In the South Park episode ‘Cartman’s Silly Hate Crime’, Cartman has a playground fight with his (black) classmate, Token. Token taunts Cartman for being fat and Cartman responds by throwing a rock at him. The teacher intervenes, tells Cartman off, makes him apologise, and gives him a week’s detention. At this point two FBI agents appear and inform the teacher that “it’s not that simple”: as the victim is African-American, the incident must be treated as a ‘hate crime’ and tried in a federal court.
When I saw this episode, with no knowledge of school anti-racist policies, I assumed the South Park writers were simply taking hate-crime legislation to its logical and absurd conclusion. I was reminded of it, however, when reading Adrian Hart’s 2009 report for the Manifesto Club, The Myth of Racist Kids: Anti-Racist Policy and the Regulation of School Life.
Jamie Bault, an 18 year old with Down syndrome and a mental age of 5, was accused of racial assault and threatened with prosecution by both the Police and Scotland’s prosecutor fiscal, when he pushed over an Asian girl (also with severe learning difficulties) and used the expression “black face”. It took seven months for the case to be thrown out of court.
The advocates of school anti-racist policies would no doubt say this is one awful but rare instance of over-zealousness on the part of the authorities. In reality, however, as Hart’s report shows, this was an example of the ‘zero-tolerance’ recommendation contained in policy advice being applied to the letter. The attempted prosecution of a person with the mental age of 5 in an adult court of law may seem perverse in the extreme, but there has been a marked rise in the number of prosecutions of children — primary school children in particular — for ‘racist’ and ‘religious’ offences since the introduction of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000.
And the logic of such reporting has not been confined to racial and religious hatred. Hart’s new Manifesto Club report, Leave Those Kids Alone: How Official Hate Speech Regulation Interferes in School Life, notes that school anti-racist policies have expanded to include “all prejudice-based verbal and physical abuse”. Consequently, homophobic ‘hate speech’ made up a significant proportion of the 30,000 hate-speech incidents reported to local education authorities each year between 2008 and 2010.
What these figures reflect, for Hart, is not a growing problem of bigotry among school children, but the actions of a “burgeoning race relations industry” which has “emerged to administer the raft of new legal duties placed upon public authorities” since the 2000 Act. For these new “government missionaries”, the reporting of racist incidents is both a vital exercise in being seen to be tackling existing problems, and an early-warning data collection system for what is effectively considered to be a ‘social disease’ of prejudice to which all children are vulnerable.
Such reporting, of course, has its own reinforcing logic. Anti-racist initiatives serve to generate more recorded incidents, requiring more intervention. Hart notes, however, that “from the point of view of the architects and operatives of this policy, there’s no inconsistency here”. “The principle of zero tolerance requires an ethos that actively seeks to ‘identify and eradicate all manifestations of racism, however trivial they may seem’”, thus creating a “loop where statistics promote ‘actions’, which produce more statistics”. This cycle leads directly to an exaggeration of the problem of racism in schools, as well as far more pernicious effects on children and school life.
Rather than tackle racism, anti-racist policy has, according to Hart, “become a key racialising influence in schools”, encouraging children to “identify with their ethnic group and to consider their relations with children from other ethnic groups as fraught and somehow different”: in other words, “children are encouraged to ‘think race’”.
Until very recently, anti-racism was a fight against the notion of racial difference as significant; yet this new ‘anti-racism’ promotes recognition of difference in skin colour, religion or custom as the primary frame through which to view other people. Applied to schools, this ‘racialisation’ has the effect of undermining children’s natural ‘colour-blindness’. In fact, that very colour-blindness — the failure of children to recognise others’ differences — is itself seen as a problem of racial stereotyping needing early intervention. This highlights another element of the ‘myth’ of racist kids.
As Hart says, “children cannot be racists — or at least, not in the way adults imagine”. While schoolchildren can use racist terms with the intention of insulting another child, they have no real understanding of why the expressions are offensive, and often inject them with their own childish meanings. We can see this most clearly with homophobic ‘hate speech’ incidents, which usually involve children referring to people and things they don’t like as ‘gay’. As Hart says, in Leave Those Kids Alone:
In reality, children are seldom (if ever) homophobic or racist in the way policy advocates imagine. Children simply access words, phrases and fragments of understanding from the adult world and re-employ them in the service of their own child-like interactions.
Children, by definition, do not possess an adult consciousness or understanding of the world and of complex socio-political categories such as race and sexuality. As they get older, they gain understanding of why some terms are considered more offensive than others, but in general will not have access to the full range of knowledge that gives certain words their power to offend. School ‘hate speech’ regulation blurs the boundary between childhood and adulthood speech and actions: criminalising playground banter and childish name-calling, and squeezing “the very meaning out of childhood”.
According to Hart, the main consequence of the imposition of school anti-racist and ‘hate speech’ policies has been a deterioration in school childrens’ relationships. Hart has talked to teachers who are trying to work around these recommendations and finding themselves caught in a bureaucratic catch 22: if schools fail to report ‘enough’ incidents they are seen as not doing enough to combat a problem automatically assumed to be there, and therefore being soft on racism and homophobia. But if they do report them, they are seen as having a major problem. Either way, schools are seen as having a problem with ‘hate speech’ incidents and being in need of official intervention.
The Myth of Racist Kids and Leave Those Kids Alone are important and welcome critiques of official school anti-racist and ‘hate speech’ policies — policies that racialise children’s sense of themselves and others, blur the distinction between child and adult behaviour, and criminalise playground taunts. This new, state-sponsored, approach to ‘anti-racism’ could perhaps be best summed up in the words of the judge to South Park’s Cartman: “If you’re going to pick on someone make sure they’re the same ethnicity”.
Buy The Myth of Racist Kids: Anti-Racist Policy and the Regulation of School Life (2009) and download Leave Those Kids Alone: How official hate speech regulation interferes in school life (2011) from The Manifesto Club.