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Tales from the Ivory Towers, No. 1 of 6

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

How and why the Ivory struggles with institutional racism

Racial homogeneity in the boardroom. Copyright of author

It wasn't just two White men with a gun that night. It was every White man who'd rather see a Negro dead than breathing the same air as him. Every Sheriff, every judge in this town, was at that door that night. I was facing a lot more than two White men with a gun. (Till, 2022)

For some years, there has been debate and concern that, far from the UK being a ‘tolerant’ society in which racism is sporadic, occasional and unconnected, racism exists in institutional form and is common, normal and structural. That is to say, rather than racism being the result of a few rotten apples, it is the cart, the driver and the apples that are all rotten.

Digital image of rotten apples in a rotten apple cart. Created in AI, copyright of the author, db.roberts
The cart's rotten as well as the apples. So's the road and the driver. It's not just one rotten apple, it's the system, or it wouldn't keep happening all the time. Copyright of author

Institutional racism is hard for some people to understand, perhaps in part because it's hard to see. The opening quote, above, comes from the 2022 film Till. It describes the moment 14-year-old Emmett Till was taken from his extended family's house in Tennessee, in 1955, by braying White Men, and then beaten, tortured, shot and later discarded, lifeless, in a river. His uncle, Mose Wright, with whom he was staying on holiday, couldn't protect Emmett when the murderers came, because racist violence, brutality and murder were condoned by the police, the courts and the judges. And when Billie Holiday began to sing about commonplace lynchings, a beautiful, mournful piece called 'Strange Fruit', she was then targeted by the FBI. That's institutional. And it's structural. It was a few bigoted, racist thugs who ended the life of the young teenager Emmett Till. But their actions, the crime, and all the crimes like it, were sanctioned and protected by the components that made up racist America, and the process is similar in any imperial state. The police. The Courts. The judges. The government. The law. The society. This is institutional racism.

Crowd, standing around a tree, with a lynching rope visible.
A lynching: a process that began with angry White men and was sustained with the support of police, courts and society. Copyright of author

The echo of Empire

It isn't just America. It's everywhere but it's most institutional in the former White Empires. We should expect this. Institutional racism is the legacy of imperialism. It is encoded, like DNA, in the institutions that made Empires great by subjugating and exploiting others, and the assumptions about superiority that project and are reinforced by successful domination. It would be odd if somehow a country like the UK or Portugal, and its organizing institutions, somehow didn't inherit the fruits of their historical labours.

British institutions are increasingly acknowledging the idea that Empires leave a legacy of institutional racism. The year 2022 was the year of confession: confession that this government, its institutions and society were tainted by the legacy of empire and the claim of racial superiority all empires rise from - Roman, Nazi or British. Empires attack and dominate because they believe they are superior. They subjugate and exploit because they think those they are subjugating and exploiting are inferior. The UK created an Empire and an identity followed suit, massaged and propagandized with lies and deceit; society and its institutions carry the echo of imperial superiority to this day. So many people still believe the lie that the empires went to help people. If this were so, asked Martiniquan poet Aimee Cesaire, why did they have to use guns and occupy us?

The UK Court system acknowledges institutional racism. The British healthcare system admits the same, and a survey of UK mental healthcare found itself similarly afflicted. The police are also concerned at their own racist structures. An independent review of the Fire Brigade found it to be institutionally racist and misogynist. Its author warned this would be a common theme across UK public services. And the former Vice Chancellor of Loughborough University openly recognized institutional racism at that university, while leading Vice Chancellor Prof. David Richardson cited

systemic issues that disproportionately affect black and minority ethnic students.

Higher Education

Institutional racism in the UK is not an anomaly to be debated. It is a widely-evidenced norm, as one would logically expect of a former Empire. The institutional apple doesn't fall far from the State tree, or from the Monarchy either, the very embodiment of morally and legally sanctioned social inequality. The UK's institutionally-racist present is a legacy of its internationally racist past, a condition intellectually sanctioned by British universities of the Empire. Nor are UK universities presently impartial bastions of anti-racist practice. They are led as right wing ideological bodies slaved to markets built on imperial violence, as some of their iconography still unashamedly attests. Universities intellectualised racist dogma to sanction imperialism. They were agents of Empire; it is unsurprising these institutions are infected with racism.

