#StreetLaw 4: Discrimination and the Law…

…or why it might not be a generational thing.


This week, David and I did something a little different to the previous weeks. We had, up until now, used lessons that we’d either done before personally, or had been prepared by others for us to use. This week, however, we wanted to prepare our own lesson in response to a suggestion from the first week. One girl wanted to talk about the fatal shootings in Ferguson and the issues surrounding it, but we felt that that being the single focus would be too narrow – so a wider discrimination point, focussing in on Ferguson as a case study may be more suitable.

The Premise

Like last week, primarily because it seemed to work, we split the class into groups as the came in the door. There were a few more complaints than last time, but nothing too disruptive. Before the class we prepared 5 scenarios (with brief descriptions) where some form of discrimination was present, and each group of students would take one (we assigned them randomly) and discuss it. Specifically they had to consider:

  • Whether there was discrimination.
  • Whether this was justified.
  • The effect the discrimination would have, and whether it was positive or negative.

Each group would then have to report back briefly on what they discussed and what their conclusions were – and what they thought in relation to other groups’ discussions.

The Execution

Taking each of the scenarios in turn, and the groups’ discussions of them:

Affirmative Action

The first group were looking at race being a factor in US college admissions.  Although we framed the question as “more difficult for white Americans” and didn’t give any statistics regarding racial representations, the group agreed that there was discrimination here – but said it was “in favour of racial minorities”. They also felt that, since there was a very low level of non-white students, they felt that is could be justified in terms of achieving a bigger picture of equality.
One pupil in the group did, however, raise the very important point that it was no good raising the number of non-white students if they weren’t able to pass the course. She also said that, even if they did pass, they still faced a discrimination getting jobs, so there was another level on top of it.

Marriage and Civil Partnerships

The next group had to consider the old regime where Marriages were strictly a woman-man affair and same-sex couples could only enter into Civil Partnerships. This groups agreed there was a disparity here, but there was one boy in particular who didn’t see it as too much of a difference. He correctly pointed out that, while the names were different, the question said that the rights each couple got were broadly the same, so it was a name-only difference.
I found this interesting, since this was a major point when Civil Partnerships were being introduced. We pushed and asked him if he thought that being able to call the relationship “marriage” was important, even symbolically. He said yes, but now that “they” had marriage “…they should stop marching in the town. They’re not different any more”. Overlooking for a moment the repeated use of”they”, I suggested that perhaps gay people faced other kinds of  problems, not to do with marriage – such as people calling things they found bad “gay” in the school yard, for example. He shrugged.

Racial Profiling

The third group considered racial profiling in a UK context. It’s worth bearing in mind that the class is about 70% BAME (and the group discussing this was 80% black) – and given our lesson on Stop and Search a few weeks ago, we expected a certain discussion to follow. But we were surprised. The question explicitly highlights the massive difference between the proportion of the UK who is black (3%) and its black prison population (11%). But the group said that this could be because the majority of people who commit a crime were black. The fact there was a gap was because black people commit more crime.
David and I were both surprised by this, but then one of the group said more. He said that black people were, generally, from poorer areas and received a poorer education than white people. He said that, because of this, they were more likely to be involved in crime and that this caused the problem. Again, a group had looked beyond the example and reasoned that there was a deeper problem to be addressed before the issue could properly resolved.

Class War? 

This example was, perhaps, the odd one out of the 5. In this example (based on free university tuition in Scotland), it is explicitly said that all students can go fee-free, regardless of their background, but there were few additional grants available. I’ve written about my views of this before but I was curious to see what the less politicly-biased would say.
They stated very clearly that this couldn’t be discrimination, since everyone was treated equally. But then we asked about the outcome. If everyone starts out with a different level of support, and then the government treats everyone equally, don’t the richer people keep their advantage? The general response, even when the question was opened up to the class, was yes, but that it wasn’t the government’s fault, and that was just the way it was. What, then, about people with disabilities – should they be treated the same in spite of the obvious mobility issues? The class was, obviously, a lot more understanding of these needs, but still didn’t make the connection between ‘equality of input’ and ‘equality of outcome’. it seems I may still be in the minority on this.

All Women Short-lists

I admit, this was the one I was most interested in on a personal level. The use of All-women short-lists (AWSs) has always been controversial, but I thought that the class would have become aware of them through their modern Studies classes and maybe discussed the issues. However, by chance, the group that had to discuss and present on AWSs was made up of 5 boys.
Unfortunately, they focussed not on the fact that while women are 52% of the UK population they are only 22% of all MPs, but instead on the disadvantage this would put men at in some constituencies. While at the discussion stage, David and I both suggested to them that, perhaps, while some men were being disadvantaged, there was a bigger problem that had to be addressed. They agreed that something had to be done to encourage more women to be MPs, but they also thought that AWS were discriminatory against men and that their use could not be justified at all.
There was one girl not in that particular group who also tried to make the argument that there was a bigger problem in the under-representation of women. She was even less successful than we were. Although, she was able to hold her own well. This was slightly depressing, since the boys were making the same arguments heard when AWSs have been discussed amongst adults.

The Conclusion

So all in all, while there was a lot of good discussion in the room, we both left the classroom feeling slightly sad about it all. Both David and I had hoped, I think, that the kids would be much more liberal and understanding of discrimination and the need to fight it than they actually were. The (verging on) homophobic attitude of one of the class was itself surprising to us – particularly since it didn’t seem to have any religious basis (which would explain, though not excuse, it). There was also a lack of appreciation that ‘treating everyone the same’ isn’t the same as ‘treating everyone equally’, and some didn’t recognise that sometimes we must be aware of a disadvantage (like class, or disability) in order to effectively combat it. But the discussion over AWS was perhaps the one that really got me. The arguments that the group (and wider class) put forward against AWS were the same ones I have heard time and time again in political meetings about them. There is an accepted truism that discrimination is a generational thing and that racism, sexism and homophobia are things that will disappear when my parents’ generation does. That class made me think otherwise.
That being said however, there were positives too. Some pupils were incredibly switched on the the fact that sometimes the inequality isn’t the root cause of the problem, but instead a symptom of it. The boy who said that perhaps it was true black people did commit more crime in the UK, but that was itself because of an other inequality under the surface was really impressive. As was the group who weren’t just looking at the action being taken to tackle US college admissions, but also considered the support that was needed both before and after that to make sure that it got results and made a real difference in ending the discrimination. Perhaps, if those people were able to talk with their classmates, progress might be made after all.


Teaching Points

+ The group work actually went really well and, while there were a few issues (one boy was a very dominant voice in his particular group) people were able to work together.
+ For the first lesson we had developed ourselves, David and I were really pleased with how it went and it was received.
– That being so, we did have a section on Ferguson in particular, and a “draft your own Equality Act” which we had to cut because we didn’t watch our time. We’ll have to watch that in future.
– There was a general resistance to having to formally ‘present’ conclusions to the class. The teacher suggested that in future, we tell the class a week ahead if the wanted to do presentaitons. Perhaps it was the word itself that was the issue?

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