I’m not actually a huge fan of initiatives, however well-meaning, that target individuals according to their skin colour. At a time when society has apparently never been more certain of the need to break down racial barriers, we seem, in many respects, to be doing everything possible to build them up. Indeed, so obsessed are many of today’s socio-political influencers with race, it strikes me that they would do well to be reminded of the injunction by Martin Luther King that people should be judged not according to the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.
So I have some sympathy with the leaders of two top private schools – Dulwich and Winchester – in their decision to reject a large donation from a former pupil, Professor Sir Bryan Thwaites, who had intended for his money to fund scholarships for disadvantaged white boys. I can well imagine, upon being notified of the gift, their sharp intake of breath and the question immediately forming in their minds: why only white boys?
But there is another lingering question: what if the money had been earmarked for disadvantaged black boys? Would the schools have been so queasy about it? I’m going to stick my neck out and say no.
Recognising the challenges facing underprivileged black children and enacting measures to improve their fortunes is seen as a virtuous thing. It’s why, for example, there was no controversy when the rapper Stormzy pledged to fund scholarships for black students at Cambridge University.
And here lies the contradiction at the heart of so much of the debate around race. Once you categorise one racial group as victims, how can you not then do the same for those among another racial group whose circumstances might be even more unfavourable? God knows a white kid from Wigan is just as worthy of the chance of a top-drawer education as a black child from Tottenham. Indeed, all the studies show that white boys from deprived backgrounds are among the worst performers at school and the least likely to go on to higher education.
Yet, insanely, the white child is seen as a beneficiary as something called ‘white privilege’; no matter that he may be living on a crummy housing estate, come from a broken home, endure a substandard education, and have little prospect of ever entering university or getting a well-paid job.
Ultimately, once you get into the game of dividing people up by race, you have to go all-in. Otherwise you will end up breeding resentment in any group that is neglected. That’s why it’s such a dangerous game to play in the first place.
On balance, it might have been better for Sir Bryan to have simply targeted his generous gift towards underprivileged parts of the country and the kids who live there – the post-industrial towns of the north, for example – and left skin colour well out of it.
But his actions have at least kick started a necessary debate around the question of why, in our fervent efforts to prove that race doesn’t matter, we seem to have made it never more relevant.