Notes on: Gillborn, D. (2015). Intersectionality, Critical Race Theory, and the Primacy of Racism: Race, Class, Gender, and Disability in Education. Qualitative Inquiry, 21 (3): 277 – 87.

Dave Harris

NB part of a book The Colour of Class

This is based on a qualitative enquiry drawing on a sample of Black middle-class parents in England with learning dis/abled children. It argues for intersectionality to explain everyday reality, with a primacy for racism-- 'empirical primacy '; 'personal/autobiographical primacy (as a vital component in how critical race scholars view themselves and their experience of the world)';  'political primacy (as a point of group coherence and activism)'

This could be a provocative argument, involving essentialism, especially for those who think social class is more important. CRT has also had a bad press lately especially in the USA where it has been accused of portraying all white people as racist. It might also be contradictory to argue both for intersectionality and the primacy of racism. However we can see racism as 'an empirical, personal and political aspect of critical race scholarship' (278 )[virtually circular].

Most commentaries have identified a set of characteristic assumptions and approaches to CRT especially that race is socially constructed and that racial difference is invented and reinforced by society. As a result, racism is 'complex, subtle and flexible' and manifested in different contexts. Minoritized groups are subjected to a range of different stereotypes, but the majority of racism 'remains hidden beneath the veneer of normality' and thus looks ordinary and natural, business as usual, which POC meet every day. Whiteness refers to 'a set of assumptions, beliefs and practices that place the interests and perspectives of White people at the centre of what is considered normal and everyday… [It]… Is not an assault on White people themselves… [But]… An assault on the socially constructed and constantly reinforced power of White identifications, norms and interests' (278) [so the agents of this are falsely conscious?. He quotes Ladson Billings and Tate 1995 here]. White people can deconstruct whiteness but are seen as race traitors and are uncommon. White supremacy is understood not in the usual way to mean fascist racist hatred but 'much more subtle and extensive forces that saturate the everyday mundane actions and policies that shape the world in the interests of White people' [that is, a dominant ideology].

Racism is shaped by other dimensions of identity and social structure — hence intersectionality, referring to the interrelation of multiple forms of inequality, 'for example the interconnectedness of race, class, gender, disability and so on'. It originated with Crenshaw, and she is quoted as saying that group membership can make people vulnerable to various forms of bias because we are simultaneously members of many groups. For example men and women experience racism differently and this helps us analyse social problems more fully, shape better interventions and '"promote more inclusive coalitional advocacy"' [which is the bit that surely opposes CRT politics]

So intersectionality has an empirical basis helping us understand the nature of empirical inequities and it has an activist component leading to generating coalitions between different groups. It is not an 'academic tactic or fashion'(279). Delgado says we should avoid 'never-ending academic games of claim and counterclaim' which will shatter coherence [a nice quote from him says that the danger is that you can always be accused of leaving someone out. This aligns with Gillborn's own criticism of quantitative empirical work that takes everything into account and ends with a garbage can]. So we must find a balance. He then implies that empirical data will help us as in this study. [Oh dear]

He did a study with some colleagues looking at how race and class intersect with Black middle-class parents, especially those who identify as being of Black Caribbean heritage — those are the ones who are longest established yet to 'continue to face marked educational inequalities in terms of achievement and expulsion from school' [with several major references to support]. When interviewed (2009 – 10), all the parents had kids between the ages of eight and 18. Most interviewees were mothers although they were also interested in 'common deficit assumptions about Black men so they ensured 1/5 of the sample were fathers. All parents were in 'professional/managerial jobs', the top two categories of the usual socio-economic classifications. Most lived in Greater London. They were volunteers. They interviewed 62 parents at first and then reinterviewed 15 in greater depth. They interviewed about their own experiences of the education system, their aspirations for their children, and how their experience was shaped by race and social class. They were asked about the effects of the ethnicity of the interviewer and allowed to express a preference.