But an opportunity to frame the kind of research that might throw light on institutional racism in UK universities arose when Universities engaged with the Race Equality Charter (REC). This body is designed to create a ‘framework through which institutions work to identify and self-reflect on institutional and cultural barriers standing in the way of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic staff and students’. This process is meant to engage People of Colour (PoC) working at universities, with the structures of institutional power responsible for change and stasis. The research reported in this blog post was aimed at identifying and characterising institutional racism in English-speaking universities on the North Atlantic Rim: UK, US, Canada. This series of 6 blog posts concerns the effects in the UK.

How we ran the survey

The research was conducted online over three months. The participants were 72 academics at 38 UK universities (out of 63 applying institutions), including 11 of the 24 Russell Group institutions. 98.6% of respondents were People of Colour (PoC). The survey has two components. The first was a quantitative element which gathered descriptive data on the extent of institutional racism in participating UK universities, along with the extent of satisfaction with various senior management approaches to the REC process, measured on Likert scales. The second used open-ended questioning, to capture experiences of working with University Senior Management Teams (USMT) leading the process. The questions explored tensions between elite virtue-signalling rhetoric and meaningful acts of regime change; academics’ experiences of prejudice in the workplace; institutional racism, and acts of anti-racism undertaken to challenge institutional racism. The questions were synthesized from existing and past racism research surveys that were expanded to engage with matters specific to the REC process and objectives.

What did we find?

The next 5 blog posts will explore the data in greater detail. The short version is that, whilst the REC process is a step in the right direction, certain impediments to realizing its spirit prevail commonly across UK universities; these are institutional in character and are almost exclusively the ambit of almost exclusively White University Senior Management Teams (USMT's). These are the people responsible for institutional change. However, it would be wrong to associate this failing solely with White people in Power. There is evidence to show People of Colour in senior positions, like the upper echelons of Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity departments, can also thwart the process. One purpose of this first post is to paint the larger picture, so it's easier to make sense of the deeper, more detailed data that comes in the ensuing posts. The larger picture discernible from the quantitative and qualitative data reveals a power matrix: distinct from power defined solely from formal, visible governance structures and inclusive of social dynamics that do not normally register in a forensic accounting of elite leadership. We refer to this as the Colour-Power Matrix. The Colour-Power Matrix is composed of four elements:

Infographic detailing the composition and structure of the Colour Power Matrix
The Colour-Power Matrix. Copyright of author

1. White Dominion

This term reflects the comprehensive preponderance of White University Senior Management Teams (USMT) at the top of UK universities. They are mostly drawn from the Professoriate, which in 2021 was 86% White. The HE statistics body, HESA, found that of all the ‘managers, directors or senior officials’ in UKHE, 475 identified as white, 25 as Asian or other and none as black whilst also managing not to include some elite PoC. Such dominion concentrates institution-wide decision-making in spaces lacking racial diversity.

Leadership in racial change is not based on qualifications and apposite skills. It is based on ex-officio status. That is, those in charge lead the way, regardless of their qualification to do so. This is particularly troubling because the eradication of institutional racism has rarely, if ever, been part of any elite managerial education or training before. An unprepared, untrained and too often racially unconscious elite White minority defines, shapes and structures a largely homogeneous managerial space reflecting its own experiences, values and identities. It is not always solely White; there are, on occasion, senior PoC in such places. The data, however, suggests that PoC in elite positions, especially those with HR backgrounds, behave as their White counterparts do. We might reasonably expect this; HR and USMT both face the same demands to protect and advance the institution's League Table positions. PoC still have to conform to institutional and managerial diktat in order to win acceptance; it seems unlikely the senior selection process would appoint a leader whose objectives and values did not converge, to use Derrick Bell's language (below), with wider institutional ambition. Senior PoC remain slaves to markets, like their managerial masters.

