. It is high time British universities took institutional racism seriously | Ceasefire Magazine

It is high time British universities took institutional racism seriously Analysis

Last week’s EHRC report into Racism in UK Higher Education paints a horrifying picture of the depth and scale of institutional racism in British Universities. It is sadly a missed opportunity, writes Clive James Nwonka.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, October 29, 2019 16:29 - 0 Comments


In November 1981, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government published the findings of a public enquiry it had commissioned into that year’s Brixton Riots, a document known colloquially as the Scarman Report. Despite overwhelming evidence of racial harassment, heavy-handedness by the police’s Operation Swamp 81, which disproportionately targeted black youths, and long-held tensions in the area between black residents and the police, Lord Scarman’s report resisted describing the riots as the result of racism within the Metropolitan Police.

Eighteen years later, at the 1999 public enquiry into the death of black teenager Stephen Lawrence — an enquiry launched only after a painful six-year public campaign by the Lawrence family and their supporters into the misconduct and malpractice that stained the police investigation into Stephen’s murder — Sir William Macpherson, appointed by the then-New Labour Government to lead the enquiry, concluded that the police were guilty of “institutional racism”.

These two investigations provide crucial context within which to read last week’s Equality and Human Rights Commissions report into racism in UK Higher Education. All three reports — covering an arc spanning 38 years — are invested to varying degrees in the phenomenon of racism within Britain’s institutions, and the most recent report seems to have inherited the best and worst of the legacies of both inquiries.

On the one hand, similarly to Macpherson, the EHRC report acknowledges a lack of faith amongst BAME staff and students that instances of racism will be dealt with fairly (if at all), as well as a lack of understanding within universities of both how racism manifests itself and how to investigate such incidents. As with Macpherson, the new report also suggests an array of recommendations for eradicating all forms of racial discrimination. On the other hand, just like Scarman, the EHRC report falls short of describing the institutional practises of racism in higher education which its own testimonies show as being just that: institutional racism in higher education.

It is highly problematic to imply that a racism that has been recognised as institutional in every sphere of public life can exist everywhere except within university campuses. The report’s analysis of racism in HE, particularly its advancing of racial microaggressions but falling short of describing them as institutional, affirms an irrational faith in universities as bastions of progressiveness and liberal thinking — the real racism is apparently confined to Britain’s working classes on the streets, social media and in the football stands.

Parts of the report are truly shocking: not only the finding that one in four students say they’ve experienced racial harassment; but also the obliviousness of management to the depth and scale of racism, racial insults, exclusion, and the disparity between the number of racist incidents and formal investigations into them. The most deeply concerning part of the report, however, is that 8% of survey respondents felt suicidal as a result of racial antagonisms. The result is a culture of emotional violence motivated by racial animus which impacts every sphere of BAME existence on university campuses, and places a further strain on already ill-equipped counselling and support services in HE, unable to cope with the specificities of racism alongside the increase in mental health and wellbeing issues amongst students and staff.

For anyone concerned with eliminating racism from universities, this figure is 8% too high. The impact of these sophisticated racisms is crucial, as it points to the sense of helplessness and lack of justice that BAME staff and students can experience. Terrifyingly, such testimonies mean that the critical moment of change in HE may first require a form of black sacrifice. This goes beyond the kind of sacrifice that sees students of colour occupy university buildings, the vast number of black academics who have taken long-term leave due to the emotional and physical impacts of racism, the overwhelming number of women academics and the excessive departmental taxation they pay through their time, on-campus activism and anti-racist service, informal counselling and emotional support nor, as in the case of the feminist academic Sara Ahmed and many other academics of colour; the sacrifice of careers in the face of the insurmountable institutional structures that keep academic misconduct intact.

The catalyst for a more urgent and lacerating inquiry into HE racism may mean that the iconography of black sacrifice is casualty. Unchallenged institutional racism in UK universities may lead to a physical and mental injury so severe that it may finally shake universities into a point of departure from the current placatory narrative. This scenario should be the ultimate anathema to all involved in HE at every level.

All of this points to how important the recognition of racism is to those in Higher Education who are living on its cutting edge. The very idea of institutional racism was never premised on believing institutions are naturally and overtly populated with those who possess and enact racist perspectives. Rather, the idea of institutional racism can also be predicated on the management of racism within institutions, the various bureaucratic processes that seek to redefine racist experiences, victimise victims but allow the perpetrators to exist without recourse, and the finessing of the potential reputational damage from charges of racism within the walls of UK HE by the casual use of NDAs. This all contributes to the mental vulnerability that pushes students and staff towards the kind of thoughts noted in the report.

Whilst the 89% response rate to the survey across UK HE is encouraging, any penetrating enquiry into racism in HE must accept that UK universities are simply a variant of broader society and, thus, also accept the need to dismantle the exceptional status they seem to occupy. The motivations of racism — be they microaggressions within the offices, corridors and lecture halls of our campuses, or the verbal or physical assaults on the streets of the UK — are very much the same. Resisting the need to separate and classify racism is a step in the right direction.

Universities have a duty of care towards their BAME staff and students to produce the kind of campus experience that is equal, people-inspiring, cultivates knowledge creation, research and imaginations, and sets the path for young people’s futures — all of which should be experienced free from the scourge of sectoral racism, which breaks hearts and damages minds, often permanently so.

The frightening prospect of HE needing a seismic moment to finally acknowledge not just the existence but the uncontested free-flow of institutional racism within it should be enough for the Government to produce the kind of response that is meaningful and accurately describes the lived reality of so many BAME staff and students. In this light, the EHRC investigation is an opportunity missed.

It took the murder of a black teenager, and six years of relentless campaigning, for the Judiciary to finally acknowledge, in 1999, the institutional racism that had been apparent to, and felt by, so many in 1981. Two decades after the Metropolitan Police’s own cause célèbre, it seems that higher education may be on the verge of its own Macpherson moment. However, black casualty must not be the sacrifice that needs to be made for the realities of racism experienced by black staff and students to be given the legal description they deserve.

See also: Analysis | “Too white, too male, and out of date”: Decolonising the Curriculum in British Universities

Clive James Nwonka

Clive James Nwonka is an LSE Fellow in Film Studies in the Department of Sociology. His work explores issues of realism, race, class, and representation in British and American cinema, and diversity policy in the British film and TV industries. His book The Aesthetics of British Urban Cinema is to be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2020. He can be found on Twitter at @CJNwonka

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