Turning to special education, both race and disability are assumed to be obvious and fixed but both are socially constructed categories and have been constantly contested and redefined. Both have also operated to oppress. Both appear as individual matters relating to identity, but both have a political history. In the US, for example the concept 'learning disabilities' emerged to protect the children of white middle-class families from downward mobility through low school achievement [as in dyslexic not stupid etc]. Some labels might be advantageous in securing additional resources but not all of them. In both the US and the UK 'there is a long history of Black youth being overrepresented in segregated low status educational provision' usually disguised as special or assisted education, and the intersection of race and disability has long been examined in things like Coard's 1971 book  and the Tomlinson Report 1981.

The issue emerged in the interviews as a key element. 15 interviewees mentioned disability or related issues, and discussion focused on the processes that led to a special needs assessment; what happened after the assessment; whose interests were served by the school's reaction and treatment of parents and children in terms of disability, in other words how they managed labels, either resisted them or used them to access additional resources. It was in this context that racism could be seen to intersect with other aspects of oppression especially class and gender to 'make, assert, and contest the meaning of disability in schools'. (280).

The official policy in the UK involves a series of stages for the assessment of children: first the parents or school identify that a child is having problems; then an assessment is arranged through the school or local authority; then the nature of the child's needs is identified and adjustments recommended; then a school acts on these recommendations in order to help students better achieve their potential [this might have altered since the date of this article].

They found only one case that came close to this model and that resulted in harmonious working through the process. In every other case the parent identified the problem and sought an assessment, usually privately, drawing on both economic and cultural and social capital to do so. The school on the other hand seemed content to assume that poor performance was 'all that could be expected' — not paying attention, for example rather than dyslexia or poor hearing. 'In our research, where Black children's performance was at stake, school seemed happy to assume that the lowest level of performance was the "true" indicator of their potential' [low grades at school, compared to better grades with work at home, for example, leading to a private assessment and subsequent substantial gains].

There were two cases where a school initiated a formal assessment which 'served to divert attention from racism in the school' and focused instead on 'a supposed individual deficit in the Black child' (281) [the second case involved racial bullying and led to an initial sympathetic response and the school, but that eventually turned into a label that the kid was having behaviour and anger management problems — the kid was called a Black monkey and he responded by beating his accuser up]

Even using their class capitals to acquire formal SEN assessments, there is still a problem in getting the schools to accept them and make reasonable adjustments. Some simply refused to act on the assessment, but in most cases they made encouraging noises but responded with patchy or non-existent actions — refusing to allow the use of a laptop in case it set a precedent, for example, or just ignoring parental requests, even middle-class ones. 'In contrast, schools appear much more ready to act on more negative disability labels'. [White as well as Black probably?]

This seems to be the case in the USA as well, especially if labelling depends on clinical judgement, and if it turns on matters defined as behavioural emotional and social difficulties. In the UK, Black students are more than twice as likely to be so labelled as their White peers, and are more often segregated. One of the interviewee parents visits units as part of her work and describes what she saw as the '"brutalisation" of Black boys in segregated provision' (282), again parallel to the impact of tracking or setting in the USA and in the UK, which sets off a cycle of low expectations, de-motivation and disaffection [again quoting this one parent who visits segregated education and reported on one boy]. It is not dyslexia itself that produces such results, and such a diagnosis can protect the White middle-class America privilege, but rather 'the combination of SEN and race seem to automatically condemn the student to the very lowest teaching groups where his confidence and performance collapsed'.

The UK Education Department says that the interests of the child should be at the heart of the system, but racism is 'deeply implicated' (282) and the existing education system is being maintained. It is 'institutionally racist'. 'Numerous qualitative studies' (283) have revealed chronically low teacher expectations for black students in many British schools, and this means that a sharp discrepancy in performance is viewed as indicative of students' true potential rather than as an indicator of a learning disability. When Black parents tried to challenges assumptions the schools might sound welcoming but behave in ways that are 'at best patchy and, at worst, obstructive and insulting'. This is not 'a general reluctance to mobilise disability labels, rather it seems to apply to particular labels (specific or moderate "learning difficulties") that might positively benefit the Black child'. When it comes to '"behavioural"' judgements within an SEN framework, labels are applied 'with disproportionate frequency against Black students 'and this was reflected in the interview data' [although it must've been with very small numbers] and it 'often' led to segregation and 'ultimately decimating the student's academic performance' [again not much actual evidence from the survey on this].

