people who say "I'm not racist, but..." would answer "yes" to. Do children think immigrants are stealing all their future jobs, do they think Muslims are taking over the country, and so on. They may not be overtly racist, but they signal a kind of ugly ignorance that can often lead to that conclusion.
The results are mixed. On some measures, the kids didn't seem like bigots at all – only 19 percent disagreed that Muslims make a "positive contribution" to England, and just 14 percent disagreed with the statement that Islam is a "peaceful religion".
Other results, though, suggest that our kids have more in common with UKIP's red-faced blowhards than we'd perhaps like. The average English kid believes that 47 percent of people in Britain are foreign-born, which makes them even more misguided than the average English adult, 31 percent of whom believed that stat. (The real figure is 13 percent.) They also believed that Muslims made up over a third of the population (in reality, it's 5 percent) and a third of kids agreed with the statement, "Muslims are taking over England".
As for actual racism, well that's a question that's been enraging the Daily Mail for years now: Can a kid be racist? The newspaper has long been furious that schools record racist and homophobic incidents. "Teachers are branding thousands of children racist or homophobic following playground squabbles," it complained in 2011. "Schools are forced to report the language to education authorities, which keep a register of incidents."
The idea the Mail have pushed is that this adds up to something like a register of communists, where Big Government can ruin your life for some dumb thing you said as a three-year-old. In reality, though, all schools are doing is recording incidents – they're not making judgments on the children involved.– – –
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And there's a big heap of irony in where this all started. Remember how the Mail risked legal action tocampaign for the convictions of the racist murderers of Stephen Lawrence? Well, that same incident triggered this survey. The McPherson Inquiry that investigated the murder – and famously called the Met police service "institutionally racist" – also said: "Racism, institutional or otherwise, is not the prerogative of the Police Service. It is clear that other agencies including for example those dealing with housing and education also suffer from the disease. If racism is to be eradicated there must be specific and co-ordinated action both within the agencies themselves and by society at large, particularly through the educational system, from pre-primary school upwards and onwards."
That's the problem with loud, white-led campaigns against racism in a nutshell – it's really fucking easy to say racism is a terrible thing and should be stamped out, but as soon as the lens gets turned on our own middle-class communities and schools we squeal with outrage at the sheer bloody cheek of it all. Or simply ignore it – the latest survey of schoolchildren doesn't seem to have had any play in the right-wing press so far, despite appearing in the Mirror and the Guardian.
But homophobic and racist abuse was pretty much a fact of life at my school, as I imagine it was at many others, and it's weird that people are so reluctant to admit it.
It's information that we need to hear, too. As McPherson's report noted, racism in society starts with our kids. Clearly we have a responsibility to figure out where that racism is coming from and how to address it, and the best way to start is by collecting data so we have some vague idea of what's going on in our schools. Of course, Show Racism The Red Card's survey suggest one possible cause: 75 percent of school-children believe that newspapers can contribute to racism.
I'd love to add more detail here about why kids are racist and how to stop it, but the truth is we don't know nearly as much as we should at this point. The Coalition For Racial Equality and Rights published a report recently looking at incident numbers from Scotland, and the data is just obviously shitty. For example, 30 percent of secondary school pupils said they'd dealt with racism around school (outside the classroom) in the previous week, compared to only 6.8 percent of teachers. Think the teachers are right and the kids are exaggerating? Well it turns out that, in the classroom, 5.7 percent of teachers said they'd dealt with racist incidents but 14.4 percent of support staff hadn't.
None of this helps us get at exact figure, but it tells us that, whatever's happening in English or Scottish schools, teachers are possibly the worst people you could ask about it. Until we fix these kinds of flaws in the methodology, we have no real clue whether racism is growing, falling or staying about the same. We just know that it's common and it's basically everywhere.
Meanwhile, we could argue all day about whether it makes sense to call a five-year-old racist, but I think it makes sense to treat it the same way as any other crime. They'd be too young to be considered a criminal at that age, but that doesn't mean they can't do really shitty things or that we should turn a blind eye when they do. If kids were punching each other, I'm pretty sure parents would want it reported. The fact some of them don't want racist incidents reported in the same way just highlights how many people still aren't taking racism seriously as a problem.
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