Book review: ‘Black British Intellectuals and Education’

Est. read time: 9 min
The Empire Windrush. Credit: PA/PA Archive/Press Association Images

The Empire Windrush. Credit: PA/PA Archive/Press Association Images

It is not for nothing that the arrival of the ship Empire Windrush at Tilbury port in East London on 22 June 1948 is seen by many commentators as marking the start of the growth of the black population in Britain. That ship brought 492 passengers from Jamaica, the largest group of West Indian immigrants to arrive in Britain immediately following the end of the Second World War. Most of them settled in Brixton in the London Borough of Lambeth, a place that would later become the site of some of the fiercest confrontations between the African population and the state as represented by the police.

The African heritage population of Britain now stands at 1.87 million, having been a mere 28,000 at the end of the Second World War. One million of us currently live in London alone and in some boroughs we make up more than 25% of the population. Among the Global African Diaspora (GAD) in Britain, therefore, there are 4 generations of British born Africans in relation to whom the old narrative about ‘coloured immigrants’, ‘newcomers’ and ‘integration once the newcomers have settled and produced British black children’ is increasingly meaningless, as the GAD population remains marginalised and subject to widespread discrimination and social exclusion.

West Indian immigrants came mainly from agrarian economies and from villages where poverty and deprivation defined people’s lives and life chances and limited their capacity to access quality health care, among other things. But theirs was a poverty of means; it was neither a poverty of spirit nor a poverty of aspiration. They came to Britain with high ambitions for their children, especially with respect to schooling outcomes, progression to higher education and to the sorts of careers they had dreamt of back home for their children: typically, doctors, dentists, lawyers, civil servants, architects, engineers.

Paul Warmington, with meticulous research, explores the impact of the African heritage population in Britain on education policy and practice, schooling especially, and the process by which the discourse on schooling and its outcomes for black children became racialised, a process that mirrored the racialisation of immigration, of crime and disorder, youth offending, policing and criminal justice. He charts the emergence of black British intellectuals and of the political movements that sought to reclaim schooling and education from the clutches of central and local government which were thwarting the ambitions of black parents and their children and lowering their expectations of what schooling could offer those children. Most of those black intellectuals are themselves products of the schooling system and therefore conduct their teaching, research and writing against the backcloth of their own schooling and their experience of government education policies and schooling practices as they relate to race and education.

Warmington helpfully reminds us that the black intellectual tradition and its pioneers had a marked impact upon British society in the late nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth, culminating in the 5th Pan-African Congress in Manchester in 1945. The political movements that sprung up in the post-1945 period were in every sense a continuation of the tradition established at least since the first Pan-African Congress in London in 1900, by people who had waged their own struggles in the same period with the same Britain ‘for bread, justice and freedom’ and for universal publicly funded education in the colonies.

However, leaving aside the efforts of post-WWII immigrants to unlock Britain’s black intellectual and political history and teach it in supplementary schools and community-based voluntary education projects, the society did not find ways of acknowledging that important part of its history and showcasing it for the benefit of black and white alike. By the time the Windrush arrived, therefore, white Britain was pretty much oblivious to the existence of that tradition, the key people within it, or its impact upon Britain’s internal relationship with its black presence, as well as its policies and activities in the pre-independent colonies.

READ MORE: Global African Diaspora: transforming the state we’re in?

The British population’s ignorance of the history of the African presence in Britain was matched by its cultural supremacist assumptions about itself and its lack of basic knowledge about the social and economic background of the Windrush generation. Apart from believing that ‘the West Indies’ was a continuous land mass called ‘Jamaica’, far too many British people felt that post-war African immigrants were uneducated if not illiterate labourers, or peasant farmers, or plantation workers. ‘Coloured immigrants’ were therefore considered to be needy, unskilled, incapable of being positive role models for their own children on account of poor education, low level employment, poor parenting skills and dysfunctional family units that are typified by ‘absent fathers’.

As a consequence, ‘coloured immigrants’ (as we were typically described) were felt to be responsible for the social decay and the appalling conditions that pre-existed in the inner city areas we inhabited. Soon, the narrative in the media, no less than in the Parliament and in civil society, was that we were variously: ‘taking jobs that should go to English people’; lowering the profile of the neighbourhood and the price of the properties of white people, thus causing white flight, an exodus of white residents who had lived in those same areas for generations; lowering school standards and hindering the progress of white students by virtue of our assumed lower intelligence, living off the welfare state; having confrontations with the police and making unreasonable demands for equal rights and justice.

