How systemic racism affects young people in the UK

Published on
21 July 2020

Racism can take many forms.

Some think racism is always visible and obvious, and mostly comes from individuals through physical and verbal abuse and an open contempt for those of a certain ethnic or cultural background. While this is definitely a form of racism, other elements of racism, such as systemic racism, are widespread but harder to spot. 

In the UK, major institutions operate in ways that discriminate against Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people including children. This is what you might have heard of as systemic, structural or institutional racism. The following stats show where systemic racism affects children in the UK. It’s important to acknowledge these facts to improve our understanding of what racism looks like and how to help tackle it. We're highlighting this in support of our commitment to becoming an anti-racist organisation.

In schools

When it comes to school, data shows that some children are disciplined far more often than others. According to Government data, the groups of children with the highest rates of permanent exclusion in the school year 2018-19 are White Gypsy and Roma pupils (0.39%), Traveller of Irish Heritage pupils (0.27%), Black Caribbean pupils (0.25%) and Mixed White and Black Caribbean children (0.24%). All children have the ability to be disruptive in class so a disparity like this should be examined closely and addressed. Exclusions can be disruptive for a child’s learning and lead to disengagement with education. Some people wrongly attribute this to cultural or racial difference, when in reality there are multiple factors at play, including structural racism.

When we look at the wider context of racism within schools, we begin to see a pattern. A poll of more than 400 BAME teachers found that 54 per cent have experienced actions they believe are demeaning to their racial heritage or identity. Students are also likely to have experienced this too - if not from teachers, then from their classmates  - incidences of racism in school have increased over the last ten years. 

While this is stark reading, there is hope for change - organisations like the Runnymede Trust are trying to help ensure that children and young people get the support they need in schools - their recent report calls for more training in racial literacy for teachers (something that teachers themselves say they’d benefit from) and more Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic teachers to help address the lack of diversity in teaching staff. They've also called for the school curriculum to be more inclusive and to teach more of our history around migration and the reality of the British empire.

At home

You may have heard in the news that BAME people have a higher risk of becoming seriously ill or dying as a result of coronavirus. Another worrying set of data shows the greater increases in depression, anxiety, self harm and suicidal thoughts among BAME young people compared to white peers during COVID-19 pandemic. We also know that BAME young carers can struggle to get the help they need and will have found lockdown especially isolating. 

In terms of poverty, new data lays bare the difficult position that Black families are in. The Social Metrics Commission’s latest report found that 46% of Black households in the UK were in poverty, compared with just under one in five white families. 

This means that these families are disproportionately exposed to job losses and pay cuts caused by the coronavirus pandemic. 

There’s a wider issue of social mobility at play here - how are young Black people supposed to break away from this widespread poverty? It’s reassuring to know that there are prominent supporters who are trying to give BAME children and young people the chances that they might not get otherwise - Stormzy is one such figure, and has made moves to ensure that more Black young people can progress. He created two scholarships for Black students with Cambridge University and also is pushing for better representation in literature through #Merky Books, an imprint of Penguin Books. Through #Merky Books and their annual New Writer’s Prize competition, young unpublished writers can have their voices heard and stimulate diversity within the stories told and the world of literature as a whole.

In the youth justice system

This is another area in which  accusations of systemic racism emerge time and time again. Across the UK, Black children were over four times more likely than white children to be arrested. Young black men were stopped and searched by police more than 20,000 times in London during the coronavirus lockdown – the equivalent more than a quarter of all black 15- to 24-year-olds in the capital. Overall stop-and-search rates between 2018 and 2019 show that Black people are now nearly 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people. The disparity doesn’t end there - research from the Sentencing Council found that Black and minority ethnic people are far more likely to be sent to prison for drug offences than white defendants who have committed similar crimes.

Again, as with exclusions in schools, it’s simply not fair to put this inequality down to a pattern of behaviour common to one ethnic group. You may have heard of the Macpherson report, prompted by the inquiry into the Metropolitan Police force’s handling of Stephen Lawrence’s murder. This report concluded that policing was institutionally racist and gave a set of 70 recommendations to address this. More recently, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) says it will use its formal powers to investigate cases where there is an indication that disproportionality impacts BAME communities, including stop and search and use of force.

To add to this, a recent survey suggests cause for concern around bias within the police. Data gathered from 300 police ranking from constable up to chief superintendent, shows that two in five (41%) agree with the statement that stereotypes about other groups of people are usually true. This is a higher figure than that of the general public - a quarter (26%) of them agreed with this. The data also shows police are more likely (41%) than the general public (34%) to disagree with the statement that multiculturalism is a positive force.

Again, while this is bleak reading, there are ways to speak out against this discrimination and help change this. Grassroots organisations like 4Front provide a platform for young people most directly harmed by violence and the criminal justice system to create change, while acknowledging the impact of racism on these young people and working to dismantle these systems. Stopwatch is a coalition of organisations and activists who promote effective, accountable and fair policing.

Sadly, these are not the only stats that lay bare the institutional racism that children in the UK come up against. But knowing the realities that young people in the UK face is key in helping hold these institutions to account and improving the systems to support and protect children, young people and their families - regardless of their ethnicity.

Find out more

Read our blogs about the issues impacting young people

We regularly release blogs to highlight the issues and topics impacting young people in the UK and the work Barnardo's does to support them.

What is white privilege? A guide for parents

Read more about what white privilege is and how racial identity impacts people's lives.

Talking to children about racism

Having open and honest conversations about race and racism can help to tackle prejudice and intolerance. Read our guidance to find out how to talk to your children about it.