Getting through? New approaches to tackling youth racism

Getting through? New approaches to tackling youth racism


Written by: CARF

At the front line of new initiatives are youth workers. The voluntary relationship between youth worker and ‘client’ (as opposed to the official relationship between teacher and pupil) provides a unique environment for tackling racism.

An informal and more personal relationship can develop, giving the youth worker room for manoeuvre denied to the teacher. On the other hand, for the youth worker, the intimacy of the relationship carries with it increased burdens. Should the youth worker act to police youth’s anti-social behaviour? Should they ‘sneak’ on white youth who they suspect of racist behaviour and, by so doing, end any chance of bringing about a long-term change in attitudes?

Two projects in south-east London

The importance of developing anti-racist projects aimed specifically at white working class youth with extreme racist views, often outside the classroom context, is increasingly being acknowledged. A debate is under way about the best approaches to develop to this sensitive issue, and the pitfalls to avoid, so that projects targeted at racist youth aren’t perceived by them as rewards for racist action. Two new publications, both focusing on south-east London, where black youths Rolan Adams, Rohit Duggal and Stephen Lawrence were murdered in racist attacks, are based on development work with young white people and are, in their different ways, important interventions in this debate.

Blood, Sweat and Tears details a 3-year project undertaken by workers at the Bede Anti-Racist Detached Youth Project in the predominantly white working-class area of Bermondsey to ‘influence the potential or actual perpetrators of racial violence’ – not out of any anti-racist missionary zeal, but in the hope that they could help create a safer environment for young blackpeople in south-east London, and thereby make a specific contribution to the fight for racial justice. The second report, Routes of Racism: the social basis of racist action by Roger Hewitt of the International Centre for Intercultural Studies at the University of London’s Institute of Education, is based on interviews with young people and, as such, is more of an academic study. But because it seeeks to ‘extend our understanding of the social basis of racist activity and facilitate appropriate and effective strategies and responses to combat it’, its aims are practical too.

Aims and objectives

For the workers on the Bede Project, publicly declaring their anti-racist intentions at the outset would have been counter-productive. Instead of wearing their anti-racism on their sleeve, youth workers set about responding to the boredom that is at the root of so many anti-social attitudes. They befriended young white people, offered them access to leisure facilities, sports, trips outside the borough, but always setting clear limits as to what sort of behaviour would and would not be tolerated if the kids were to enjoy continued use of the facilities. The Bede report details step by step the development of the project, outlining the intentions of the workers at every stage, their successes and setbacks, as set out at regular appraisal meetings. Throughout, workers constantly questioned their chosen methods. (For instance, they asked, ‘by targeting potential perpetrators, aren’t we reinforcing the exclusion of young black people?’ and ‘how do we acknowledge the young people’s sense of injustice while not pandering to their prejudices?’)

No such misgiving is allowed to cloud Hewitt’s report. And the lack of any chronological outline, or details of research methods, is a further obstacle in understanding the project’s aims. As the research explicitly set out to study ‘the social basis of racist action’, we are entitled to ask how important decisions were made at the outset. On what basis were young people selected for interview? What questions were asked? Only questions about involvement in racist attacks, and attitudes to black people, or questions about wider social issues too? We only know that interviewers went to ‘certain neighbourhoods which black people experienced as threatening and got to know young people’. But what were those neighbourhoods like, and how did they differ from other neighbourhoods where racist attacks weren’t a specific problem? Maybe it would have been useful to contrast this group of teenagers, and their neighbourhoods, with others, not involved in racist action? And why did they choose to interview young people in groups, in schools and youth clubs, and not alone, given the importance of peer pressure in encouraging teenagers into racist activity? There may be sensible answers to all these questions; if so, readers ought to be told. Because we don’t know, the research comes over as curiously unfocused.

Anti-racism criticised

It is perhaps owing to this lack of focus, as well as to the narrow sample of youth examined, that halfway through, the study drifts almost imperceptibly from examining the social basis of racist action to questioning anti-racism itself. It’s almost as though Hewitt has been led by the nose by his racist sample. At the same time as displaying every obnoxious prejudice possible (‘my aunt said AIDS only got in to this country ‘cos a black man fucked a monkey, right and then he fucked a white person and thenÉ’ and ‘if we didn’t ‘ave the BNP, like, we’d probably ‘ave a black government’), these white youth perceive themselves as victimised by teachers who only care about black kids and black culture and by local authority race policies that benefit black people and exclude white. The conclusion Hewitt reaches is that because ‘the sense of injustice they talk about holds together as truth for a significant number of people’ it should not be dismissed as irrational racism as it is ‘sincerely held’. (So was Hitler’s.) Furthermore, the white youths’ ‘sense of injustice is based on the absence of any culture they can identify with’.

Hewitt’s conclusions contradict his own material. First, to argue that the youth have no culture to identify with counters his observation that in some neighbourhoods the researchers went to ‘it seemed that an open and unapologetic racism was wall to wall amongst adolescents, with almost no gaps’, and that this ‘local culture of racism’ was ‘deeply entrenched’.The white youths, far from having no culture to identify with, were proud to identify with the violent racist culture of their neighbourhood (‘We beat up niggers down Kidbrooke’). Underlying their sense of injustice (at anti-racism) was the sense of white cultural superority (black people eat dog food, Asians throw dirty nappies out of windows), not a belief in black and white equality.

