Why paint so black a picture?: A social work directive elevates racism to a national epidemic. It is a national disgrace

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The Independent Online
SOCIAL workers usually earn abuse and bad publicity from cases of obvious incompetence. The highly specific nature of these cases is, however, confusing: they do not reveal whether there is something wrong with individuals or with the system. But the latest round of social worker abuse engages with the ideological basis of the whole enterprise as embodied in a document known as Paper 30.

This paper is being blamed by some social work academics for a wave of oppression and corruption in university departments of social work. It has, they claim, inspired Stalinist demands for political rectitude, and launched persecutions of students and teachers who fail to comply or who insist simply on freedom and openness of discussion.

More alarmingly, Paper 30 is said to lie behind the justifications of social workers who refused to allow a Norfolk couple to adopt a mixed-race child because they displayed a 'lack of understanding of racial issues'.

At first glance this paper, published by the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work (CCETSW) and now in its second edition, is no more than an averagely incompetent piece of bureaucratic illiteracy. Over 48 pages it rambles with burbling imprecision in an attempt to define the 'rules and requirements' for the Diploma in Social Work. A general intention is discernible, but the terms are laughably vague. Students or teachers could more or less do what they liked and find justification for it via some elementary juggling of this worthy vocabulary of skills, assessments, commitments, models and validations. It is, in short, routine garbage of the sort that clogs all of our lives some of the time, and can usually be safely binned along with everything from American Express.

Yet on the academic front there can be little doubt that the charges against the paper have substance. A significant number of social work courses have been poisoned by Paper 30-inspired political correctness, and in those courses serious teaching and free debate can be said to be impossible. Many have not succumbed, simply because there remain enough tough-minded academics prepared to resist and, if necessary, to exploit the CCETSW's own incompetence with language.

In the real world, blaming Paper 30 directly is more dubious, since the causal chains are longer and because stories of stupid social workers are so attractive to newspapers. The result is that it is difficult to assess whether there really is something uniquely stupid or wrong-headed about this profession. Lawyers or doctors could, I am sure, be equally successfully pilloried. But it is social workers who are in the dock, and Paper 30 is Exhibit One.

Having studied this document at some cost to my powers of reason and sense of style, and engaged in a shouting match/calm discussion with a representative of CCETSW lasting nearly two hours, I have reached a verdict. The bureaucratic definers of the profession of social work are desperately wrong- headed, and Paper 30 is lethal.

Amid all the unfocused wittering of the document, one clear obsession is detectable: race. Racism is, in fact, the only specific social problem that is repeatedly emphasised. And the terms in which the subject appears are quite distinct. For example, the section headed 'What CCETSW expects' begins with four paragraphs of organisational chat, and then launches into the insistence that 'students are prepared not only for ethnically sensitive practice but also to challenge and confront institutional and other forms of racism'.

Later there is an insistence that students have a knowledge or understanding of 'processes of structural oppression' and 'the notion of ethnocentricity'. These are heavily loaded and dangerously ambiguous terms bearing intellectual assumptions and values on a scale that is not to be found elsewhere in this document. Both 'structural oppression' and 'ethnocentricity' have been employed in other contexts, especially in the US, to justify black Fascism and, indeed, a form of left-wing apartheid. They allow zealots to insist that racism can be detected anywhere at any time and, in the name of anti-racism, people can justifiably be persecuted.

I was given relatively anodyne definitions of these terms by the CCETSW, but more vicious ones are current and they are emphatically not excluded by the terms of the paper.

But the real climax of the race issue in Paper 30 is Annex 5 - the three-paragraph 'statement on anti-racism'. This is a horror that makes explicit the dishonest and coercive politics implicit in all the preceding references: 'CCETSW believes that racism is endemic in the values, attitudes and structures of British society, including those of social services and social work education. CCETSW recognises that the effects of racism on black people are incompatible with the values of social work and therefore seeks to combat racist practices in all areas of responsibilities.'

