Film -maker, writer and local resident, Adrian Hart, argues that BLMs ideological take-over of Brighton and Hove City Council is a disaster for democratic accountability and a recipe for division in its schools.
According to Patrisse Cullors, the American artist, activist and originator of the #Black Lives Matter hashtag, the movement is not so much leaderless as ‘leader-full’. A decentralised model of organisation leaves activists in any city or town empowered to act utilising Instagram, Twitter and, importantly, their existing networks.
The English south coast city of Brighton and Hove offers up a disturbing example of a council held hostage – willingly it seems – by ideological demands it just couldn’t resist. In as much as anyone noticed it happen, this was a power grab dressed up as progressive reform (another cosmetic make over – so Brighton). Regrettably, the consequences will cut deep. The prospect of newly elected councillors cajoled into ‘racial literacy’ training is troubling enough. But the ‘Anti-Racist Schools Strategy’ – if it were to continue its roll-out is so drenched in doctrinaire critical-race-theory (CRT) it is terrifying (in descriptions of schools training the CRT approach is made explicit).
The social justice activist, journalist and consultant Mo Kanijali is a disciple of BLM’s decentralized, ‘leader-full’ model. She is part of a group of women who may or may not describe themselves as members of Brighton’s BLM group. ‘You won’t know all their names though’, writes Kanijali. Within the council though, it’s not difficult to guess who they are. In Brighton, it’s safe to say that a very large proportion of its city councillors and officials are converts to the ideology of Black Lives Matter. The summer of 2020 witnessed the council’s BLM-approved reading lists pop up on the staff-only microsite ‘The Wave’. They were a nudge for compliant staff to waste no time and ‘educate’ themselves. Thereafter, from September last year, all 11,000 council staff were told to attend an 80-minute mandatory ‘briefing’ on concepts like White Privilege and White Fragility. In March this year, all 53 councillors were encouraged to attend online anti-racism ‘discussions’. Pondering the wisdom of quotations and video presentations by bestselling American writer Robin DiAngelo formed the preparation for these sessions.
In my own conversations with a councillor and a couple of council employees, it was clear that they and their colleagues regarded the sudden emphasis on anti-racism as straightforward; it simply reflected June’s global wake-up call following events in Minneapolis. It was, they felt, a time for action. ‘It’s like climate action’, said one, ‘no more debate, it’s got to be done’. DiAngelo’s buzz-phrases seemed harmless enough to them – ‘it’s just the new way to talk’. I managed to get a copy of the online staff briefing. It ran like a YouTube ‘how-to’ guide. At the start, a decidedly weary sounding session facilitator explained that the briefing would show how ‘to do what we need to do’. ‘I suppose the term is woke…’, she said, ‘I don’t totally understand it…but it’s for us to be knowledgeable and up there and knowing …’.
How the city fell
The story of Brighton’s acceleration into policies rooted in critical-race-theory (CRT) is worth telling. Setting the scene is the city’s technocratic officer-elite working in tandem with an elected layer dominated by Labour/Momentum and Greens. Inescapable if you live in Brighton, is the seaside Punch & Judy show of Red and Green party tribes endlessly pitted against one another in a game of ‘who has the best progressive values’. From June 2020 a new phenomenon sparked into life. In the shadows, activists inside both officer and elected camps organised with activists citywide to parcel up and deliver a brand new anti-racism strategy. In the heady atmosphere of the ‘BLM summer’, activists knew anything described as ‘anti-racist’ could get rubber stamped. The trick, of course, was to lock-in certain actions and make it known that council will be shamed if they kick the can down the road. Any vacillation would be clear evidence of complicity with white supremacy.
It’s impossible to know the extent of the ‘leader-full’ activity; the late-night zoom calls and tête-à-têtes were doubtless many. In the public domain, though, BLMs ideological take-over can be observed as a series of steps. Following an ostentatious anti-racist council pledge in June, step one came in the form of officer ‘recommendations’. The council’s July report reminded councillors that their ‘anti-racist council’ pledge contained a commitment to be ‘led by Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) residents and communities…’ in developing the all-important anti-racist strategy. Of note amongst the 13 officer recommendations was a resolution that the council be required to prioritise BAME businesses in all its procurement practices. A BAME resident must become ‘a standing invitee on the council’s main decision-making committee’. The council must ‘work with BAME school staff on an action plan for staff training, recruitment and retention of (and support for) BAME staff, BAME pupils…’. More generally, the council should ensure ‘decolonisation of the curriculum’. Human Resources staff will need to undertake ‘specialist equalities training’ in order to better investigate ‘allegations of racism within the council’.
We may not know all the names associated with Brighton BLM but we do know that a 15,000-word petition titled ‘Declare Brighton & Hove to be an Anti-Racist City’ had collected the required 1,250 signatures to trigger a council debate. Presented to council by Mo Kanjilal, this laid a perfect runway for Green Cllr Amy Heley to read out a specially prepared BLM statement. Classified as a motion to council both petition and statement passed unanimously. Writing the next day in Sussex Bylines Mo Kanjilal generously described Heley as giving ‘a passionate speech’.
In essence, Heley’s BLM statement gave notice to herself and all 52 of her fellow (white) colleagues that immediate and specific actions were now expected of them. ‘Words and statements are nothing without action’, she said, ‘the global [BLM] movement strives for the eradication of white supremacy while empowering black communities – empowering takes the form of fostering black innovation, creating safe spaces for black expression and ensuring we centre all black lives at all times’. Kanijali’s petition may have provided something of a crib sheet for Heley’s statement as well as lending an air of legitimacy. Along with the June demonstration it gave councillors a sense that a mandate existed for BLMs prescription of actions. The motion was passed unanimously on what can hardly be called a robust democratically accountable process.
