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Recognising Manchester’s racist past: How education can make it right

Updated: Mar 23

Editor's Note: This article was updated on 23/03/21 to update some of the terminology used to describe different ethnic groups in line with our improved editorial guidelines and reader feedback.


Understanding the mechanisms of structural racism requires the examination of our history, and Manchester is not exempt from this task. We must acknowledge moments of anti-racist resistance, such as the opposition to slavery by Lancashire workers during the cotton famine, along with sustained opposition from Mancunian locals, such as the 10,500 who signed a petition against the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in 1806.


But we must also acknowledge Manchester’s profits from its textile industry of up to £200,000 per annum - equivalent to £28 million today - using cotton picked by slave labour, in turn assisting the growth of other industries within the region. Additionally, we must also recognise that even after the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, slave owners across the UK were compensated by loans worth £20 million (worth upwards of £2.4 billion by modern estimates). Manchester’s wealth is derived from the slave trade; it is an unavoidable part of Mancunian history.


An old map of the world which shows the British Empire in 1886 superimposed onto an image of Manchester with an orange and green border around it

Inherently racist policies included the implementation of an “apprenticeship system”, in which former slaves were forced to continue their unpaid labour for six years even after the Abolition Act was enacted. Profits from slave labour constructed many of the buildings located near Mosley, Piccadilly, and Portland Street, as well as amongst other commercial sectors within the city region. Wealth inequalities were thereby further exacerbated along these racial lines, where plantation owners and other members of the elite continued to profit from this oppression.


The impacts of this entrenched wealth inequality still hold relevance today across the UK:

  • The average Black adult possesses £24,000 in family wealth in comparison to the £197,000 family wealth of an average White adult;

  • A 22% gap exists between White and ethnic minority home ownership in the North-West;

  • Racial inequality in employment between White and Black African people is -10.8% in Manchester compared to -10.2% in England and Wales as a whole, and -3.4% across the Black and Minority Ethnic population in Britain.


We are unable to progress past these material disadvantages if we do not learn about their direct causes through education. Building an understanding of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and Manchester’s role begins in our schools and is central to the way forward. Yet curriculums currently include limited perspectives: only twelve out of the fifty-nine possible GCSE History modules discuss Black history; white authors dominate the discourse across GCSE English Literature syllabi with 56 out of 65 texts; and only 24 out of 128 universities said they were “committed to decolonising the curriculum” by reflecting the injustices of colonialism in their teaching.


The racist past of Manchester and the United Kingdom is an essential part of our history that we must learn. Excluding the history, achievements, and narratives of ethnic minorities means erasing the contributions people from diverse backgrounds have made and are continuing to make. Limiting these perspectives undermines their role in building Britain, and it also positions minority groups as being non-British, not granting them access to the safeties supposed to be granted by the state. These structural inequalities are then reflected in tragic material consequences, such as the Windrush and Grenfell scandals. Ultimately, the history we include in our education is crucial in constructing the way we interact with each other.


It is thereby imperative to decolonise the curriculums of both schools and universities. This means a change in the syllabi we use in addition to reforms to the educational system itself, so that people from ethnic minority backgrounds are also included and supported within all steps of decision-making.


Whilst solutions to this issue can take many forms, three of the most pressing - and easily addressed - include:

  • Incorporating more diversity within modules and reading lists:

  • Reading authors with diverse identities is important at all educational levels, but especially as we grow up. Targets will never fully encapsulate diverse experiences, but they are a great step in accounting for the narratives often ignored by the mainstream. A recommendation is to have at least one author from a less-represented background on the core reading list, and at least 15% making up further reading lists, in line with the percentage of the UK’s ethnic minority population.

  • Hiring teachers from different backgrounds:

  • 46% of schools in England have no teachers from an ethnic minority. Students are severely limited in their lack of exposure to a variety of lived experiences. There needs to be an increased hiring of teachers from more diverse backgrounds in all levels of leadership. For entry-level teachers, there should be the implementation of scholarships and grants of any relevant qualifications required to become a teacher for students from an ethnic minority background, prioritising Black students with low-incomes. Retention rates are also important in this process. Support for progression to senior leadership is also required, where mentoring and development opportunities for Black and Minority Ethnic staff should be emphasised and continued.

  • Developing support systems for students and teachers from ethnic minority backgrounds:

  • Complaint systems, career progression, and multiculturalism should be supported throughout schools but especially by members of leadership teams. All parties in the education process should feel comfortable to grow within the environment created. Drawing from the recommendations provided by the ‘Making Progress?’ report, teaching racial justice to all staff is crucial in being able to handle racism at school properly within a safe environment for Black and Minority Ethnic members.


As a first step in addressing institutional racism, long-term changes in education policies need to occur. Younger generations in particular need to be exposed to the variety of experiences that compose the true landscape of what it means to be part of the UK through learning its history by these different perspectives. Acknowledging Manchester’s racist past is an essential part of decolonising our curriculums. It is only through understanding the mistakes of our past that we can move towards a more equitable future.


Further Resources:


‘Revealing Histories’: A project by museums and galleries within Greater Manchester, it focuses on the links between the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the region. It provides a good introduction to the topic through its inclusion of objects, people, and relevant locations.


Legacies of British Slave-ownership: This is a UCL-based Centre database detailing the links between slavery (especially slave-owners) and society. Use this database to further understand the large extent to which slavery has shaped our society today, and learn more about the impacts of slavery through its further resources labelled ‘News’.


Teach First ‘Missing Pages’ Report: An accessible report including the perspectives of English Literature teachers calling for the inclusion and teaching of more diverse authors on the GCSE specification. Follow the ‘Missing Pages Library’ link near the bottom of the page for additional book recommendations.


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