In the report of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, ‘institutional racism’ was defined as

“the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin.  It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

The current professional adoption services to children from minority ethnic backgrounds have been acknowledged to be poor.  It reportedly takes three times longer for ethnic minority children to be permanently placed in adoptive homes when compared to white children.  Moreover, statements by the Prime Minister, Michael Gove and other ministers are explicit in stating that this is because of their ethnic origin.

The duty of adoption services is to find families who are able to meet the identified needs of every child who is to be placed.  The needs of the children are paramount.  Agencies’ primary role is not to find children for every family who would like to adopt.

It is evident, therefore, that ethnic minority children are receiving a poorer service because of their ethnic origin.  This thereby meets the first part of the Macpherson definition of ‘institutional racism’.

Can this racism be detected in “the processes, attitudes and behaviour” of adoption agencies, as Macpherson described?   Is there evidence of “prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping”?

Examples of prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping are widespread in the current discussion of new government policy.

For example, the delay in placing minority children has been attributed to social workers’ concern to find suitable adoptive parents who match their ethnic origin. The Prime Minister describes this emphasis on supporting the development of the child’s ethnic identity as an “absurd barrier”.

 By dismissing the importance of race and ethnicity for these children, he lines up with the police officers implicated in the Macpherson report who repeatedly denied the relevance of race to the attack on Stephen Lawrence and contemptuously dismissed his parents’ concerns about the racist nature of the attack.  Attention to a child’s race and ethnicity is not “absurd”.  It is a recognition of the developmental needs of an ethnic minority child growing up in a British society in which racism is still endemic.

 The Prime Minister and his colleagues, who have no personal experience and little understanding of the disadvantages faced by visible minorities in the UK, demonstrate the “unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping” of which Macpherson spoke.

 If they were actually to listen to the professionals, trans-racial adoptees[i] and even white adoptive parents of children from minority ethnic backgrounds[ii], they would hear about the potential for mental health problems and what one BBC interviewee referred to as her “trauma” as she tried to develop a healthy self-identity in a social context that had not provided appropriate support.  Apparently the personal experience of a (white) Michael Gove who was adopted as an infant by a (white) family is the preferred evidence on the development of adopted children of minority ethnic origin.  This dismissal of the views of people from minority backgrounds is a characteristic feature of institutional racism.

 The delay caused by the attention to ethnicity is attributed to the inability to find suitable parents from minority ethnic backgrounds.

However, social workers from minority ethnic backgrounds and those working in agencies which have been successful in finding suitable parents argue that this shortage is due to poor practice, not to the non-existence of such families.  So here we have another example of Macpherson’s “unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping”.

The spread of good practice – with prejudice and ignorance replaced by in-depth knowledge of and respect for the needs of minority ethnic children of diverse backgrounds, a non-stereotypical non-racist view of minority families, and the ability to communicate effectively with such families – would eliminate the current institutional racism.

Improved social work practice to eliminate institutional racism would therefore solve the stated problem –  which is that the search for suitable adoptive parents was causing unacceptable delays.  In other words, if you are being too slow in finding suitable parents for children who need sensitive support for their developing ethnic identity, you should improve your procedures for finding families from minority ethnic backgrounds.

Curiously, this is not the approach adopted by the government.  Demonstrating their identification with the needs of the white would-be adopters rather than the needs of the ethnic minority children, ministers propose a policy change to give priority to allowing white parents to adopt minority children, dismissing attention to their ethnicity as “absurd”. Also implicit in this position is the assumption that other suitable families from minority backgrounds do not exist.  “Unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping” strike again?

We need to be absolutely clear:  what the new adoption policy sets out to do is to institutionalize the current institutional discrimination.  The new policy, as articulated by the Prime Minister, Michael Gove, Martin Narey, et al, will formalise the current institutional racism in the statutory rules governing the procedures for dealing with minority ethnic children in need of adoptive families.

Even the Metropolitan Police, with all its flaws, did not attempt to build the treatment of Stephen Lawrence’s family into the rules for dealing with future victims of racist attacks.

© Dr Marie Stewart MBE


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