A growing body of black British intellectuals emerged in the wake of all that, some having been part of, or still active within, the social and political movements that communities formed both to resist the structural and institutional manifestations of racism that secured the marginalisation and exclusion of black people and to pose a counter narrative and set an alternative agenda.

A perennial issue causing community concern and triggering a spate of conflicting government responses was (and still is) the quality of schooling outcomes for black children, including the over-representative number of them being excluded from primary, secondary and special schools. Warmington presents an insightful analysis of the different approaches to the phenomenon of black underachievement and of the way in which such underachievement and education failure generally became the compelling narrative with regards to race and education in Britain. He demonstrates how, linked to issues of school exclusion, police stops and searches, youth offending, over-representation in youth custody, unemployment and street violence, that narrative is principally about black males and how black female intellectuals have challenged the lack of focus on black girls in schooling and education and in the race and education debate.

Black British Intellectuals and Education: Multiculturalism's hidden history The book (right) provides an important telescopic view of schooling, race and politics in Britain from the Second World War to the present and demonstrates by reviewing the work of black British intellectuals the patterns that could be identified and the differentiated responses, explanations and paradigms such intellectuals have presented over the last seven decades. In the 1960s, for example, communities struggled against the scandalous practice of assessing black children as educationally subnormal (ESN) and sending them to ESN schools. In London alone in 1969, 28% of black children of school age were placed in such schools. The tests used in the assessments drew heavily upon the work of eugenicists and biological racists whose theories of race and intelligence underscored popular assumptions about the intellectual capacity of black people.

Currently, there is an over-representative number of black students in pupil referral units, the majority excluded from mainstream school for reasons to do with behaviour and discipline.

The book explores in some depth the various positions adopted by black British intellectuals and by policy makers on this issue. For example:

Is the institutional racism of the 1960s and 1970s the cause?

Is it the result of teachers’ low expectations and their tendency to label black students and provoke the responses and behaviours that confirm their stereotypical expectations?

Is it the result of a curriculum that is not multicultural enough, or at all, and that fails to present black students with meaningful antecedents of positive self esteem? Is it due to lack of parental guidance and control on account of living in female-led households where fathers are typically absent?

Is it because black students subscribe to and help create a form of ‘black culture’ that, unlike that of their parents/grandparents, fails to put schooling and education on a pedestal and fails to encourage students to reach for the stars?

Is it because so many people have cried ‘institutional racism’ for so long that black students have come to see themselves as victims with no agency, except to rail against the system?

Is there a prevailing attitude towards schooling on the part of black young people? If so, is that attitude shared by girls and boys alike?

To what extent do young black people, male and female, determine their level of motivation and of application on the basis of their awareness of the experience of black people in job seeking and in employment?

To what extent is their approach to schooling and the quality of their schooling experience influenced by their class, as measured by parent’s’ occupation and the social and cultural capital of their home and wider family grouping?

Or, upon their understanding of the increasing concern about the experiences of and degree outcomes for black students in higher education?

Through the prism of a range of black British intellectuals, some of whom have the ear of the education establishment and influence policy more than others, Warmington explores these vexed issues and indicates how the work of those intellectuals has changed the way race and education is understood and the questions both school and community increasingly have to address.

The social and political movements of the 1960s to the 1990s that spawned what could justifiably be called the black working class movement in education and schooling are not in evidence to the same degree nowadays, albeit a fourth generation of British black children is arguably facing an even greater threat of being left behind. The challenge to black British intellectuals is surely to make certain that they are not just talking to and having contestations with people like themselves, or having an ongoing discourse with policy makers, but are putting their intellectual products at the disposal of black school students and working collectively to help them and their families find and use their own voice and organise in their own interests to change their profile in the schooling and education system.

Paul Warmington’s book is an essential tool for black British intellectuals themselves, for communities and schools in this regard and deserves to be read and used widely by all who have an interest in making sure that schooling serves communities and connects with their aspirations and is a vehicle for promoting racial equality and social justice and eliminating social exclusion on the axis of race in Britain.

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