Racism is racism no matter what form it takes. Discrimination is not defined by treating members of a group worse than others, but by treating them differently. Irrespective of the fact that to treat one group better is to treat another less well, it remains discrimination even if the treatment of two groups is equal, but distinct. “Separate but equal” were the watchwords of American segregation (though in practice there was precious little equality).
So it is with shock and surprise that I discovered that the latest guidance on school discipline published by the Department for Education and Skills specifically advises schools to “take account of a range of individual pupil needs when developing and implementing their behaviour policies” including “groups defined by Ofsted as ‘at risk’ within the education system [such as] minority ethnic and faith groups [and] travellers”.
The whole subject of defining entire races or religious groups as ‘at risk’ is deeply troubling, not least because nobody ever seems to define what they are ‘at risk’ of suffering, doing or becoming. The underlying suggestion is that they are at risk of not fitting into the round hole drilled for their square bodies by policy-makers and the intellectuals who influence them.
How is this to be put into practice? On the one hand, the DfES guidance emphasises “the importance of sensitivity to individual needs”, as though teachers are unaware that their charges are individuals as opposed to homogenous automata. This patronising advice reiterates the belief that Whitehall bureaucrats are needed to tell teachers and nurses how to deliver their service. One wonders what the point of all that training and education was!
On the other hand, a series of warnings are given to take account of “cultural norms” and to avoid discomfort to children whose cultures take great offence at public humiliation. This is a very dangerous precedent. School rules are a form of law, and for them to have any meaning they must be applied fairly. To allow one child to get away with being loud while another is disciplined is discriminatory – especially so if it is based not on the child’s uniqueness but upon views of how a child of that “culture” is expected to behave. To discipline children in different ways because of preconceived notions of how children of a certain type (colour, faith) might react is racism.
This issue goes to the heart of the “multicultural society”. Being multicultural is a recognition that a hundred different languages are spoken in the home; a hundred different forms of dress are worn in the street. Different gods are worshipped and different festivals celebrated, and they are they are worshipped and celebrated in different ways. But if a society is to be fair, its members must be treated equally; the law – even local laws of public institutions – applied irrespective of race or religion. This is not the Middle Ages, where Jews were subject to a different law from Christians, and the religious from the secular. The law is blind for a reason. It is blind so that even though individuals might discriminate, the law never does. For all our sakes let it remain so.