A response to Young and Black: The Young Black Experience of Institutional Racism in the UK
Comments by Carole Sherwood, DClinPsy, in response to the YMCA report, which was published in October 2020.
It is clear from the title of this report that the writers assume there is “institutional racism” in the UK. This is at odds with the findings of the CRED report 1. A claim is made in the Foreword of “Young and Black” that it “exposes the true nature of what it is like to be a young Black person growing up in the UK today”. This is a generalisation based on a relatively small sample of 557 participants, who may not be representative of all young black people in the UK (see “Methodology’ below).
The various organisations cited in the Foreword: the #YoungAndBlack campaign, founded by UK Youth; the Diana Award; My Life My Say; and Back Youth Alliance, all seem bona fide, although there is mention of “activist”– Jermain Jackman.
Interestingly, UK Youth – one of the founders – published their own report in July 20222, following a consultation with young people about their mental health and well-being. While this report acknowledges the negative impact of racism, it also cites the effects of social media on mental health and the importance of developing resilience and self-esteem. I will return to the UK Youth report when commenting on the psychological aspects of the Young and Black YMCA report as they appear, at times, contradictory.
It is hard to establish who actually conducted this research which combines qualitative and quantitative data in the form of a Survation survey, small focus groups and workshops. The report states that the YMCA Youth Advisory Group “made significant contributions to this report as they co-designed the entire project and worked extensively to co-facilitate the research process and develop the recommendations included in this report”. In the final ‘thank you’ at the end of the report a reference is made to the “E8 group” which is said to have played a role in “guiding the process and collating the findings” but no information is provided about this group.
In fact, for the YMCA Youth Advisory Group we are only given the first names of the Steering Committee – Adele, Bose, Emily, and Neal. We don’t know who they are, or their affiliations, apart from the fact that they are cited as “Members of the YMCA Youth Advisory Group”. If they are giving advice to the young people who participated in the study, as well as ‘steering’ or conducting this research and running the focus groups, the study’s results are open to bias.
The study on which the report is based recruited a sample of 557 young black and mixed ethnicity participants. There is no information about how they were recruited, if they were self-selecting, from which geographical locations they came, their family background, socioeconomic status, or any other demographics, apart from age. If the participants were recruited from a sample of young people already known to the YMCA, these young people may be disadvantaged in some way and at greater risk of developing mental health problems. Oppositional behaviours at school or in the wider community may also be more likely. If that were the case, then this might help to explain some of the negative responses in the survey but we have no way of knowing.
There is also a very wide age range of participants from 16-30 years old. In my opinion, by the age of 30 you are an adult. 20 or 25 might have been a more appropriate cut-off age. Definitions of ‘black’ youth also include young people of mixed heritage, specifically “Mixed White and Black African” and “Mixed White and Black Caribbean”.
The Survation survey carries some weight, in terms of being conducted by a respected polling organisation, but no information is provided about how or why these particular questions were selected. There is not enough information about the focus groups or workshops and how these were run to rule out bias and confounding factors, such as older group members or facilitators influencing younger members. Parental views about racism, which appear to support those expressed in the report, are also mentioned several times, suggesting that some of the participants may have been influenced by their parents.
Most of the ‘evidence’ presented in this report is anecdotal and subjective, with emphasis given to how young black people “feel” about certain situations. Little objective evidence is provided to support the claims made. No definition is provided for ‘subtle racism’.
Statistics are quoted in a misleading way. For example, in the Employment section, there is a headline: “86% of young black people have heard and witnessed racist language in the workplace”. This claim is later qualified when the report goes on to state that this figure relates to 86% of young black people “with experience in the workplace”.
There are also discrepancies in the findings that are not explained or expanded upon. For example, in both the Education and Employment sections differences are reported in the frequency of “hearing or witnessing racism” by gender. In Education, 51% of males report that this occurs “all the time” in school, compared to 4% of females. What explains this discrepancy? In the focus groups young people claimed that: “addressing racism in school is difficult because they feel that racist language is commonplace”. Yet the survey results suggest that, at least for females, this may not be the case.
In the Employment section, there is a curious statement which almost sounds as though it’s an instruction on how to write/present the report: “Essentially, the findings here can echo the conclusions drawn from the statistics on education: workplaces can become ground for both explicit and implicit racist language.”
The report also claims that the increased likelihood of being expelled could be linked to “false perceptions teachers have of them”. This may be true, but it could also be due to actual bad behaviour. The statistics show that it’s Black Caribbean pupils who were about three times as likely to be excluded than White British. Could there be a cultural explanation? If racism is truly to blame for expulsion, surely expulsions should also be high for Black African, mixed ethnicity and other non-white people? Such differences in education outcomes across different ethnicities were discussed in the CRED report.
