Victory against racism at Leeds school

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Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 1 – November/December 1979

A particularly blatant example of the use of suspension as a method of racist harassment of black school children has recently occurred in Leeds. We report this not only because it highlights the racism of the British educational and judicial system but also because it shows the effectiveness of resistance to the attempts of the state to deprive black children of their education and to split black families.

On February 26, a fifteen year old black youth was suspended from a school in Leeds for refusing to cut his dreadlocks and there-by break the discipline of his Rastafarian religion. Despite the fact that white youths at the same school were allowed to wear their hair longer than his, the school insisted on suspending the black youth. They thus ensured that he missed five months of his education. The headmaster of the school revealed the colonial mentality which permeates the British state when he suggested that the black youth wear a turban. The headmaster rejected the black youth's suggestion that he wear a hat to school.

In July the Leeds Education Authority, by then responsible for preventing his attendance at school for five months, took their racist harassment one stage further and summonsed his mother to court for failing, they said, to ensure his attendance at school. Despite overwhelming evidence in his favour, proving that it was the education authorities which were preventing his attendance at school, the court ruled that if he missed one more week of school he would immediately be taken into care. The magistrate said:

‘If you don't cut your hair you will go straight into care. It is as simple as that.'

This racist alliance between the British education system and the courts resulted in a very real threat that this black youth would be removed from his family and friends and taken into 'care by the same local authority which had victimised him. By these means the British state would lock up a black youth for three years using the absurd and trivial excuse that his hair is too long.

Had the case been left there, no doubt the Leeds Education authority would have achieved its racist aim. But it was not left there. A local defence committee, the Chapeltown Rasta Defence Committee, was set up to fight the case. This committee achieved considerable local publicity for the case, collected over 1000 signatures for a protest petition including over 100 signatures collected at the Notting Hill Carnival. As well as mobilising support in Leeds the case attracted national support and signatures were collected in Bristol, London, Manchester and Scotland. On the first day of the school year, September 4, a picket of the school was called by the Defence Committee. About 30 people attended. As well as local support from the black community in Leeds the picket was attended by a contingent from Bradford Asian Youth Movement and also from Manchester Revolutionary Communist Group. The picketers' message was made clear by their placards: 'Hair length is not the issue. Racism is', 'Stop the Racist Suspensions', 'British Education is Racist'. While the picket continued, attracting much support from school children going into the school, a meeting was held with the Headmaster. After five months of refusing to change his decision to suspend the youth, his resolve crumbled in the face of resistance. Victory was achieved and he agreed to allow the youth back into school providing he wore a hat (which he had all along offered to do but which previously the Headmaster had refused to accept.)

No doubt the school and the Local Education Authorities were concerned not only about the protests aroused by this one case but also that such protests would throw the spotlight on the whole question of the use of suspension as a weapon against black youth in Britain. For the case in Leeds is not an isolated incident. The latest example to come to light concerns a Sikh girl who has been refused admission to school in Birmingham for wearing a turban as her religion decrees. Throughout the country black children are the victims of an education system which suspends them on the most trivial grounds, which randomly labels them educationally sub-normal and which robs them of even the paltry and inadequate education which is available to the working class.

Leeds correspondent