The covert racism that is holding back black academics

Students in California protest in solidarity with those in Missouri in a wave of #StudentBlackOut protests across the US. Eugene Garcia/EPA

Students are walking out in protest against racial inequality and injustice in the US and have been rallying together in days of action at campuses across the country. The #StudentBlackout movement has challenged and confronted white supremacy and anti-black attitudes on university campuses, and has made demands for more black and minority ethnic faculty members.

So it is ironic that the US is the destination of choice for British black and minority ethnic academics who feel worn down by incidents of racism, exclusion and marginalisation in Britain. Recent research that I worked on, published by the Equality Challenge Unit, found that as a result of their experiences black and minority UK academics were significantly more likely to consider a move to overseas higher education than their white counterparts.

Many spoke of the potential opportunities they identified in working for American universities. I can’t help feeling they might have to re-evaluate their options in the light of what is going on in the US. Many of the demonstrations across American campuses have been triggered by specific local circumstances – such as reports of all-white parties and students in blackface at Yale.

But taken as a whole they represent a response to more widespread concerns about racism within American academic culture. These demonstrations also reflect the wider groundswell in concern across America exemplified by the Black Lives Matter demonstrations which have been sparked by unlawful killings by the police.

Protecting white privilege

In the UK, such protest has not yet been seen. Academics present themselves as guardians of a space that highlights liberal sentiments, progressive values and a commitment to meritocracy. Many regard their “seats of learning” as places that challenge inequalities and injustice. But this is clearly not always the case in reality.

My research has found that many black and minority ethnic academics report experiences of subtle, covert and nuanced racism in higher education in which white identity is privileged and protected within the space traditionally reserved for the white middle class.

During the past decade there has been a significant increase in the numbers of black and minority UK academic staff in higher education – from 6,000 staff in 2003-4 to almost 10,700 in 2013-14. There were even more non-UK black and minority academic staff, as the graph below shows.

But black and minority ethnic academics are far less likely to be in senior roles compared to their white colleagues: 11.2% of UK white academics were professors compared to 9.8% of UK black and minority ethnic staff (of which only 4.5% were black). There are only 20 deputy or pro vice-chancellors who are black or minority ethnic compared to the majority, 530, who are white.

Significant policy changes in the UK, such as the 2010 Equality Act and the introduction of the Race Equality Charter, designed to measure how successful universities were at delivering inclusive policy in practice, might suggest higher education had become more inclusive. But in reality, covert racist behaviour impacts heavily on the career trajectories of many black and minority ethnic academics.

A total of 21 higher education institutions took part in the pilot of the Race Equality Charter 2014 of which eight were successful in gaining a bronze award. The Race Equality Charter works in a similar vein to the Athena Swan charter, which was introduced in 2005 to advance the representation of women in science and engineering subjects.

On the outside

It is often hard to pin down or confront racist behaviour in universities because it is indicative of an environment in which inequality flourishes behind the scenes, rather than centre stage. For example, black academics report goalposts, such as selection criteria, being moved when they apply for promotion – which doesn’t happen for white colleagues.

In my research, which included interviews with 30 US-based academics and 35 who were based in the UK, respondents indicated that in both the UK and US an increase in fragility and risk within academia had resulted in greater competition for new jobs, threats of pay cuts, and fears about job security and tenure.

In a climate of financial global insecurity, competitiveness over job security was far more likely to privilege those from white middle-class backgrounds. Black academics I interviewed in both the US and UK were less likely than their white colleagues to have access to established networks of knowledge and support. These networks open the door for new opportunities in which job offers are made and access granted to particular institutions and insider processes.

I found that “who you know” still counts for far more than “what you know” and fears of job insecurity and fragility actively work to promote the interests of white established elites in academia. This environment of insecurity is of greater value to white academic elites, for who it serves to maintain their ascendancy.

While public displays of racism in the academy are rare, a more pernicious set of behaviour has emerged. Black and minority ethnic academics told me of instances when colleagues would not make eye contact with them in meetings, their opinions were not taken into account and there was constant undermining or criticism of their work.

We must continue to disrupt, challenge and dismantle such covert racism if we are to move forward in our quest for a socially just society.