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Tales from the Ivory Towers, No. 2 of 6

Updated: Apr 25

Institutional racism in UK universities

DB Roberts

What is Institutional Racism ?

I dislike self-indulgent introductory rambles, so I’ll come straight to the point. Institutional racism refers to the systematised - formalized as appropriate - reproduction of racist values, rules and processes that have been embedded in an organization and which have not been challenged and removed. It afflicts Parliaments, police forces, universities, political parties and many other influential, otherwise respected bodies.

Someone said that any institution is the 'lengthened shadow' of its creator, meaning that the originating values – those that inspired its creation - are responsible for its existence and character. This 'impression' on an institution drives the objectives, for which rules and processes are needed. These then become the operational norms of the organization, attracting members with shared values and beliefs. This means the institution has ideology (belief) and structure (rules) with which to achieve outcome (objectives). It systematizes its purpose and function. When an institution is seeded in or reproduces empire, superiority, domination and colour, it creates institutional racism. Its published conceptual character lies with Stokely Carmichael in the 1960’s, but it has more recently helped explain the role of the British police in relation to the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993. Carmichael is not the originator of ideas of structural oppression; this goes back decades and centuries to the work of Johan Galtung (1969), Frantz Fanon (1961) and Ida Wells (1892), as well as commonly appearing in the works of George Orwell, Gandhi and Buddha.

3d imagining of an iceberg, showing the tip as the racism we can easily recognise, and portraying the giant mass beneath that we can't see, as the cause of the racism we experience
Visible racism, just the tip of the iceberg. Copyright of author

Everyday racism - the incidents more easily recognisable as such, the name calling, the public hatred and evisceration - is the visible tip of the iceberg: the million sleights, questions, stop-and-searches, beatings, shootings, verbal abuses, punches, sneers, put-downs; the visible, physical, harder-to-deny acts. That everyday racism is the tip of the iceberg. But it derives from deeply buried, deeply structured beliefs that nourish, justify and sanction hate, constraint, discrimination, abuse and punishment. It is alive everywhere; its normality in everyday life is testament to the universality of the beliefs that underpin it. It is not the apple in the cart that is rotten (the individual committing an act of racism). It is the carts, the content of the carts and the people who push the carts. It is with this in mind that I turn to UK universities as sites of institutional racism historically and contemporaneously.

The cart and apples are all rotten. Image programmed in AI, copyright of author.
Cart, apples, driver and road. All rotten. Not just the apple. Copyright of author

British universities: a short origin story of institutional racism.

Universities have an imperial past. British universities spearheaded colonial anthropology, a discipline dedicated to scrutinizing and controlling subjugated colonial peoples, or ‘subalterns’, in support of the Empire. Diane Lewis famously described anthropology’s ‘historical implication in projects of domination, rule, and control’. Universities also contributed to the idea that Black people were biologically ‘less than’ White people. This positioning became known as ‘scientific racism’, whereby, according to a public statement by an American department of anthropology,

Anthropologists… placed humans on a graded scale of civilization, and presented [these] as scientific findings to support racist agendas. The damage caused by this kind of work [reinforced] racial inequality, and undergirded arguments for the inferiority of non-European Others.

Perhaps higher in public consciousness, the Rhodes scholarships at Oxford originally excluded on racial grounds. That racism again raised its ugly head in 2016 in the Rhodes Must Fall campaign that, whilst originating in South Africa, saw the University of Oxford refuse to remove a statue of man who presided over the imperial subjugation of the forebears of many of its students. In 2021, the era of equality, diversity and inclusivity, the statue remained in place, staring down at Black People, humiliating us once more, at the behest of University Senior Management Teams in British Higher Education. Later, Rama El-Mahdi would say:

I think it is an insult to the Black people who continue to work and study in a building named after a person who was so adamant in questioning their capabilities and equality

Cecil Rhodes, dominating the Oxford system, towering over Black students. Created in MidJourney AI by the author. Copyright db.roberts
Rhodes' shadow looms large over Oxford, still. Copyright of author.

In Rhodes’ day, British universities benefited financially from their relations with Empire. The esteemed journal Nature reports that ‘many research institutions in the United Kingdom gained prominence as the British Empire reached its zenith’. An empire of knowledge and cash was built on an empire of subjugation and extraction. The university system was built on a symbiotic relationship with, and has inherited and internalized, the forces of ideological and structural racism central to the imperial project. Between then and now, there have been few coherent, sustained attempts to identify, acknowledge and unpick those structures, or their ideological DNA. The institution will not, however, self-reform beyond ways that serve its priorities. That stasis is presided over by an elite who share a historical, cultural identity and education which is, perhaps for the first time, facing an externally-monitored, publicly-accountable agenda for change from which they will benefit if they manage its implementation to prevent negative fall-out.

Reform and resistance: institutional racism in British universities today

Homogeneity in the university boardroom. Copyright of author

Institutional racism is about the Colour of Power. The publicly-available data shows that UK universities are dominated by a White elite which is mostly drawn from the Professoriate, which in 2021 was 86% White. It’s a shallow gene pool. 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 (although anecdotally, there are at least two Black senior officials at Leeds Trinity and SOAS). That elite White body defines, shapes and structures a largely homogeneous senior managerial space reflecting its own experiences, values and identities. Ian Law reminds us that an

elitist, masculinist, heterosexist, able-bodied and Eurocentric culture still pervades many of the older established institutions, as well as new universities today

That’s the first problem. The second is that they’re not equipped for the task at hand, positionally and intellectually. They are the ones tasked with change from the top down. Yet it is only their ex officio status that affords them this role, not calibre, capability, capacity or quality. Linda Evans, Professor of Leadership and Professional Learning at the University of Leeds, says that they are ‘often unprepared for the increasingly expansive academic leadership roles that they are expected to fulfill’. An informal review of UKHE VC and PVC publications from 2020-2022 revealed no published peer-reviewed studies on race, racism, or institutional racism. A review of online biographies at that level revealed no consciousness of or prior engagement with race, racism or institutional racism within UK HE institutions beyond public statements about commitments to equality, and a virtue-signalling tendency to declare personal pronouns. In other words, they are directing policy on racial equity because they have the top jobs, not because they know how to create racial equity.

Last words…

After two decades of research in this area, Law observed that

many academics, university administrators and Vice Chancellors fail to grasp the significance and power of racism in their own organizations and practices and lack the motivation and creativity necessary to respond to this challenge.

All the power to authorize and permit change resides where the will and capacity to do so are clouded by ignorance, fear, indifference and incompetence. Elite status confers policy choice where choice is not informed by consciousness of race, or of the role of power in the creation and reproduction of race and racism. There is no shortage of public conscience and good will, but there is no recognition of their own role in defining the limits of the exercise they manage through status rather than competence.

No University Senior Managers chose to participate in this survey.

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