You Cannot Right Racial Wrongs by Doing Wrong Things More Competently – Gus John responds to the Windrush Lessons Report


In a week within which it is revealed that that Alexandra Ankrah, the most senior black Home Office employee in the team responsible for the Windrush compensation scheme resigned earlier this year, describing it as systemically racist and unfit for purpose; in which it is revealed in the words of a senior case worker that “The Home Office are not empathetic towards claimants. It’s just a name on a piece of paper – it’s not people” it is timely and vital to post this link to Gus John’s withering critique of the limitations at the heart of the Windrush Lessons Learned Review.

In enclosing his paper to promote wider discussion Gus comments:

I’m amazed at how little public debate there appears to have been on this report, especially as in spite of what she found Williams failed to come to some bold and pretty obvious conclusions.  It’s an indication that she herself has no concept of the racialisation of immigration and of successive governments over the last six decades wilfully manipulating the British population on the issue of immigration/race, as if those of us who made Britain our home in the last 100 years are still unwanted newcomers who had no previous connection with this nation. 

He opens his critique by taking us back nearly 20 years to the time when post-Macpherson the Home Office commissioned training, which was to transform the insensitive and prejudiced occupational culture within the police force.

In 2003, my organisation was commissioned by the Home Office to evaluate that training and its impact upon forces’ operational practices and relationships with black communities. Part of my methodology was actually observing how that training was delivered and how it was received. That turned out to be one of the most awful experiences of my entire professional career. The organised and vicious resistance to the training; the targeting of trainers personally and making them account for the conduct, criminal and political, of black people in communities; the venomous accusations of ‘black people wanting to be treated differently’… ‘why do you lot always feel you’re being picked upon’, etc.; the heckling; the disengagement (with certain attendees opting to read a book or do paperwork of some sort during the training); anecdotes from senior police officers telling of warnings they received from senior command to the effect that: ‘police/community relations is a career graveyard, so, get out of it and soon as you can if you want to progress in this force’. Women trainers had to endure unadulterated sexism in addition, and all trainers had to provide metrics to indicate that they had met their training targets, even in the face of such organised resistance. Needless to say, few ‘hearts and minds’ were won and my assessment was that the training left many police officers more resentful and openly racist at the end of the training than they were at the beginning. Disturbingly, however, it left many trainers totally traumatised and needing professional help to cope with what they had been subjected to by those police officers. They complained to me that at the end of such training days, there was no one assigned to them to whom they could go and offload/debrief and get help to put themselves together again. Instead, they were often left losing sleep at the prospect of having to face yet another day of the same, with the existing or a new cohort of police officers.

In summary, the most damning part of my evaluation to the Home Office is that the nationwide training was little more than a hugely expensive and damaging exercise in ‘dipping sheep’ and proof, if ever it was needed, that training could never be a panacea for systemic ills and institutional and cultural practices that are pickled in racism. That training programme sacrificed the messenger – the black trainers – in the process of attempting to deliver the message: how to be a police service that acknowledged and understood racism and its impact on citizens’ rights, on delivering justice and keeping the peace and one that took responsibility for eliminating institutional, cultural and personal manifestations of racism.

With this sobering experience as a backcloth Gus continues:

So, let us examine those two recommendations by Wendy Williams on which the Home Office, almost two decades later, is seeking to deracialise its staff, this time in relation to immigration rather than to policing.

Recommendation 6 – a) The Home Office should devise, implement and review a comprehensive learning and development programme which makes sure all its existing and new staff learn about the history of the UK and its relationship with the rest of the world, including Britain’s colonial history, the history of inward and outward migration and the history of black Britons. This programme should be developed in partnership with academic experts in historical migration and should include the findings of this review, and its ethnographic research, to understand the impact of the department’s decisions; b) publish an annual return confirming how many staff, managers and senior civil servants have completed the programme.

Recommendation 11 – The department should re-educate itself fully about the current reach and effect of immigration and nationality law, and take steps to maintain its institutional memory. It should do this by making sure its staff understand the history of immigration legislation and build expertise in the department, and by carrying out historical research when considering new legislation.