So the experiences [they claim to have researched] suggest that the needs of Black children go unmet and that disability labels are a further field to create sustain and legitimise 'racist inequities'. Special education has long been recognised as a complex area where students experiences can be significantly shaped. Here, even 'class advantage fails to protect in the face of entrenched racism'. Even Black middle-class parents with 'considerably enhanced social and economic capitals' can still be 'excluded from the potential benefits (of legitimate adjustments and dedicated resources) that remain subject to the disadvantages of low expectations, segregation and conclusion' [I'm still not sure that this is tightly linked to this survey -- it seems to be based on the one commentator].

Gender has not featured so prominently in this article 'but it has been a constant presence in the background'. Particular concern has been expressed for male children who are particularly prone to heightened surveillance in schools 'and the attentions of police and gang members on the street'. It is also mostly male members who constitute the 'segregated and "brutalised" bottom set… (Reported by [their respondent]) and it was boys who were referred for assessment following their racist victimisation by White peers [in the two examples in their sample]'.

Overall, Warmington is quoted as saying that '"race is not reducible to false consciousness; nor is it mere 'product' or 'effect'"'. Dis/ability masquerades as natural and obvious [there is a difference between physical and mental disabilities?]. He himself has been diagnosed as [learning] dis/abled, however although this is invisible, showing that social identities and inequities 'are socially constructed and enforced', and differences only become disabilities 'when confronted by socially constructed problems and assumptions…  "not being able to walk or hear being made problematic by socially created factors such as the built environment… And the use of spoken language rather than sign language"' [trivially obvious but ridiculous in its implications — on stronger grounds if it been applied to routine school environments with crap acoustics and steps].

An intersectional understanding can be a distinct advantage in seeing how particular inequities are made and remade in places like schools, especially the intersecting dimensions of race class and gender. This is not just adding dimensions on as in Delgado.

Detractors have long sought to misrepresent CRT. He needs to defend what he means by 'primacy' of racism (284). He does not mean that racism is the only issue that matters, nor are that it is 'always the most important issue in understanding every instance of social exclusion and oppression'. It is not suggesting that there is 'some kind of hierarchy of oppression' with one single group as the most excluded, or with the most developed understanding of the processes at work. Instead there are three ways in which racism 'remains a primary concern for critical race theorists' [circular again]:

There is 'the empirical primacy of racism', where 'racist assumptions and practices are often the crucial issue when making sense of how oppression operates' [circularity here because this is prefaced with 'when we study how racist inequity is created and sustained']. Racist inequity is influenced by other factors, but racism has a central role, as in this case where apparently individual issues like dis/ability are not only socially constructed but racially patterned and oppressive [there seems to be the same sort of argument that empirical patterns are somehow real after all, not determined by the interests, values and so on of the researcher -- denied below. Qualitative research yields these?].

Second there is 'the personal or autobiographical primacy of race' that we 'as scholars foreground in making sense of our experience'. Many of us have 'an issue that touches the most deeply, often viscerally' [we are guided by our emotions]. For some it is race or gender, for CRT theorists it is race/racism. We are not blind to other forms of exclusion but 'surely we have as much right as any other critic to begin with the issue that – for us – touches us most deeply and which generates the most important experiences and ambitions for change' [and for career?]. Why should we be challenged 'in ways which other radical perspectives are not'? [Followed by a quote from Preston and Bhopal, a rather self pitying one saying that other speakers are rarely asked to justify their focus, while CRT is seen as '"a sign of pathology or suspicion"']. [Appealing to the liberal notion of free speech and the Academy here?]

Third there is a 'political primacy of racism', where resisting oppression is a defining characteristic, challenging the status quo which means they must refuse 'the growing mainstream assertion that racism is irrelevant or even non-existent' [even if it is diminishing?]. They think that's 'racist inequities continue to scar the economy, education, health, and criminal justice system' [and do not mention Sewell of course], but deny that this is special pleading or playing the race card, nor just an attack on White people. It is a courageous thing to do 'to say the unsayable and follow through'. 'We can use intersectionality but we must not be silenced by it'. Finally we owe it to the legacy of D Bell — 'Bell's legacy demands nothing less' [the article was based on a keynote address on Bell's legacy] [Heroic notion of struggle etc]