A cursory reading of this sentence might lead you to think that it says simply: there is a lot of racism about and we are against it. But here, for once, the paper's language is precise; there is not simply a lot of racism, it is 'endemic' in 'values, attitudes and structures'. This might reasonably be interpreted as meaning that everybody and everything is racist and that Britain has a particularly acute problem. Furthermore, since everybody is a racist, we are racists, too, and because we hate racism so much we have a special duty to fight it.

Books could be written on the intellectual arrogance and dishonesty of these assertions, as well as on their close structural kinship to certain ideas that have justified totalitarianism and murder in the past. For the moment, however, only these points need be made: racist attitudes exist and there are many nasty incidents with a racial component that can be proved; it is meaningless and utterly unjustified to inflate this into the conviction that all British society is riddled with it; to elevate racism as the one specific enemy of social work cripples the profession's ability to think and to consider other factors; the conviction that we are all racists is an old totalitarian trap that means if you argue with any part of the case you are directly providing evidence for the case; such presuppositions, as demonstrated by the Norfolk fiasco, encourage the inhuman conviction that blackness or whiteness is the overwhelmingly dominant factor in individual identity, and that if you are not absolutely defined by your skin colour, then you are racially nave.

In fact, Britain in world terms is a society relatively free of racist tension and, historically, it was the British rather than the equally implicated Arabs and Africans who abolished the slave trade, so we might reasonably congratulate ourselves on being the most anti-racist culture on earth.

Yet, in a sense, such arguments are beside the point. Bureaucrats have decided to formalise their extreme and - to blacks - highly offensive views about race in this and a stream of other papers; many young social workers will accept them and the damage will be done. Reasoned argument is unlikely to be effective - when, for example, I pointed out the meaning of their own words to the CCETSW, the reply was simply that they could not be responsible for misinterpretations - a frightening indicating of how remote they are from real history, functioning language and an elementary sense of responsibility.

Perhaps, in such a context, Professor Robert Pinker of the London School of Economics was right to say on Monday that this body should be abolished at once. But presumably this disabling obsession with racism will remain, and this is what really needs to be confronted. It is evident that racism is perceived by these people as a social problem of such magnitude and pervasiveness that it either dwarfs or defines all others. Indeed, the language employed - the word 'endemic' being the grossest example - indicates that racism is understood not as a series of simple incidents or nasty attitudes, but rather as a condition, a syndrome, a virus or even some metaphysical entity that silently invades all our lives and perverts all our judgements.

This elevation of racism into disease or original sin is the real clue to the obsession. Ever since the 19th century there has been a tendency for social work to manifest itself as a group of well-meaning 'experts' moving among the lower orders with the conviction that they have some clear understanding and explanation of their problems.

It is not enough merely to help, there must also be some explanatory mechanism. This, of course, changes with time, and racism happens to be the explanatory model of the moment. Furthermore, race conveniently replaces class as the point of conflict required by much left-wing political theory; it is an issue that usefully inspires the same generalised guilt and provides the same material for a pseudo-scientific explanation of social developments.

Finally, and most banally, social workers are politically tied to local government, and race is a devastatingly effective and apparently simple issue for firing up the councillors. The truth is that racism is neither a virus against which we need social workers to inoculate us, nor an abstract force of history or metaphysical entity to which we must all confess or whose blemish must be wiped from our souls. It is simply a stupid and occasionally evil distortion of the natural human impulse to treat the alien with caution and some unease.

The racist elevates uncertainty to aggression, as does the rapist or the socially inadequate domestic murderer. Racism, in short, is nothing special, it is just one element in the spectrum of human nastiness.

Paper 30 is a miserable document that can all too easily be used to justify divisive and vicious attitudes. It encourages racism by placing it so relentlessly in a category of its own and by insisting on the certainty of its ubiquity and its effects. Virginia Bottomley and Jeffrey Greenwood, the new chairman of the CCETSW, should withdraw it at once.