No single approach to anti-racism

We are told that the Institute also interviewed teachers and youth workers, but interviews with them are not transcribed, which is not helpful. Clearly something is going wrong, but what? Hewitt feels that anti-racism as practised in Greenwich schools is dogmatic – and maybe he is right – but as he never gives us one concrete example of bad (or good) policy, it is impossible for us to separate myth from fact, or to evaluate whether there is any truth in the white youths’ claims of victimisation and what, if anything, we can learn from their perception of injustice. How were schools, youth clubs and local authorities getting it wrong? Were approaches good in some schools and youth clubs, and bad in others? How did teachers and youth workers feel about teaching such kids? Under siege? Did they cry out for advice, despair about getting through? Was this sense of impotence why they resorted to treating white youth as a discipline problem? And how did black children feel about anti-racism? Did they feel protected, given that they live in an area where three black schoolchildren have been killed, or more vulnerable? This type of analysis would have been a useful starting point for a fresh appraisal of policy. But instead we have an undifferentiated attack on anti-racism, as though it were a single homogeneous ideology (not so many different ways of fighting racism), leading to Hewitt’s confident suggestion that the local authority instigate a process of ‘deracialisation’. What he means by this is unclear, but what it seems to imply is the stripping of racial definitions and concepts from policy – a sort of ‘race’ sterilisation.

Reading Hewitt’s report, one could be forgiven for thinking that the social basis for racist action is anti-racism. Indeed, that is precisely the conclusion leapt to by Observer columnist Melanie Phillips, who has long attacked anti-racism which she lumps with political correctness. In the warm welcome she gives to Dr Hewitt’s study for detailing the miseries of white English working-class youth with no sense of identity, Phillips claims that it is ‘those who deprive the working classes of the means to connect with their English identity who create racism’.

New academic race debate

More importantly, the assault on anti-racism, once confined to the New Right, is gaining ground among a gaggle of academics who seem less concerned with countering racism than in describing its representation, less concerned with the fight for racial justice than with the way that fight is represented in anti-racist discourse.

One such lot, directed by Phil Cohen, is located at the Centre for New Ethnicities at the University of East London. Cohen, who is attempting to provide new educational techniques for work with white racist working class youth, argues for the introduction of psychoanalytic methods into anti-racism and for anti-racism to be seen as part of cultural studies. ‘Popular racism’ for him is a ‘behavioural ideology, one which works through everyday cultural practices to shape basic bodily images of self and other’. The racism of white working class youth, he holds, is so intrinsically tied up with their identity – even their body image – that challenging it is counter-productive; instead, ‘new identities’ should be constructed ‘that offer to resolve, however magically, certain lived social contradictions’.

Both Cohen and Hewitt seem to argue, in their different ways, that working-class identity is so fragile, and cultural identification so insecure, that any attempt to challenge it causes a backlash, entrenching racism. But whereas Hewitt seems genuinely confused, fluctuating between scolding anti-racism and calling for new resources to support it, Cohen goes much further, attacking anti-racists for attempting to ‘censor the racist imagination’ by use of disciplinary measures, since ‘discipline reinforces strategies of resistance within white working-class pupils, as resistance to anti-racism in schools is part of a wider process of cultural resistance to the civilising mission in schools’.

Practical implications

That a top-down, dogmatic anti-racism confirms racist youth in their perceptions is not in dispute, but Cohen’s tendency to treat all anti-racist approaches as part of one overarching ideology, and to put himself forward as the champion of a new anti-racist pedagogy based on cultural studies, undermines the force of his claim. The logical implication of his view that it is wrong to censor the racist imagination is that it should be allowed to run free, and this is precisely what he has set out to do in the classroom studies with white racist youth, sitting them down before a tape recorder and letting them talk – so that he could then frame it in theory and practise it in technique.

But these are laboratory experiments, carried out on white racist youths in isolation. How, though, can such findings translate into a living, breathing, every-day classroom situation where white kids sit alongside black? Are teachers to abdicatetheir responsibility to all their students and, in the interests of white (racist) students in search of their identity, allow the racist imagination free rein at the expense of black students? But even in an all-white environment, how many teachers or youth workers would feel confident that such an approach was really helping to ‘construct new identities’, let alone challenging racism? Wouldn’t they worry instead that, by allowing a thousand racist flowers to bloom, they were unwittingly helping the more extreme racist youths in the class-room influence those who may only be on the fringes of racist activity, let alone those who weren’t racist but were too frightened to speak up.

The answer to these problems lies, as ever, not with social engineers or ivory-tower academics, but with ordinary workers on the ground. Hence, it is the approach of the Bede workers, who were emotionally engaged with the young people they chose to work with, in an environment outside the classroom, that has charted new territory. What comes over throughout their report is a constant awareness of the obstacle-ridden path they must chart between political correctness on the one hand (condemn the white youths’ racism out of hand, ram your anti-racist views down their throat), and the abandonment of all principles on the other (act as though you’re on the youth’s side, don’t contradict their views and, maybe, later, they’ll respect you). An important ground rule for their activities was laid down at the start, namely that while it was their duty to challenge racist attitudes at every turn, this must be done in a way that was ‘realistic’, ‘realisable’, timed’ and ‘measured’ in terms of the receptivity of that young person at a particular moment in time. Soon the workers were rewarded for their perseverance and commitment. Young people who had been aggressively racist in their views and behaviour were starting to opt out when their mates made racist jokes or comments. Provocative statements designed to entertain the group or contradict the workers’ views were rephrased as genuine questions by individuals who were starting to doubt their own and others’ racist assumptions. Some young people were finding a new language with which to talk about race, identity and difference. Others found their stereotypes challenged by their positive experience of black workers on the project or by their exposure to new situations in which their views were no longer shared by the majority.

Unlike the work of Cohen, or even that of Hewitt, Blood, Sweat and Tears is the report of a pioneering, innovative and decidedly undogmatic anti-racist project. Unfortunately, the Project, which was initially funded by the National Youth Agency, came to an end in1996 and, with some funding from Southwark Council, is only able to continue to operate on a much smaller scale.

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The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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