It is hard to know, without having information about the young people in the focus groups, what might have led them to experience the problems at school that are reported. Are they from disadvantaged backgrounds? What schools did they attend? Had any of them been expelled from school for aggressive behaviour? Do any of them have mental health problems? Without such knowledge, can we be absolutely sure that these experiences were due to racism? Similarly, when participants report what others have said to them, such as “Surprised they have been promoted” there is an assumption that this was due to racism, although this comment may have been made for reasons other than race.
The list of recommendations in the Education section and elsewhere are clearly informed by Critical Race Theory, advising education providers to: “review their policies through the lens of race and ethnicity”; that schools should “embed anti-racist education throughout a student’s academic journey to proactively combat racist language in schools”; and that school leaders “provide unconscious bias training for all staff at all levels”. Not only does unconscious bias training not work 3 but the Implicit Association Test used for measuring unconscious bias, is unreliable and contested.4
As far as the section on health is concerned, the CRED report addressed issues relating to lack of trust in health services in the UK. It rejected “the common view that ethnic minorities have universally worse health outcomes compared with White people”, stating that “the picture is much more variable.”
In terms of mental health, CRED “did not believe that the evidence it reviewed supported claims of discrimination within psychiatry”. Rather, it recommended the importance of “convincing vulnerable people in ethnic minorities that mental healthcare provision is neither a threat nor a punishment, but something genuinely helpful to people in real need.”
I will not comment on crime or finance but, once again, suggest comparison of the YMCA report results with those of the CRED report.
Overall, I would argue, based on the flaws in this study’s methodology, that we should, at the very least, be cautious about the authors’ bold claim that “it is safe to say that society has not progressed as far as what the activists that came before us would have hoped”. Instead, it seems to me to be a pseudo-scientific study that lacks transparency about its selection methods and criteria, does not reveal important demographic information about the participants or those conducting the research, and fails to address the issue of bias or discuss discrepancies in the study’s findings.
- Confirmation bias 5
Insufficient information is provided about those who conducted this research or about the selection and demographics of its participants, to rule out confirmation bias. If the researchers believe that there is institutional racism in the UK, they are likely to be looking for evidence of it and are unlikely to see or accept any evidence to the contrary.
5 Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to favour information that confirms their existing beliefs or hypotheses, Iqra Noor, June 10 2020, https://www.simplypsychology.org/confirmation-bias.html
- Safe Spaces
The creation of ‘safe spaces’ where young people can share their thoughts and feelings about experiences of racism may, on the face of it, seem like a good idea, but there could be unintended consequences. The idea that young black people need ‘safe spaces’ suggests that the wider world, containing people who are white, is somehow ‘dangerous’. This may lead young people to believe that white people and wider society is to be feared, that they are ‘vulnerable’, need to be protected and are at risk of harm. This may foster lack of trust and feed into a victimhood mentality where status is gained through claiming to be ‘oppressed’. It may also provide opportunities for activists to foster grievance and promote ideas that Britain is a racist country.
Hypervigilance is a state of increased alertness and extreme sensitivity to your surroundings. It can lead you to be alert to threat and hidden dangers, whether from other people or the environment. In this study, young black participants have been encouraged to look for signs of racism in many different sectors of their lives. This is not to say that there is no racism, but telling young people that they are victims of an institutionally and systemically racist UK and that no-one can change that, except institutions, is likely to induce anxiety, hopelessness, resentment and anger.
Those young people are likely to be hypervigilant for any signs of overt or subtle racism. Lukianoff and Haidt (2018) point out that teaching young people to employ the least generous interpretations possible of interactions with others, is likely to lead to a sense of victimisation and “engender precisely the feelings of marginalisation and oppression that almost everyone wants to eliminate”. 7. If every negative experience is attributed to external factors, about which they can do nothing, young people are unlikely to take any personal responsibility for their lives, and will learn to blame other people and institutions for every misfortune.
- External versus Internal locus of control 8
The focus of the YMCA report is on external factors: institutional racism is cited as the reason that young black people may not progress in life. This is claimed to be the case across the education sector, employment, crime, health, and finance. In every case, the recommendations are for institutions to make changes to their policies rather than encouraging young people to take some responsibility for their future. This is the worldview held by proponents of Critical Social Justice: it is society that has to change, not the individual.
Research has indicated that those with an external locus of control (believing everything that happens is beyond your control) experience higher levels of stress, and even depression (Benassi, Sweeney & Dufour, 1988)9 Feeling out of control may lead to anxiety and learned helplessness.
