POLICE RACISM and UNION COLLUSION – the John Fernandes Case

In the early 1980s, John Fernandes, a lecturer at the Metropolitan Police Cadet School in Northwest London, published some essays by police cadets that were clearly racist. In the ensuing scandal, John was dismissed and his trade union, NATFHE, one of the forerunners of UCU, initiated disciplinary proceedings against officers of his branch who supported him. Now, nearly 40 years later, a pamphlet written to support John at the time has been found and digitised. At a time when the relationship between the police and the black community is in the news, it provides a useful contribution to the debate. It is particularly relevant to the discussion about the difference between “Multicultural Education” and “Anti-racist Education”.

The pamphlet, “POLICE RACISM and UNION COLLUSION – the John Fernandes Case” by the National Convention of Black Teachers, may be downloaded here…

Those who remember the events will be pleased to know that John, now a member of the UCU London Retired Members branch, is alive and well and living in Goa.

Here is an extract from the pamphlet discussing Judith H. Katz’s book White Awareness:

Multiculturalism used to mean learning a stereotype of black cultures with a view to assimilation. Now multiculturalism is aimed to divide the black community in the guise of practising democratic pluralism and at the same time provide inroads into the black communities for the purposes of control.

One of the uses of human relations training as Katz tells us in her introduction to ‘White Awareness’ is to create “a more productive” work environment. In fact racism awareness has been taken on as an integral part of management strategies in the U.S. and White Awareness published in 1978 has enjoyed three reprints. Katz’s ideas are increasingly forming the basis of racism awareness courses in Britain so they are worth examining briefly.

Her underlying aim seems to be the same as what she describes as “the overarching goal of multicultural curricula – to bring education systems and subsequently the nation into line with the ideals of a pluralistic society”. If a society is pluralistic – then of course the concepts of class or even of imperialism go out of the window, and racism unlinked in any way to class can be seen merely as a ‘nasty’ individual disease which can be cured – an affliction which needs understanding and therapy or welfare.

However, Fernandes did diverge from Katz’s philosophy in some crucial areas: “The multicultural studies approach” he said in his seminar paper “is rejected in favour of an anti-racist approach. ‘Multiculturalism’ refuses to address itself to questions of power, control, resistance, class and gender difference within as well as between cultures. It assumes an eventual homogeneity: there is one dominant culture into which other cultures can be integrated regardless of class and gender differentiation. An anti-racist approach would involve a concept of hierarchy (and) -multicultural studies in exploring differences in cultures and customs, may help modify attitudes but leaves unchallenged the racism prevalent in society. An anti-racist course by its very nature would include the study of other cultures. Just to learn about other people’s cultures though is not to learn about racism of one’s own. To learn about the racism of one’s own culture on the one hand is to approach other cultures objectively. Finally, and this perhaps was the most crucial difference between Fernandes and Katz ‘s approaches, Fernandes considered that it was necessary to examine the issue of racism within its political, economic, social, historical and ideological framework .

This meant that Fernandes’s course rejected the Katz (it-all-boils-down-to-individual-attitudes approach) on the important issue of institutionalised racism. Katz sees institutionalised racism as a web in which the different parts of an institution interact to re-enforce racist attitudes at every level; this, Katz implies, may even give rise to racist policies. But, she tells racism awareness instructors, it is crucial to deal with the inconsistencies. What is the institutional attitude and what is the actual behaviour?” Katz appears to believe that racism is simply an organisational and attitudinal problem which makes the implementation of equal opportunities policies difficult. It is assumed that the state and most ‘institutions’ actually want the implementation of equality for blacks. In Fernandes’s course, looking at institutionalised racism involved looking at the history of institutions and revealing therefore how racism was an essential part of their economic and political framework. Without racism they could not exist in their present economic form. In addition looking at institutionalised racism in Britain in its political context means that one cannot avoid looking at laws and regulations (a particularly poignant issue at the police school since the police are the guardians of the law which also reinforces their own legitimacy). And of course, a whole range of laws and regulations in the fields of health, immigration and housing are blatantly racist.

In fact even a simple discussion of Britain’s racist laws demonstrates that the idea of an anti-racist police force is a contradiction in terms since such a force would find itself opposing the relationships it is meant to uphold. Even teaching police to think about anti-racism would throw them into contusion, sharpening those very contradictions which are muffled by multiculturalism. And sure enough the part of Fernandes’s course which the police rejected most was the practical and experiential aspect which was meant to make the cadets think and eventually make them take on racist institutions.