It’s not every day that the director of the FBI quotes from a Broadway musical starring Sesame Street-style puppets while delivering a sober assessment of racial bias in US law enforcement.
But then it’s not every day that those at the top admit that there is a problem at all.
James Comey told an audience at Georgetown University earlier this month that in reviewing the research base and the state of US policing he was “reminded of the song from the Broadway hit Avenue Q: Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”.
“Much research points to the widespread existence of unconscious bias,” Comey said. “Many people in our white-majority culture have unconscious racial biases and react differently to a white face than a black face. In fact, we all, white and black, carry various biases around with us.”
The shortage of female vice-chancellors is well known, but of the UK’s 18,500 professors, only 85 are black and only 17 are black women
Coming from the FBI top brass, this assessment was striking, but Comey went on to defend the police from a charge of what in the UK has been termed “institutional racism”.
His argument was that we all carry prejudices that can influence decision-making and perceptions: “Racial bias isn’t epidemic in those who join law enforcement any more than it is epidemic in academia or the arts,” he claimed.
So does he have a point about the prevalence of bias in a general sense in higher education?
Consider one example: peer review. Are there biases, conscious and unconscious, that unfairly sway decisions taken by reviewers when they know the identity of an article’s author? Plenty of people believe so, if research undertaken by Nature is anything to go by: 78 per cent of the 29,000 readers surveyed by the journal thought that a move to double-blind peer review was a good idea, and Nature has announced that it will offer researchers the option to remain anonymous in future.
It will be fascinating to see how many (and who) choose to have submissions handled in this way.
Take another example: the absence of women and minorities in senior university posts. The shortage of female vice-chancellors in the UK is well known, but even more striking is that of the country’s 18,500 professors, only 85 are black and only 17 are black women.
Andrew Hamilton, vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, spoke out last year about an “unconscious bias against women” in academia, while an event at University College London, titled “Why isn’t my professor black?”, heard testimony from black academics who felt that “black life” was still seen as “anti-intellectual” and from black students who reported “carrying this weight of racism” with them as “our appearance in the academy seems quite peculiar [to white students]”.
This week we report on a new study, this one from the US, that identifies bias in how students rate lecturers based on their country of origin. The author accepts that some language difficulties exist, but says that the findings suggest that some students exaggerate the communication problems they face or do little to resolve simple problems with foreign-born staff.
Questions of bias and prejudice are never comfortable, and clearly the context and scale of the issue as it relates to policing is in another league altogether. But if US law enforcement can face up to the need for an “honest conversation” on the topic, then higher education must be able to do the same.