Peter Figueroa obituary

Academic whose work focused on race, social justice and education

There is a certain poignancy about the timing of Peter Figueroa's death, aged 75, during the period of rioting across England this summer – the worst civil unrest seen for a generation, sparked in part by the killing of a black man by the police, and involving a significant number of young people, many of them unemployed. Peter's work as an academic was notably in the areas of education, race and social justice.

A defining moment in policy formulation on race and education was the publication in 1969 of the first report of the all-party parliamentary select committee on race relations and immigration, entitled The Problems of Coloured School- Leavers. A key finding was that West Indian parents had "unrealistic aspirations" for their children and tended to equate the length of time spent in school with the quality of educational outcomes they could expect and therefore the careers to which their children should be able to aspire. Coming from a background where a poverty of means did not equate to a poverty of aspiration, and where children from the poorest families achieved highly and met their communities' aspirations to be teachers, doctors, lawyers, and to join other prestigious professions, Peter determined that the state was encouraging a misleadingly negative view of the educational abilities of young black people.

His concern was heightened when, at around the same time, the psychologists Hans Eysenck and Arthur Jensen propounded theories of race and intelligence and purported to provide evidence for scientific racism and genetic determinism. Their basic thesis was that higher scores of white people relative to black people in aptitude tests were due to genetically determined differences in intelligence and ability. Such theories were vigorously contested by Peter and others of us, especially given their impact in shaping teachers' expectations of African heritage students irrespective of those students' and their families' high aspirations.

Peter was one of the first to argue that there is essentially no scientific basis for a concept of race other than as a social construct. He rejected the simplistic definition of racism as a pathological state, arguing that it is only with an understanding of stereotyping as potentially an inherent component of the way we see the world that we can address racist behaviour. His view was that it is possible for anyone to act in a racist manner in certain contexts. It is necessary to demonstrate that racism is morally wrong. However, it is not only possible to re-educate those with strongly stereotypical attitudes, but also essential in order to achieve an understanding of how racism functions among all people. This he saw as a key function of education, especially in countries with a history such as Britain's.

In 1991 he published Education and the Social Construction of "Race", in which he critiqued the Swann report (1985) on cultural diversity in schools, as well as Michael Banton's "rational choice" theory of ethnic relations. Peter conducted research on multicultural education in the UK long after the theoretical and ideological shift towards antiracist education. He edited (with Alec Fyfe) Education for Cultural Diversity: The Challenge for a New Era (1993). He conducted research on citizenship and diversity and published papers in edited volumes on citizenship education for a plural society (2000) and diversity and citizenship education in England (2004).

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, the ninth of 10 children, Peter had strong Latin American and Catholic roots. His mother was a primary school teacher and his father an insurance salesman. He was taught by Jesuits in Kingston and upon leaving school spent a year at a seminary in Jamaica before he was sent to Propaganda Fide College in Rome to do degrees in philosophy and theology for entry to the priesthood.

After four years he decided that the priesthood was not for him, and he had a range of jobs, from working on a building site to teaching English. He did a postgraduate diploma in philosophy at the University of Leuven, Belgium, and there encountered the phenomenological philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, which appealed to him. He moved to the UK in 1963 for a scholarship at the London School of Economics where, following the 1969 select committee report, he did doctoral research on the employment prospects of West Indian school-leavers in London. After posts at Oxford and the University of the West Indies, he joined Southampton University in 1976 as a lecturer. His time there led him to co-write, with Ganga Persaud, Sociology of Education: A Caribbean Reader (1976). He became professor of education and retired in 2001.

A modest and gentle man, Peter had demanding standards for himself and others, both ethically and academically. He was an impressive linguist, capable of functioning in Latin, Jamaican, English, French, German and Italian. He translated French literature into English, most recently the poems of Gabriel Okoundji.

In 1979, he married Carol Sanders, also a linguist and academic. She survives him, along with their children, James and Emma, and granddaughter, Louise.

Peter Eugene Figueroa, scholar of race relations, education and sociology, born 31 January 1936; died 10 August 2011


Gus John

The GuardianTramp

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