There should be no doubt by now that we are not living in a ‘post-racial’ world. How can school history help bring understanding and hope?
By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 5 June 2020
The COVID pandemic has taught all of us in 2020 about the need to think very carefully about the routine act of walking out of our home onto the streets to go about our business.
For most of us, this is, hopefully, temporary. But such vigilance has been required of Black people in this country constantly for centuries. Streets are not automatically safe spaces for Black people, especially Black men. The repellent and enraging scenes of George Floyd’s public killing by police officers in Minneapolis at the end of May should impel every one of us to self-examination and action.
Racial profiling by law enforcement officers regularly makes Black people open to brusque and brutal treatment without any further just cause on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, they are not necessarily safe in the confines of their own homes; the case of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, in March this year brings to mind those of Cherry Groce and Joy Gardiner in London in the 1980s and 1990s . What do we know of that history, and does the school curriculum ensure that we are prepared to make sense of the realities of race and racism in this century?
COVID has smashed gaping holes in notions of British exceptionalism. But history should have already taught us to be sceptical of false national pride and to searchingly examine the impact that British expansion has had on global peoples. The school history curriculum has too often laid the foundations for the premise that brutal racism and intolerance is an American, or a South African, or a German problem. Thorough studies of the African-American Civil Rights Movement in England’s GCSE and A-level courses provide powerful narratives and opportunities for critical analysis of the background to contemporary issues of race, but they too easily encourage a complacent appraisal of Britain’s race relations as being nowhere near as traumatic as that American experience.
In some London schools the scope of the history department’s work is different. At the Convent of Jesus and Mary Language College in Willesden, a Catholic Research School, three IOE alumnae develop and teach a much broader and deeper history curriculum that examines the roots of the institutionalising of racism in Britain alongside the institutions of Church and State that are more familiar bastions of school history. They work in partnership with us, in our work as Justice to History. The topic of Transatlantic Slavery is directly considered in terms of its development of racist thought, and then its abolition is scrutinised in terms of both the movement that struggled for reform, and the insubstantial impact that it had on the lives of the formerly enslaved. This work has been developed as part of a collaboration with UCL’s Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership and the Historical Association, through which we have developed a set of core principles to guide the teaching of Britain and transatlantic slavery. The very first principle states:
- Race. The emergence of racial language and thought, in terms of the construction of both whiteness and blackness, should be considered in relation to both transatlantic slavery and more broadly the development of empire and colonialism. You should consider the place of race in the functional operations of transatlantic slavery, as well as its role in debates over its dismantling.
Better teaching of this core topic in schools is a necessary, but not sufficient, part of transforming our school curriculum. A further scheme that we developed this year focuses directly on the experiences of injustice that were faced by Black people in London during the second half of the 20th century, culminating in the case of Stephen Lawrence, the Black teenager stabbed to death in a racist attack while waiting for a bus, and the subsequent Macpherson Report. History educators understand that historical significance is not a fixed concept but a reflexive notion that examines the impact of past events in changing long-term contexts as well as their immediate era. The Lawrence family’s trauma and continuing struggle take on a renewed significance in 2020.
Students at the Convent School considered the question: ‘Why did one Black life come to matter so much in the 1990s?’ in their wider enquiry on racial injustices that also included the cases of Kelso Cochrane, Carmen Bryan, the Mangrove 9, and the New Cross 13. The question was directly causal in its focus, but the discussions in class generated passionate debate about Stephen’s continuing significance. If Theresa May’s legacy were to have a positive element in the instituting of Stephen Lawrence Day in the British calendar, then this enquiry should feature in many more schools’ curricula. The innovative work of the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre at De Montfort University, under the leadership of Kennetta Hammond-Perry, will also play a pivotal role in that.
The racial injustices of COVID and Black Lives Matter have fallen fast on the heels of Britain’s Windrush Generation scandal. There should be no doubt by now that we are not living in a ‘post-racial’ world. The history curriculum should play a key role in giving our citizens an understanding of the institutional racism in our society, and thereby clarify the nature of the contemporary problems. The revealing of its roots shows that racism is not a part of human nature, it has been historically constructed. Hence it can be uprooted and things can change. That will be uncomfortable, but it can give us hope. As the cultural theorist and social justice advocate Raymond Williams wrote in 1989:
Once the inevitabilities are challenged, we begin gathering our resources for a journey of hope. If there are no easy answers, there are still available and discoverable hard answers, and it is these that we can learn to make and share. (Williams, quoted in Halpin, 2003, p.127)
Photo: Jenny Salita via Creative Commons