I would urge you to investigate both Gus John’s response to these recommendations and his unfolding historical and contemporary analysis of ” a string of human rights and equality act violations, which need to be addressed”. See the full piece below.

He concludes:

Wendy Williams’ report paints a picture of a government department where the political and electoral agenda of the party in government drive the formulation of immigration policy and the implementation of immigration legislation. It is a government department displaying fault lines on a massive scale, including managerial incompetence, an opaqueness if not complete absence of organisational values and a culture which undergirds the ideology of racism upon which immigration law making is constructed.

At the base of all that is systemic racism in the society and successive governments’ failure to put racism and the urgency of engaging with the legacy of empire high up on its political agenda

In the light of her findings, the evidence of the suffering that has resulted from the hostile environment and the continuing implications of the impact of implementing immigration policies upon the black/global majority, the government must be pressured to do three more things in addition to William’s 30 recommendations:

  • pronounce an immediate amnesty be pronounced, thus allowing all those of the Windrush generation who were in the country before 2014 to stay and be given the necessary documentation
  • set up a body to examine the genesis and provisions of the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts in the light of the Williams’ findings and make proposals for annulling or amending them
  • take immediate steps to kick start consultations on state reparations for the enslavement, genocide, dehumanisation and exploitation of African people and the continuing underdevelopment of the former colonies in which their descendants were abandoned by Britain, especially after it became a key player in the European Union.

Professor Gus John is a lifelong campaigner for children’s education rights, a visiting professor at Coventry University and associate professor at the UCL Institute of Education. In 1999, he co-founded the Communities Empowerment Network (now INCLUDE, which he currently chairs), a charity that provides advocacy and representation for excluded students and their families. He was the first black director of education in the UK (1989-1996) as director of education and leisure services in the London Borough of Hackney.

Clipping the wings of Black Lives Matter? An interview with Gus John

Following on from my last post, ‘Is anti-capitalist youth work next?‘ Gus John’s complementary, challenging perspective focuses in particular on the authoritarian threat to Black Lives Matter, whilst also questioning sharply what he describes as ‘the alternative provision industry’.

Clipping the wings of Black Lives Matter

In this wide-ranging interview on the Institute of Race Relations web site, veteran educational campaigner Gus John draws connections between initiatives currently pursued by three government departments (education; children and families; culture, media and sport), and lays out what the government has in store for anti-racism, particularly Black Lives Matter. 

He concludes:

Gus John: In summary then, this is the increasingly authoritarian state trying to tell BLM ‘we’re coming for you’. They are letting black campaigners know, we want to put you on the Prevent list and treat you as enemies of the state and of wider law-abiding society.

This, I fear, is the thin end of the wedge as far as the drift into totalitarianism is concerned. I would be delighted to be proven wrong, but it would not surprise me in the least if at least 50 percent of the strictures that have been introduced as a consequence of COVID are not written into law to hem us in for all time, thus curtailing many of our hard-won freedoms, while civil society feels it has to be similarly authoritarian, snooping and snitching on neighbours and seeking to criminalise every single non-conformist behaviour.

So, we must never fail to be vigilant and to see the connection between these seemingly consensual things. Above all, we need to take collective action and demonstrate to Boris Johnson and his government that we will not stand by and let them harass and curtail the freedoms of Black Lives Matter.

Professor Gus John is a lifelong campaigner for children’s education rights, a visiting professor at Coventry University and associate professor at the UCL Institute of Education. In 1999, he co-founded the Communities Empowerment Network (now INCLUDE, which he currently chairs), a charity that provides advocacy and representation for excluded students and their families. He was the first black director of education in the UK (1989-1996) as director of education and leisure services in the London Borough of Hackney.

Building a Radical University: Tanya Frank tells her story

I believe there are parallels here with the climate of creativity to be found in parts of youth work forty years ago, expressed in the best of part-time youth work training and the subsequent entry into Higher Education of some of its participants.

An extract from Building a Radical University

Building a Radical University is an inspirational account of what can be achieved in a climate of educational experiment, freedom and cooperation. This history of radical innovation at the University of East London will be published on 4 September in print and as a free e-book, and the book is available now for pre-order. In this extract from her chapter ‘Bloody Snobs’, Tanya Frank describes UEL’s impact on her life and work. 

