Critical Race Theory with David Gillborn

My notes of a Talking Race podcast from the Centre for Race, Education and Decoloniality at Leeds Beckett University.

CRT developed in the US, in law schools. According to the theory racism is fundamental to society’s everyday working. White supremacy is normal. Anyone questioning faces severe consequences.

Minoritised groups are always hit by crises first, the hardest and for longest (Gillborn 2007). Now we know that to be true in the Covid 19 crisis.

Systemic racism

It saturates normality. It saturates the economy, the health, the criminal justice service, education…it saturates the world. Racism is not just outside in the wider world; it’s in your home too. It’s in the programmes you watch on TV or listen to on the radio. It’s in the books on your shelves.

Racism operates at every point in the education system. It operates how White people, who are usually the people in charge of the system, make certain assumptions; about what it means to be clever and who is clever, what does ability look like in a classroom, what does a clever five year old look like, what does a disruptive five year old look like. How do you tell the difference between someone who is bored and someone who is challenging? These assumptions are absolutely vital at every stage of education.

The fact that racism is systemic is not because someone at the top is directing it; it’s worse than that. It’s shaped by the white people (in charge) and their assumptions from the earlier days. It comes natural to them. Policy makers don’t have to sit in Whitehall thinking: how can we make things difficult for black kids and better for white middle class kids. They don’t have to think that because on average all policies will do that automatically.

If you don’t set out to make a policy antiracist it will tend to be racist in its consequences because people making the policy and people enacting the policy at every level will embody those same racialised and racist processes in their decision making. So, one of the constant dangers is that we fall into a competition: is it individuals or is it systemic?

I remember the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. It drew attention to the ‘a few rotten apples’ theory of racism- it was just a few bad police officers, or, in education, a few nasty old white teachers; once we’ve got them out of the system everything is going to be great. The Lawrence Inquiry opened people’s eyes to the reality. It pointed out that racism inhabits the whole institution – the institution of education, the institution of the criminal justice system…. Literally, within a few months of that inquiry the Home Secretary said: well, it’s not the institution it’s the people within it.

(According to Gillborn) It’s all of them; it’s the institution, it’s the rules, the way people get promoted and it’s the people who are making those decisions, because racism infects the whole system. It structures the system.

What does systemic racism look like in education? It looks like…there is a pipeline. If students follow certain pipelines they end up in certain places. They can’t do the career they wanted to do because it’s not open to people who took that route.

A five-year-old black child may begin with certain worksheets or put in certain groups or tables, some of which may be deemed clever and given high quality tasks and some are given simple tasks. As the child moves through primary school the gaps are getting bigger with other kids and s/he is seen as less able or more challenging.

They then move into secondary school but how they were seen in primary school and the opportunities they were given or denied goes with them. The child is likely to be low ranked. Cover less of a curriculum. Have a less experienced teacher. More likely to get into trouble; even if they do the same thing as a white kid research tells us they are more likely to be penalised. They are more likely to be given a fixed-term exclusion. They are more likely to be given a permanent (original emphasis) exclusion. Even if they get to the end of secondary school they are less likely to be taking high-tiered GCSEs where you can get the highest ranked passes which you need for A levels. Even if they do the A levels a lot of Black kids are steered to do the vocational qualifications. And if they buck the trend and get good A levels they then apply to university, they are less likely to be accepted at elite universities than a white kid with the same (original emphasis) qualifications. Even if they get into the elite university they are less likely to get a top-ranked degree because in the university these same (original emphasis) processes apply. So they are less likely to get a first class degree and even (original emphasis) if they do get a first class degree they are less likely to get an equivalent job than a white person with the same degree because the racism is sitting there in the labour market as well. So, that (original emphasis) is systemic racism. It’s not one or two bad individuals it’s the whole (original emphasis) system and the vast majority of the individuals within the system who are enacting that racism on a day (original emphasis) by day, minute by minute (original emphasis) basis.

It’s that cumulative way in which (ref middle class black parents research which challenged the myth that it was about class, not race. Low expectations. The disciplinary process…

Teachers predicting the grades because of C19.

It’s bad news. We know that they will systemically be predicted lower grades than they are capable of getting. We know black kids will have been less well served than their white counterparts, regardless of social class. Some minoritised students will do well out of it such as Chinese students, as the ‘naturally gifted’. But for black students, the Bangladeshi students, the Pakistani students that (teachers predicting the grades) will be bad news.

White working class underachievement

On this issue David and I see things differently as I have said elsewhere.

For David, White working class underachievement is a lie. But that has fallen on deaf ears. We know the latest investigation into race inequality will (original emphasis) include a concern with white working class children. That is astonishing.

Unconscious bias

It’s the multicultural education of our times. It’s designed to not get people’s backs up in the way talking about racism does. It has no edge, no understanding about history, no concept of power (original emphasis). It’s not whether we like this or the other; these things are about power.

UB has come to be a way of having a coded conversation that is supposed to cover racism, gender, gender reassignment, disability…. everything you want to throw in there. It is about power. It can be testing for White people. We will do UB and in ten years time we will do something similar because the inequalities will still be there. Some will have got worse because of UB because it’s taking time and attention away from the real problems.

Cycles of racism and responses to racism

After Stephen Lawrence everyone became antiracist. Universities, schools, Ofsted…. But then it disappeared. Now the only reference to race in the Ofsted inspection framework is an optional extra; that inspectors can look at if they really want to, but they don’t have to.

And we know from research on school inspections that inspectors don’t like to talk about race because it is seen as political; it’s seen as aggressive. If the school is doing well overall in its exam results, it’s best to stay away from race. And if you raise (original emphasis) race as an issue be ready for the school to come back and challenge. Most Ofsted inspectors are White people who don’t feel competent to talk about race (original emphasis).

Jack Straw had said, immediately after Lawrence: every school is antiracist. Now, 20 years later, most schools are not antiracist; they’ve never been antiracist and the school policy from the top down is focused on the white working-class children. Race will disappear again if we don’t make people accountable. If it just becomes slogans and badges on people’s lapels nothing will change

If Gillborn was in power…

It’s not rocket science; it’s about priorities. Equality Impact Assessment for every policy, that before you enact a policy you look at all available data to say how is this policy likely to impact different ethnic groups. And if some groups are negatively impacted then you change the policy, or you find a different policy.

Policies are implemented on the back of what the government think is a good idea and that is usually structured by particular interest groups that feed into political parties. When it comes to exclusions and underachievement we know we can do because we have done it in the past. Exclusions went down especially for Caribbean kids during a particular period in the Blair government because the government realised there were too many exclusions.

We can get achievement up … we have done that. Remember schools used to get 10% passes. Things changed but it widened the gaps between Indian, Chinese, and white middle class and others. If we want to change things on achievement we have to be specific about where race is concerned. It’s no good saying: we want to raise achievement for all because actually what happens is we don’t raise achievement for all we raise achievement for those groups who are already doing better.

We need to make people accountable. For example, if Vice Chancellors don’t achieve the outcome they don’t get their pay rise.

Anything else

Racism is fluid and complicated and always has an answer. When White people think of racism they think of Nazi thugs. They think of something horrible, vicious, distasteful. Really obvious. They don’t think about business as usual.

Minorities who side with whiteness and white power are rewarded. And minorities who name the reality, who name white racism are likely to be written off as special pleading, who are looking for favours. Racism is not a simple, monolithic thing. Racism is tremendously complicated. Antiracism is never done because no matter what racism will always adapt.