The higher education sector has made a significant step in coming to terms with the idea of institutional racism.
It has taken quite a conceptual leap from the idea of universities as liberal, tolerant spaces, to acknowledge the ways that systems and cultures can produce inequitable outcomes.
Even more so the idea – setting aside individual behaviour issues like microaggressions and prejudice for a moment – that because white people have consistently failed to challenge or dismantle the structures that tend to benefit us, we are all de facto complicit in that process without having to be actually aggressively racist in our attitudes or behaviours.
Meaning, in my view, not that white people should now wallow in our guilt or be silenced by the weight of our consciousness of privilege, but that we should accept that we have a role in, and responsibility for, helping fix what’s broken.
But it seems that as the sector is coming to terms with that way of looking at things, there’s a heated political debate about the validity of the idea of institutional or systemic racism and where it can most reasonably be applied.
The polarised ends of this debate are captured in the Commons debate that took place during Black History Month last year in which the idea of structural racism is repeatedly aligned with a lack of patriotic pride in Britain, the desire to erase or rewrite history, and “identity politics”. On the other side of the argument, the comparative absence in curricula of histories of black and working class people was characterised as a deliberate effort on the part of the powerful to keep black and working class children ignorant and powerless.
It is this tension that caused so many to reject the conclusions of the government’s commission on race and ethnic disparities last month, which questioned the widespread use of the term “institutional racism” in contexts where, in the commissioners’ words “deep-seated racism…on a system level” cannot be “proven”.
Last week equalities minister Kemi Badenoch – who is sceptical of critical race theory, characterising it during the Black History Month debate as “an ideology that sees my blackness as victimhood” – made a statement in the Commons in support of the commission’s report, calling the findings, “thoughtful, balanced, and evidence-based” and announcing the formation of an inter ministerial group to consider the recommendations.
It seems clear that the scene is set for what should be a positive national programme of action on racism, to disintegrate into a highly politicised row about the status of racism in Britain today. And, almost inadvertently, universities will find themselves once again in the firing line in this culture war.
What’s wrong with a structural analysis?
Taking a macro view, it’s not hard to see why people on the political right are suspicious of structural analysis of social problems. First, Marxism is perceived as the “original” structural analysis, which is why critical race theory is so often conflated with anti-capitalism. And second, lots of people on the right really care about personal freedom and individual responsibility. And a lens that appears to deprive people of one or relieve them of the other is therefore deeply suspicious.
And there are versions of structural analysis that seem to confirm those fears – that characterise every aspect of an institution or society as irredeemably inequitable. As if the only job of the theorist was to point out just how dreadful everything is and how little can actually be done about it – an analysis that characterises structure as all-powerful and leaves no room for agency at all.
The temptation when confronted with an ideological debate like this one is to spend time performatively aligning with one side or the other. So you get social media debates about white privilege, or the erasure of history, that are all coded to your politics and signal to your peers whether you prefer “structure” or “agency” as your way of seeing the world.
But as any sociologist will tell you, the interplay of structure and agency offer a model that can help explain what’s going on in specific times, places, and contexts. Neither offers a catch-all explanation for the way the world works.
And for people working in higher education who hope to effect practical change and move the dial on racial equality and inclusion, exploring the debate is less useful than asking what each of these lenses enable you to do to solve the problems that are indisputably present in institutions.
Change we can believe in
Ahead of writing this piece I was fortunate enough to have a very timely catch up with Amatey Doku, known to Wonkhe readers as a former vice president of NUS and in his current role as a consultant, in which he is working with a number of universities seeking to improve their practice on race equality.
We discussed how the institutional lens really is necessary to bring structures and processes into play as targets for change. For example, say your data shows that white staff are being recruited or promoted at a disproportionate rate to black staff. You’ll need to probe the reasons why, in discussion with affected individuals and groups – maybe it’s about applications, maybe it’s about how people are encouraged or mentored to apply, or differences in opportunities for development, or maybe it’s about the unreconstructed attitudes of the recruiting panel.
But the criteria themselves also have to be up for discussion – if the criteria for promotion are in practice benefiting white staff over black staff, then the criteria need to be changed. And then once you’ve figured where, in Amatey’s words the “pain points” are, you have to be prepared to go in and fix them – and then monitor the outcome.
The risk is that the institutional lens can feel overwhelming – especially where EDI professional staff, “champions” and activists do not necessarily have sight of, or experience of, institutional structures. If the levers of power are invisible, or unreachable, you’re much more likely to settle for something that appears feasible, or for a symbolic commitment to change, rather than radical transformation.
The other thing, Amatey tells me – which negates the idea that structural analysis must always be tied up with identity politics – is that the problem can sometimes be traced to things that are only tangentially associated with race, such as ineffective complaints procedure or issues arising from student poverty.
In these instances, though race his limited explanatory power on its own, race can intersect with other issues to produce specific kinds of pain points that need to be tackled as such – so, for example, fixing the system will certainly help, but you may also need to work on building trust in the system among students.
Without an analysis of what the problems are that can account for both the actions and behaviours of individuals, and the structures that shape and constrain those behaviours, it will be impossible to effect the change that is required. There need to be debates about critical race theory and institutional racism, because those are analytical tools that can help make visible the issues that might otherwise be taken for granted.
But acknowledging institutional racism is only the first step, and being across the debates is not the same thing as moving the dial on anti-racism. Those working on equality, diversity and inclusion need the skills not only to analyse how structures produce inequities, but to engage others in finding ways to change them. They need the insight into the levers of power, and they need to be empowered themselves, not only to advise on change, but to make it happen.