A problem already of great concern to council technocrats and party tribes alike concerns ‘POC’ representation. It’s an issue that causes particular anguish for Labour’s already bruised Momentum group (a faction which includes pretty much every one of Brighton’s 17 Labour councillors – now down from 19 and following accusations of anti-Semitism last July). The Greens are embarrassed about it to. Adding to their anguish is the fact that the only ‘POC’ councillor is Jordan born Samer Bagaeen who, disappointingly (for Labour and Green), is a Tory. Why would anyone assume the 30,000 or so city residents with darker skins think as a bloc? Do they all desire ‘POC’ representation? And of those that do want this, has anyone told them the appointed POC representatives’ advocate critical race theory? Who outside of the council’s reified circles would ever support a shallow and patronising identity politics that views melanin-rich skin as the primary qualifier for a seat at the table? Councils like Brighton and Hove are not alone in their desire to appoint race champions and seek the advice of unelected community groups who tend to promote their own interests and agendas wrapped up as advice. This is not a recipe for encouraging trust in political representatives or the political process.
Opting for governance via continual POC lobby-group consultation has its problems. In July, Samer Bagaeen asked outgoing Labour leader Nancy Platts what her administration was doing to improve ethnic under-representation. She responded, ‘Before individuals can become Councillors, they have to stand and win elections’. She continued ‘We do not, as a Council, have the power to make individuals councillors outside the election process’. Platts did at least confirm that, in response to Black Lives Matter, a new initiative would go ahead. This initiative, said Platts, would ‘introduce a Standing Invitee to the Policy & Resources Committee to enrich its deliberations by bringing their lived experience’ and, in the process bypassing established democratic electoral procedures of local elections.
In Brighton and Hove much is said in the name of ‘diversity’ but there is precious little diversity of outlook amongst the individuals and groups the council gather around it. One group to emerge late last year was Brighton and Hove Educators of Colour Collective (BHECC). An early task undertaken by the council’s newly installed standing invitee, Stephanie Prior, was to invite BHECC and other selected contacts into a new council group called the Anti-Racist Community Advisory Group. Describing this endeavour, equalities chair Marianna Ebel told colleagues ‘We are establishing a blueprint for this work which is about dismantling old ways of doing things within the BHCC institution’.
If black-led organisations are carefully selected to fit the BLM agenda we shouldn’t be surprised that critical-race-theory provides their articulating principle. With a training consultancy commissioned, the ‘Anti-Racist Schools Strategy’ launched late in 2020. The early phase of its 5-year plan takes the form of a series of ‘Racial Literacy 101’ teacher training sessions. Offered initially to headteachers, governors and key members of staff (including ‘BAME’ staff’), its online booking page is, perhaps, the first BHCC initiative to explicitly reference CRT:
an understanding of structural/institutional racism, white privilege and a critical race theory approach.
The strategy proposes a timetable of training that will establish ‘BAME parent/pupil support groups’. These groups, states the strategy, will offer a means ‘to gather information on the lived experiences’. Training for all staff and all pupils will follow including a reactivation of zero tolerance racist incident reporting.
The term ‘racial literacy’ draws from a recent Runnymede Trust report. According to Runnymede racial ‘illiteracy’ is the unconscious root of teacher racism. The goal of anti-racism in schools is, therefore, predicated on the idea that trusting the professional skills of teachers is no longer acceptable. What is meant by ‘Racial literacy’ for pupils is less clear in the draft strategy. It simply states, ‘There is ample evidence spanning decades that children as young as 3 years old begin to learn the markers of racial categories and racial hierarchy’. Tellingly it adds, ‘and yet the widespread view that children, particularly young children, are racially ‘innocent’ persists’.
That racial ‘innocence’ and racial ‘illiteracy’ won’t be tolerated is a shocking but useful exposure of what CRT represents. Parents would surely be alarmed if they knew their children will be subjected to this. The critical race theory approach provides Brighton’s schools’ training with a cast iron set of assertions. Anyone challenging these assertions soon finds that they are incontestable. Teachers may ask the trainer ‘is it not better to ignore skin-colour, view kids as belonging to the same human family and focus on the unifying experience of subject knowledge’ but they will be told they are wrong. To newly ‘literate’ teachers pupils may assert that ‘surely it doesn’t matter what colour you are, it’s who you are as a person?’ but the CRT reply will be No! skin-colour is your identity and to deny this adds insult to injury. It is an ungenerous and intolerant approach which, if implemented, would make genuine relationships of trust among pupils, and among pupils and teachers, more difficult.
The authors of the council’s strategy warn that its training could be sabotaged: ‘It is advised that the program aims to initially engage with staff/teachers/governors that support the work and any mandatory engagement comes further down the line’. This statement illustrates how today’s BLM versions of anti-racism easily fuses with anti-democratic sentiments and practice. It could be argued that in the strange political reversals that mark contemporary culture, the former is the reformulation of the later. Where older anti-racism, based on liberal, universal values, sought to extend democratic and social rights, today’s anti-racist ideology moves in the opposite direction. The kind of education a government, national or local, endorses is a political as well as educational decision which requires the fullest public discussion. Instead, Brighton and Hove council, under the aegis of BLM ideology and via procedural manipulation, prefer to curtail wider public involvement in political decision-making.
Welcome to the new anti-racist city.