I knew I wasn’t clever enough to get a fully-fledged degree. My teachers at McEntee High had known it too, telling me I wasn’t college material. But I started to toy with the idea that I could maybe get a diploma in higher education. It would take two years of study at the polytechnic. The words diploma and polytechnic were less formidable to my ears. Encouraged by my tutors at Waltham Forest, and by the confidence I’d gained from recent forays into feminist and cultural studies writing, I decided to give it a go.

But by the start of the spring term at Waltham Forest College, I was pregnant again. Gordon, Dale’s father, and I bickered more than we didn’t, as he berated me for applying to polytechnic, reminding me that I would never earn as much as him, and that women’s studies would turn me into a lesbian …

Mum agreed wholeheartedly with Gordon that I should stay home and look after the children. A short access course was one thing, but leaving the kids in order to study for a diploma, and heaven forbid getting a full-time career afterwards, would risk causing them irreparable harm. The vice-principal of North East London Polytechnic leaned closer to Mum’s sentiment than my own, suggesting I might consider postponing full-time study for a year to focus on my domestic responsibilities.

But I knew differently, intuitively, despite the loud noise to the contrary. I knew that I needed something under my belt, for not if, but rather when Gordon and I would go our separate ways, and I would have to become everything to the boys. I took driving lessons. Just in case. In case of an emergency, in case I needed to do a big shop at the weekend, and secretly in case I might dare to really take up the course …

In the autumn of 1989, I clunked through the gears and stalled at every stop on my way to the main site of the polytechnic in Barking, Dagenham, hoping I wouldn’t get pulled up. I dropped Dale at the on-site crèche, and took newborn Zach with me into the classroom. The polytechnic was modern and spread out. A double grey portakabin housed the student union and bar, and sat smack bang in the centre of campus. The place was more Chingford Hall than Oxbridge, and I felt immediately at home.

I chose classes in women’s studies, third world studies (later renamed development studies) and anthropology. In that first semester I sat at the back of the lecture theatre and breastfed Zach, learning from women’s studies professor Maggie Humm how that nameless feeling which had been sitting heavy in my stomach for years, that sense of displacement and subjugation, was not just peculiar to me but had been written about and interrogated even before I was born by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. The units for women in the third world helped me conceptualise what I had witnessed in Andhra Pradesh, and to understand the gender politics at work in the community of Bangladeshis close to where I had lived, where a rising trend of termination of female foetuses had hit the headlines and caused international alarm. Theories of class and race, ideas that had shaped my life without ever consciously crystallising became suddenly as clear as the view from my tower block window – the North Circular Road, and beyond it the illegal caravans squatting near the perfectly round reservoir.

The access course had kept our learning local. We studied at The Vestry in Old Walthamstow, which had once been a workhouse for the poor, the industrial revolution, the suffragists, the miners’ strike, and Britain’s role in the first world war. But now, as part of my lessons at the polytechnic, I was learning things on a macro scale, global concepts of neo-imperialism, second-wave feminist writing from both sides of the pond.

In the buzz and fervour of it all, I started to find my voice, to read critically, to pin myself on the map, to know where I stood politically. Although I was attending the polytechnic part time, two days a week rather than three, in my heart and mind, in my gut that now churned with excitement and novel ideas, I was more than part-time, more than full-time; I was a whole new me …

I had a tribe. There was strength in the students in my cohort: Meena, a young divorced mother of five; Barbara, a florist old enough to be my mother; Michelle, a burned-out Afro-Caribbean nurse who worked on an intensive baby care unit. These women buoyed me up, talking to me late into the night about postmodernism, poststructuralism, post-everything. I finally found the confidence to stay on beyond the two-year mark and the diploma, and study for my degree.

North East London Polytechnic became the University of East London. I loved that something about my East End working-class roots was still there in the title of the university, and I loved that I was attending a real university now. By the time I graduated, I had learnt to craft ceramics, paint … take photographs and make an audio-visual tape-slide project in my Women in Art unit, to examine the slave trade and the impact of colonialism in my Women in Third World Development, but it was the opportunity to tell my story in the women in autobiography unit that would reshape my story forever.