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1 Sep, 2020 12:29

British universities’ mass-produced ‘anti-racism’ statements show they care more about activism than education

British universities’ mass-produced ‘anti-racism’ statements show they care more about activism than education

Since the death of George Floyd, dozens of British universities have published “anti-racism” statements. This is yet another indication that disinterested truth-seeking is giving way to activism in UK higher education.

As the American psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued, the true purpose or ‘telos’ of universities is the disinterested pursuit of truth. They are meant be places where assumptions are always questioned, and evidence is always demanded. But in recent years, they have begun to assume a second, rather different role: the not-at-all disinterested pursuit of ‘social justice’.

Of course, achieving ‘social justice’ doesn’t mean something anodyne like ‘trying to make the world a better place’, which all except the most hardline nihilists could get on board with. Instead, it refers to a specific ideology which sees identity groups like sex and race as the primary units of society; which attributes to some groups the status of victims and to others the status of oppressors; and which posits that various ‘structural’ and ‘systemic’ forces stymie members of the former groups while conferring ‘privilege’ on members of the latter.

The latest example of British universities’ commitment to social justice ideology is the sudden publication of dozens of ‘anti-racism’ statements in the weeks following the death of George Floyd. Such statements have been published by: Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, St Andrews, UCL, Imperial, Durham, Warwick, Bath, Exeter, Nottingham, Kent, Coventry, Westminster, De Montfort, Brighton, Keele and many others.

A few of the statements are short, each comprising an obligatory reminder that – in case you were in doubt – the senior management happens to be against racism. Most, however, are somewhat longer, and contain not only reassurances concerning the senior management’s opposition to racism, but also an acknowledgement of “persistent racial inequality” and a commitment to “address systemic racism,” particularly within the university itself. Many of the statements mention the authors’ distress over the death of George Floyd, and some explicitly declare support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

For example, De Montfort University’s statement proclaims that “DMU absolutely stands against racism and supports the values and ethos of Black Lives Matter.” This could be regarded as a slightly contentious thing for a publicly-funded university to say, given that the leaders of said movement have described themselves as “trained Marxists” and have expressed their desire to “dismantle capitalism” and abolish prisons. But I suppose universities can’t be expected to look into every organisation they declare their support for.

Many of the statements also explicitly link the death of George Floyd to the issue of racism, thereby giving credence to the claim that Floyd was intentionally killed by four racist police offers (i.e., not merely that he was murdered, but that his killers were motivated by racial animus). While this claim may turn out to be true (we do not yet have all the facts), it would seem prudent – especially for an institution that is supposedly engaged in the pursuit of truth – to withhold judgement on such a contentious issue until the matter can be settled definitively. Indeed, various commentators have argued against the narrative of systematic bias or racism in police shootings.

One thing that becomes obvious when reading these statements is how eerily similar they are. (Key words and phrases from the ‘woke’ lexicon appear in almost all of them.) I don’t know if a ‘University Anti-Racism Statement Generator’ exists, but – if not – there is now surely enough training data for someone to construct one. Each statement reads like an awkward collaboration between a professor of critical race theory and corporate PR executive, which – as a matter of fact – is probably how much university bureaucracy is administered in the current year.

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As to why so many universities have concurrently decided to publish ‘anti-racism’ statements, one possibility that had occurred to me is that they all retain the services of the same London PR company. Another, perhaps more likely possibility is that once a small number of universities had published statements, the rest panicked and realised they had to make one of their own, so as not to end up looking like the only institution that 'doesn’t care about injustice.'

What is most bizarre about the statements, however, is the fact that universities decided to publish them at all. There are myriad injustices going on all around the world, but we don’t expect universities to issue official statements on each one. Why have universities not commented on the persecution of the Uyghurs? Why have they not commented on the civil war in Yemen? Why have they not commented on the Boko Haram insurgency?

Since universities have not condemned any of these injustices, are we to assume that they don’t care about them? According to the University of Bath’s statement, “We stand in solidarity with our Black students, staff and wider community.” Do they not also stand in solidarity with their students affected by all the other injustices in the world? Since they have not explicitly said so, we can only assume they don’t.

Issuing official statements condemning things has not generally been seen as one of universities’ roles. The most plausible reason why so many of them decided to comment in this particular case is that they were under pressure from social justice activists, who wish to further their project of ‘decolonising’ the academy.

Consistent with this theory, a number of the anti-racism statements make grand promises concerning how the university intends to change going forward. For example, the University of Warwick’s statement, after thanking “Black students and staff and those of colour, who have given their time and emotional labour to share their own stories (often repeatedly) to educate the many of us who need educating,” outlines eight specific actions that the university will undertake. These include funding “SU’s Warwick Decolonise Project” and setting up a “Race Equality Taskforce.”

Perhaps the most ambitious proposals are those laid out by Keele University. According to the university’s statement, “It is not enough to be non-racist, to try to eliminate racism from our community and campus […] We have to become an anti-racist institution, one that makes a full contribution to the struggle against the pandemic of racism which has infected our societies for centuries.” It goes on to say that “this will require an all-institution effort involving all staff and all students.”

Since George Floyd died in police custody earlier this year, British universities have been tripping over themselves to show how much they care about racial injustice. However, this isn’t what universities are supposed to be for. It’s about time they left the anti-racist activism to someone else, and got back to doing the things we actually expect of them – teaching students, supporting research and encouraging debate. 

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.