On August 23rd, Jacob Blake, a 29 year old African American, was shot and severely wounded by a US police officer in Wisconsin. The incident occurred less than 3 months after George Floyd, another African American, died whilst in police custody in Minnesota, on May 25.
After George Floyd’s death, Americans came out in protest against the systemic racism and injustices which led to his killing. These protests grew, with the Black Lives Matter movement spreading to countries across the globe. Blake now lies in a hospital bed paralysed due to his injuries. In both cases, commentators have cited race as a factor in routine police operations escalating into much worse situations. With stories of injustice continuing to surface, it’s urgently important for the US and the world to face the important questions around racism
Understanding that this is a world problem is crucial. Whilst the United States is at the forefront of media coverage, in countries across the world we continue to see injustice and racism, including in the UK. It isn’t a recent development either, the root cause of systemic and institutional racism can be traced back much further. For the United Kingdom, the trail leads back to colonialism, and the British Empire.
The reality of life in the British Empire, particularly in Africa and Asia, has been well documented by historians. Simon Schama’s History of Britain series, even twenty years after it was first broadcast, continues to be among the most eye-opening and harrowing in its examination of the injustices experienced in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other commonwealth nations during British rule.
Some of the institutions and social structures in the UK and the commonwealth, which were formed during those years of colonial rule, continue to operate in much the same way as they did during the time of empire. Some of the values instilled in those institutions and structures continue unchallenged as well. Movements like Black Lives Matter aren’t just about confronting explicit examples of racism, they’re about addressing the fundamental, institutionalised ways of thinking which have lead to racial injustice in society to begin with.
In America, many of those institutional ways of thinking can be traced back to slavery. But it’s also important to recognise that people from different ethnic groups around the world are experiencing different forms of racism and discrimination. In the UK, some of those social structures emanating from the empire continue to discriminate against other communities, for example those from Asian backgrounds. In America, Native Americans also continue to experience social injustice.
This is why it’s important that the world comes together to create solutions. When we read stories of injustice from different nations, we can see that discrimination is a universal problem, affecting, in different ways, communities across the globe. When looking for ways to challenge institutional racism, it’s therefore important for education to underpin our efforts, in a bid not to just tackle individual examples or instances of racism, but to tackle the social structures which cause them.
Education is a powerful tool for tackling injustice and intolerance. Racism can be cultivated by existing social structures and preconceptions, whereas education, in contrast, can introduce new ways of thinking, engaging people of all ages in society to see the world more equally. Education can also offer a more inclusive solution. By learning together, students from different backgrounds can come together and work together, healing divisions in the process.
Indeed, when looking at the Black Lives Matter movement, you’ll notice that across Europe and the world, it’s not just African communities who are protesting. The Black Lives Matter movement consists of people from different cultures, countries, religions and backgrounds, united in a common cause to bring about positive change. Education can unite people, and this is an important step when tackling racism.
However, a key question to address is how can we develop the level of educational support necessary to bring about change? Governments and nation states continue to play an important role, and countries need to focus their efforts on investing in schools to make sure students have access to the right equipment and teaching, from nursery and primary schools all the way to colleges, universities and adult learning establishments.
Some of the wider changes needed can be driven by colleges and universities themselves. Educational institutions can play a big role in altering the way society operates. Through being more socially responsible, and by using education to raise awareness of injustice, colleges and universities can highlight the benefits of multicultural thinking, and lay the foundations for students going forward. Institutions can also champion messages of fairness and equality, becoming beacons of tolerance and understanding.
Another way to address injustice through education involves ‘de-colonising’ the curriculum. How our students learn is important, because it can, unintentionally or not, lead to stereotyping. Efforts to de-colonise the curriculum revolve around offering more diverse reading lists at schools and colleges, rather than relying on the same traditional voices and texts. By offering a wider variety of voices, from experts and tutors with different backgrounds, particularly from ethnic minority groups, students can be encouraged to see more than just one interpretation of events. They can begin to see different views, and appreciate that in society, there is a space for those different perspectives.
Of course, the most important way we can deploy education more widely to address societal imbalances is through increased investment. Now is the time for the UK and countries around the world to step up their programs of funding for education. More investment means more students can attend school, addressing one major cause of injustice, which is reduced access to education. More investment also means institutions have more flexibility to invest in courses, materials and equipment to provide students from all backgrounds with the best opportunity to succeed. Finally, more investment can extend learning from the classroom environment to wider communities – allowing institutions to extend the benefits of education more broadly across society.
Now has to be the time that we come together to drive forward positive change. The harrowing case of Jacob Blake is just the latest in many examples of injustice and racism around the world. The best way to stop these stories is to tackle their causes, and the best way to do this is through education.