On Education Policy

Chapter 4 deals with ‘race’ education policy under New Labour. Gillborn (2008, p. 75) describes the first four years as ‘naive multiculturalism’ because although there was evidence of a limited commitment to equity, apart from the decision to set up separate faith schools, and the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report (Macpherson 1999), this was largely superficial, consisting of ‘rhetorical flourishes that left mainstream policy untouched’ (ibid., p. 75).

Gillborn (2008, pp. 76-80) refers to the second period, between 9/11 and 7/7 (2001-2005), as ‘cynical multiculturalism’. He describes it (ibid., p. 76-7) as a period when the government continued

its rhetorical commitment to ethnic diversity and race equality ... [in] a cynical attempt to retain the appearance of enlightened race politics while simultaneously pursuing a policy agenda that increasingly resembled the earlier assimilationist/integrationist phases . where the voices and concerns of White people were openly accorded a position of dominance.

In the context of 9/11, Gillborn (2008, p. 77) cites Adams and Burke (2006, p. 991) who state that the racialization of that event and the resulting demonization of entire minoritized communities simply could not have happened had the attackers been part of the white racial majority. While this may be true for the white ‘racial’ majority, one has to wonder whether Adams and Burke (Gillborn does not tell us if they are Critical Race Theorists) and Gillborn, as a Critical Race Theorist, are forgetting the fact that the racialization of the Irish, a white ‘racial minority’ in Britain, intensified at times of IRA activity, particularly when actually located in Britain (Walter 1999, p. 319).

The third period, from 7/7 (2005) up to the present is described as ‘aggressive majoritinarianism’ (Gillborn 2008, pp. 81-89) (this would equate with Wetherell, Lafleche & Berkeley (eds)’s, 2007, concept of ‘hard community cohesion’ discussed earlier in this chapter). On 7th July, 2005, as noted earlier in this volume, a co-ordinated series of explosions in London killed fifty-two people, and injured a further seven hundred. Gillborn (2008, p. 81) argues that the attacks heightened ‘still further the retaliatory confidence of politicians and the media’, and that their mood from one of retaliation to ‘aggressive majoritarianism’ ‘where Whites now took the initiative in promoting ever more disciplinary agendas’ (ibid.). As he concludes (ibid):

The rights and perspectives of the White majority were now asserted, sometimes in the name of ‘integration’ and ‘cohesion’ (the code words for contemporary assimilationism) but also simply on the basis that the majority disliked certain things (such as Muslim veils) and now felt able to enforce those prejudices in the name of common sense, integration and even security.

For Marxists, any discourse is a product of the society in which it is formulated. In other words, ‘our thoughts are the reflection of political, social and economic conflicts and racist discourses are no exception’ (Camara 2002, p. 88). While such reflections can, of course, be refracted and disarticulated, dominant discourses (e.g. those of the Government, of Big Business, of large sections of the media, of the hierarchy of some trade unions) tend to directly reflect the interests of the ruling class, rather than ‘the general public’. The way in which racialization connects with popular consciousness, however, is via ‘common sense’. ‘Common sense’ is generally used to denote a down-to-earth ‘good sense’ and is thought to represent the distilled truths of centuries of practical experience, so that to say that an idea or practice is ‘only common sense’ is to claim precedence over the arguments of Left intellectuals and, in effect, to foreclose discussion (Lawrence 1982, p. 48). As Diana Coben (2002, p. 285) has noted, Gramsci’s distinction between good sense and common sense ‘has been revealed as multifaceted and complex’. For common sense: is not a single unique conception, identical in time and space. It is the “folklore” of philosophy, and, like folklore, it takes countless different forms. Its most fundamental characteristic is that it is ... fragmentary, incoherent and inconsequential (Gramsci 1978, p. 419).

A clear example of aggressive majoritarianism is Tony Blair’s assertion that ‘[o]ur tolerance is part of what makes Britain, Britain. So conform to it; or don’t come’ (cited in Gillborn 2008, p. 83). As Gillborn points out, citing Karen Chouhan (2006), ‘Britain’s tolerance is based on intolerance’ (Gillborn 2008, p. 83). Gillborn (ibid.) also notes a marriage of ‘aggressive majoritarianism’ and ‘retaliatory confidence’ when Blair threatened in the same speech: ‘we’re not going to be taken for a ride’ (cited in ibid., p. 84). More aggressive majoritarianism followed—presented not as a restriction but as part of equal opportunities—when Blair stated that as a requirement of ‘equal opportunity’, ‘cohesion’ and ‘justice’, the use of English should be a condition for citizenship (cited in ibid., pp. 84-5), while Gordon Brown (then Chancellor of the Exchequer), not to be outdone, announced that ‘community work’ should also be part of become a British citizen (cited in ibid., p. 85). As Habib Rahman, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (cited in ibid.), has pointed out ‘[c]ompulsory community service is usually imposed as a noncustodial penalty for a criminal offence’.

In his Conclusion to the chapter, Gillborn (2008, p. 86) suggests that contemporary ‘race’ equality ‘in key aspects ... is as bad, and in some cases worse, than anything that has gone before’. Whether this is the case or not, the point is to explain why. ‘It is hardly surprising’, Gillborn (ibid.) notes ‘that the state should prioritize its own survival and, more specifically, that ruling parties should seek to maintain popularity with a majority of the electorate’. For Gillborn, the state is a white supremacist one, whereas for Marxists it is a neoliberal pro-imperialist capitalist state, and it is this fact that explains its policies and actions (see chapter 7 for a discussion of neoliberalism, global capitalism and imperialism).

