Notes on: Sewell, T. (2010). Masterclass in victimhood. Prospect. September 22. ttps://

Dave Harris

[Scathingly summarised by Gilborn and Vieler-Porter as evidence of Sewell's dangerousness)

He visited a city primary school in London to help out a former student. He 'immediately spotted her problem pupils, who were play fighting at the back of the room'. He divided the class into five groups and set them the task to draw a '"wonderful African mask"', but with very uneven resources: a group of well behaved Black girls had lots of resources, but these were reduced for the other tables, ending with the bad boys' table  who were given very minimal resources, but were encouraged to trade (no-one wanted to trade).

The bad boys protested and said that he was racist. They were unable to trade. They said the White teachers were always picking on them and that the school was prejudiced. There were thought of as gangsters. Teachers were rude. He ignored the complaints and offered an inducement to complete the task. They got down to work. The competition was judged and they were the winners.

He asked what they had learned — they felt bad but they were determined to beat everyone else against the odds. He told them he disliked their whingeing but was proud because they'd got focused and used their talent.

The first generation of Caribbean Black immigrants arrived in a society that was not prepared and were 'burned out in a racist schooling system' as Coard described: there was seen as intellectually inferior 'on the basis of linguistic difference, cultural attitudes' and belief.

African Caribbean boys are still at the bottom of the league and they get there during the course of their education. They are also more likely to be excluded from school, in some areas three times more likely. However, although the level of underachievement has remained the same 'the reasons behind it have changed'.

Diane Abbott claimed that teachers are failing Black boys, seeing them as gangsters. Gillborn and Mirza have detected indirect discrimination… Because schools want to protect their position in league tables which leads to allocation of Black children to the lower tiers in GCSE.

[Then the irritating sentences]. 'My challenge to these claims is that times have changed. What we now see in schools is children undermined by poor parenting, peer group pressure and an inability to be responsible for their own behaviour. They are not subjects of institutional racism'. They did not do homework or pay attention and were disrespectful to children. Instead they need to be challenged 'we have given them the discourse of the victim – a sense that the world is against them and they cannot succeed'.

Gillborn and Abbott say that White teachers have low expectations but he has 'never been convinced by this'. However school leaders have low expectations because they 'do not want to be seen as racist and… position Black boys as victims'. Government initiatives are equally flawed — one took 20 Black role models as inspiration, but for Sewell 'this is desperate and patronising. Why can't Black boys be inspired by anyone around who is  positive, including White teachers?'

The bad boys in the class 'had a default reaction — all their experience was seen through the lens of racism'. They could only understand themselves as a victim. They  can only succeed if they felt they could control their world and this is what he was teaching them — 'not to accept their lot but to move on from being a victim'.

Young Black boys feel the world is against them but they cannot find the source of the trouble. 'We have a generation of all the language and discourse of the race relations industry but no devil to fight'. Much of the evidence of institutional racism is flimsy. In one study, teacher assessments were examined and revealed  uinderscoring for Black and White working class children, but overscoring for Indian and Chinese children. This proves little, and was not matched by results in the real SAT scores. The results actually for White working class boys in some tests like reading age are worse.

He tried to work with African Caribbean boys to help them succeed and break with a victim mentality. He set up a charity to run 'summer schools, internships, and other interventions' to aspire to professions in the sciences. He chose children carefully, from schools with 'poor background, little history of sending students to university'. They attended summer camps at elite universities. The results were 'fantastic' in terms of A-level grades and going to universities. They visited Jamaica for a summer science camp. The consequence was to make them feel '"raceless"' since most of the population looked like them and they felt they were judged on the content of their character. None of the people they met 'once mentioned race '. They returned with greater confidence in their own abilities.

They avoided any talks on 'Black identity, Black history or mentoring with Black role models'. There is a similar program in New York which began by offering poor children 'shorter holidays a longer school day. There, school results went through the roof'.

His charity gave the boys 'resilience to move away from a negative peer pressure in some of their communities. They loved being intelligent and joining a group with the same values. It took us four years to shield them from those who want them to wallow in self-pity'.