2. Elite Priorities

The Colour-Power Matrix is also brought into life by the priorities of White-dominated USMT’s. They are clearly concerned with racial equality, but only insofar as achieving it does not conflict with other, more significant objectives like reputation, or impression, management. That is, the consequences of recognising and admitting institutional racism in order to treat it could not be allowed to derail achievement of REC status, or negatively impact the public reputation of the institution. Derrick Bell famously refers us to the idea of ‘interest convergence’, which says that Whites in power will only allow racial equity when it converges with their own priorities and interests. In short, challenge to institutional racism is only tolerated if it does not impact institutional reputation and priorities determined by White Dominion.

Derrick Bell's Interest Convergence model, applied to UK universities. Copyright of author

3. USMT-Human Resources (HR) Collusion

The third component to the Colour Power Matrix identified by the research concerns a mutually-reinforcing relationship between Human Resources (HR) and USMT. UUK, the 'collective voice of 140 universities across the UK', admits that employee race-based grievances are common occurrences in the UK. To these must now be added grievances accumulating as a result of USMT efforts to complete REC submissions. According to the survey, these grievances have frequently prompted HR interventions in which Senior HR officers collude with USMT to ensure guilty parties in USMT were protected from allegations of institutional racism. This relationship is akin to patronage and clientelism, an asymmetrical but mutually beneficial set of relations based on power and hierarchy that effectively describes USMT dominance and HR support.

Mutual but unequal relationship between USMT and HR. Copyright of author

These allegations included USMT gaslighting, lying, bullying, misrepresentation and a slew of other offences. The data shows that the means to challenge USMT institutional racism are compromised both by HR’s own failures to recognise, acknowledge and comprehend complex institutional racism, and its inherent Allyship with the highest levels of (usually White) Senior Management. A comprehensive case study, described anonymously in this series, shows HR defending USMT and Deans from legitimate challenges of institutional racism. HR failures in this regard render the latter impervious to serious challenge, often hearing serious allegations but downgrading them to lesser offences to imply a process has been followed, whilst ensuring no reputational harm results. Allyship protects USMT through ‘due’ institutional process and regulations. Furthermore, People of Colour occupying the few rare seats at the USMT table sometimes participated in such distortions of the REC process, compounding institutional racism by creating a veneer of respectability for a university using virtue-signalling race-based elite hiring practices to enhance and protect its reputation. This process is further compounded, and sealed, by the fourth element.

4. Accountability Lacuna

The elite level in UK universities has been characterised as ‘the one area of higher education that has not been … made accountable’. This amplifies the problem of HR collusion in ensuring USMT priorities, ensuring there are few, if any, viable channels PoC can use to resist the Colour-Power Matrix that sits behind layers of enforced confidentiality, complicated procedural technicalities, and threats of reprisals managed on USMT’s behalf by the very body to whom breaches of race regulations are reported. Racialized power is in this way protected and preserved by its own structures, rules and values, reinforcing and revealing further the Colour-Power Matrix. We should not lose sight of the fact that this is nothing unusual; collusion is the history of race oppression, indeed, of many forms of oppression. We should not be surprised to find it was evident in a 2022 survey of UK universities, however bad that may seem. The commonplace absence of impartial and fair accountability practices at the institutional level dominated by elite White actors, intersects with and strengthens other interlocking power dynamics that reinforce institutional racism in UK universities.

What’s next?

I’m going to delve in the next blog post into more detail about what institutional racism is, since there is both intentional and unintentional confusion about this term. The picture is not a happy one, but the post is revealing of the extent of consciousness we have of the depth of this problem, so we can equip ourselves better to challenge it. That post is followed by the numbers gathered in the survey and that's accompanied by the qualitative material. Thereafter, an in-depth case study points up the problem of using ex officio post holders to do a job that requires at least some form of professional training and competence, where none has been institutionalised. Again, no-one comes out of this smiling but to some extent, it does reveal what has to change, for things to change. The final post elaborates on the Colour-Power Matrix and looks at a more radical approach that is in fact already widely used in management socialization processes. There’s a little Fanon, a little Freire and an idea of how to introduce it in a way that USMT may be able to tolerate 😊 I hope this has been helpful.

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