Tracing social policy in relation to ‘race’ in the post-war period, Gillborn (2008, p. 88) sees the 1950s as indicative of early ‘assertions of the supremacy of the “host” society’, where white parents needed assurance that ‘minoritized students were not damaging their children’s education’. Whereas for Gillborn this is related to ‘white supremacy’, from a Marxist perspective such racism needs to be understood in relation to the differential racialization of the subjects of the former imperial subjects, whose children were now entering the education system. An important element of this is the continuity in the differential portrayal of Asian and black children respectively (see Cole and Blair 2006).

Gillborn (2008, p. 88) goes on suggest that from the 1950s, through Thatcherite ‘new racism’ to ‘New Labour’s aggressive majoritarian “common sense” assimilitationism’, the constant assumption has been that ‘the interests, feelings and fears of White people must always be kept centre stage’. Here, it needs to be pointed out that these ‘interests, feelings and fears’ are not kept centre stage for the benefit of the white working class. Rather that class is interpellated as sharing common interests with the capitalist state, when in fact its interests are diametrically opposed (see pp. 159-160 of this volume). From the Empire Windrush11 to the entry of Poland into the European Union, it has been useful for the British capitalist state to have a ready supply of cheap labour, whose presence is publicly vilified in order for the state to maintain hegemony over the longer-residing population.

Gareth Dale (1999, p. 308) explains the contradiction between capital’s need for (cheap) flexible labour and the need to control the workforce by racializing potential foreign workers:

On the one hand, intensified competition spurs employers’ requirements for enhanced labour market flexibility—for which immigrant labour is ideal. On the other, in such periods questions of social control tend to become more pressing. Governments strive to uphold the ideology of ‘social contract’ even as its content is eroded through unemployment and austerity. The logic, commonly, is for less political capital to be derived from the [social contract’s] content, while greater emphasis is placed upon its exclusivity, on demarcation from those who enter from or lie outside—immigrants and foreigners.

Gillborn (2008, p. 88) concludes chapter 4 by referring to another ‘common element in British social and educational policy’, which he describes as ‘the strategic deployment of White racial violence as a limit to policy and a threat against those who would challenge the chosen orthodoxy’. He has in mind the late 1950s when white mobs, partly organized by fascists, terrorized Asian and black people on the streets of London and Nottingham (ibid.). He cites subsequent prime ministers as using this precedent as ‘a more or less overt threat’ of further white violence. Once again, for Marxists, the problem is not one of ‘white violence’. It is more complicated than this. From a Marxist perspective, violence against racialized groups must be seen in the context of the respective requirements of capitalists and their allies in specific historical periods, the success with which workers are interpellated by the requirements of the capitalist state, and by the historical and current realities of old and new imperialisms (see chapters 3 and 7).

In chapter 4 of this volume, I have already noted that, reporting on national assessment mechanisms, Gillborn (2006b) argues convincingly that these actually produce inequality for black pupils, with the caveat that such facts need relating to racialized capitalism. This line of argument is developed in chapter 5 of Gillborn (2008). Gillborn states that the data that he presents suggests that ‘the “assessment game” is rigged to such an extent that if Black children succeed as a group, despite the odds being stacked against them, it is likely that the rules will be changed to re-engineer failure’ (Gillborn 2008, p. 91). He argues that ‘[d]espite the rhetoric of “higher standards for all” ’ many black students are locked into a system with fixed grade limits which literally prevents them from getting the highest grades, and describes how a new system of assessment for five year old children wipes out the only part of the whole system where black children were successful (ibid., p. 116). Finally he notes that black/white inequality for five-year-olds ‘is growing at the same time that teachers’ training in the new system is supposedly reaching new heights’ (ibid.). Gillborn (ibid., p. 117) concludes the chapter by arguing that the evidence suggests that not only does assessment produce inequality, it sustains it as well.

As before, I would indicate full agreement with this insight of the workings of the racist capitalist state in Britain, but also as before, it does not incline me any further towards Critical Race Theory. Moreover, none of this detracts from the importance of the effect of social class. Indeed, this was noted by Gillborn himself writing with Heidi Mirza in his pre-CRT days (see Gillborn and Mirza 2000). (For analyses of the crucial determinant of social class, see Hill 2008c, d who refers regarding statistical and analytical data, to Dehal 2006; Abbass 2007; Demie and Tong 2007; Demie et al. 2007; Strand 2007; and for conceptual analysis see Kelsh and Hill 2006). While Gillborn (2008, p. 69) does state that ‘the data certainly confirm that social class background is associated with gross inequalities of achievement at the extremes of the class spectrum’, he then states that ‘class does not appear to be significantly significant for all groups’ (ibid.). He adds, in order to retain his post-2000 faith in CRT, ‘T]he growing emphasis on students in receipt of free school meals (FSM) ... projects a view of failing Whites that ignores the five out of every six students who do not receive FSM’ (Gillborn 2008, p. 69). As Hill (2008a) puts it, while Gillborn, 2008 gives specific recognition that social class is ‘raced’ and gendered, he ‘gives ... very substantially less ... recognition that ‘race’ is classed (and gendered)’. Hill (2008a) argues that the UK data ‘does not show an overall pattern of White supremacy’ and concludes that with respect to Gillborn’s 2008 book:

While his work is not silent on social class disadvantage and social class based oppression, his treatment of social class analysis is dismissive and his treatment of social class underachievement in education and society, extraordinarily subdued! (Hill 2008b; see also Hill 2008c, d).

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