Here is the final quote from the YMCA report’s focus group: “Experiencing institutional racism as a young black person in the UK feels like being attacked from all directions, from everything you belong to. In all areas of your life, and for reasons outside of your control, you feel like you’re constantly losing”. This is an example of external locus of control and learned helplessness (see below)
Derald Wing Sue (1978)10 has argued that it is difficult for ‘oppressed’ or ‘marginalised’ groups to control events and that perceived differences in locus of control might reflect systems of oppression rather than a lack of self-determination. If that were the case, then systems of oppression would have to change rather than the individual. This, effectively, is what the YMCA report is recommending but this may, inadvertently, lead to learned helplessness.
- Learned Helplessness11
Learned helplessness can develop when people believe that events happening around them are uncontrollable. A recent study 12 showed that reading one short passage of Critical Race Theory was sufficient to reduce adult African-American respondents’ sense of control over their lives. This may lead to a sense of victimhood, 13 where people feel powerless to change their circumstances, or angry and resentful against others they feel are ‘oppressing’ them. Labelling oneself as a ‘victim’ may also bring benefits, such as status. It can lead to a sense of entitlement 14 where the need to take personal responsibility is rejected and others are blamed for the person’s problems and expected to meet their needs. This is an example of an external locus of control.
11 Martin E.P. Seligman and C. Peterson, Learned Helplessness, International Encylopedia of the Social & Behavioural Sciences, 2001, pp 8583-8586, https://doi.org/10.1016/B0-08-043076-7/00378-8
12 Eric Kaufman, “The Social Construction of Racism in The United States”, Report April 2021, 20-23, https://media4.manhattan-institute.org/sites/default/files/social-construction-racism-united-states-EK.pdf
- Self-efficacy 15
In contrast, research shows that setting a goal, and persisting to reach that goal, despite set-backs, helps people to develop a belief in their ability to succeed, even in the face of adversity. In this way, people learn resilience.
- Findings of the UK Youth Report 1
The YMCA report appears to view young black people as helpless victims, prevented from progressing in life by institutional barriers and systemic racism. The UK Youth report, on the other hand, states that young people, although requiring action from politicians and others in power, “also spoke about the need to find their own ways to contribute to change and feel a sense of agency”.
Internal locus of control
Although the UK Youth consultation focuses more broadly on ‘youth’ rather than ‘black youth’, its report calls for youth programmes that facilitate “emotional and social capabilities” and states the a “key driver” of “well-being” in youth includes “positive relationships with others” and “connection to the local environment and community”.
It also cites the #BeeWell Survey, measuring the well-being of secondary school pupils across Greater Manchester. This Survey found that “young people see wellbeing as ‘being connected to having a good understanding of oneself’. That includes being able to maintain positive self-esteem, cope with stressful situations, and regulate emotions”.
The UK Youth report promotes agency, self-efficacy, emotion regulation and the ability to cope with stressful situations. In other words, an internal locus of control. Data collected through the UK Youth consultation shows that their youth work programmes, conducted in 2020-21 led to a 72% increase in the “emotional and social capabilities” of the young people who took part, including “resilience, self-confidence and communication skills.” It states that “youth work gave them tools to promote their own wellbeing and navigate the world around them.”
If UK Youth were able to produce such impressive results, by giving young people the support to develop skills to cope with the world around them, why have the YMCA decided to focus their recommendations on trying to change institutions? They could, instead have recommended providing the kind of support UK Youth gave to young people in their youth programmes. While the young people who took part in UK Youth programmes may not all have been black, why should young black people not also benefit from a similar programme?
Risk factors for poor mental health
The UK Youth report states that “Young people told us about growing pressures on their wellbeing including those related to poverty, the climate crisis, the effects of the pandemic, and negative body image.” Yet the YMCA report does not highlight these factors.
Risk factors for developing mental health problems were identified by the UK Youth report as including: “living in poverty, experiencing trauma, and facing racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination”. Protective factors identified were named as: “youth work and outdoor learning”.
A further point made in the UK Youth report is that: “developments in the way we use social media have created new risks and opportunities around young people’s mental health.” It was acknowledged that “It can also be easy for young people to access harmful or misleading information about topics including self-harm and eating disorders”. Concerns were also expressed about the effects of “global events, including the climate crisis, political instability and conflict” on mental health and wellbeing.
It is worth noting that the young people who participated in the YMCA study, talked about the effects on them of social media: “Young Black people also shared that the instances of police brutality circulated on social media and the heightened awareness of racism in 2020 resulted in them feeling drained and anxious”; “Increased social media circulation of the brutality faced by Black people across the world, they find they are mentally drained and experience heightened emotions such as paranoia, and anxiety”
It is not at all surprising that instances of police brutality circulating on social media and heightened awareness of racism in 2020 had an effect on their mental state. It is very likely that it would also have influenced their perception of their own lives and experiences, heightening fears of racism and making racism more salient. It may have influenced their responses to the YMCA study and in the focus groups. It is a shame there was no baseline study prior to 2020 with which to compare these results.