'Black intellectual seems an oxymoron in England'

October 29, 2004

Up to 50 per cent of black male social scientists may have left the UK for the US. Stephen Phillips finds out why.

"If you wanted to hold a black British social scientists forum, you'd have to [convene] it in the Midwest rather than the West Midlands," quips Ben Carrington, newly minted University of Texas assistant sociology professor.

It would certainly be closer for Carrington, who left Brighton University in the summer. Opinions vary on the magnitude of the brain drain to US campuses of black UK academics studying race. Carrington and Barnor Hesse, who is in the throes of decamping from the University of East London to Chicago's Northwestern University to take up an African-American studies professorship, characterise it as a "drift".

Longer-standing British transplants such as Stephen Small, chair of African-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where he took his PhD after attending Kent and Bristol universities, are more circumspect, pointing to "a small number of [senior] people".

But Julia Sudbury, who holds a research chair in social justice, equity and diversity at the University of Toronto and studied at Warwick University, says that while numbers may be small, the proportion quitting Britain "should make people worry".

Carrington suggests that up to "50 per cent of black male British social scientists are currently working in America".

Small ascribes much of the flow to the sheer size of US higher education - spanning more than 3,500 institutions. Then there is the lure of better pay and research funding at American campuses, notes Paul Gilroy, former Goldsmiths College, University of London, professor of sociology and cultural studies and now chair of Yale University's African American studies department.

Beyond this, black British academics in the US cite disaffection with UK higher education, institutional indifference to black experience, a research agenda that marginalises race or casts doubt on its legitimacy as a field, feelings of being isolated in overwhelmingly white faculties, limited career prospects and a mostly tacit but sometimes overt racism.

There is also the pull of a US academy where, as a legacy of the 1960s civil rights movement and, later, affirmative action, the study of race and race relations in dedicated black studies departments and diverse faculties are firmly established.

Gilroy points out: "There's no place in the UK where you can look at the history of black settlement, culture and life. [These issues] occur intermittently in the curriculum of some disciplines, but there's no institute for the study of black life.

"Britain has reached the point where it ought to be able to accommodate an institution of this kind. The history of black settlement has a great deal to teach us." This isn't some radical, far-out project, he says. "This is the history of Britain."

"The idea of being a black intellectual seems a bizarre oxymoron in England," he adds.

At Texas, Carrington says his work on the "politics of sport in the black diaspora" is "respected and there's an institutional drive to ensure a faculty of colour". When recruiters approached him last year, "it was a case of why on earth would you not go?" At Brighton, he was the only black male social scientist.

"It's not that (UK universities) are consciously racist, but the largely white male vice-chancellors don't see the recruitment of black academics in itself as necessary."

British social science departments may be "liberal and progressive... but having a completely white faculty was not seen as a problem", Carrington adds.

The prospect of working amid such "lack of representation of diversity" did not appeal to Mark Christian, who got his PhD from Sheffield University but is now associate professor of black world studies and sociology at Miami University in Ohio. "I would [feel] highly marginalised in that homogenous cultural world," he says.

A "traditional British university department didn't appeal" to Julia Sudbury either. "I was interested in black women's activism and movements.

Though I was able to do that for my PhD at Warwick, it wouldn't necessarily fit into any British sociology department."

The loss of such people impoverishes public discourse in Britain, Carrington says. "It's depressing; the cost to debate doesn't bear thinking about. When issues of race flare up, the media goes to certain usual suspects - there are so few black and Asian public intellectuals."

Hesse fears the ultimate indictment is that they're not even missed. "I don't think the establishment is really interested."

British black or Asian scholars of race face doubts about their credibility, and their work is often viewed as advocacy rather than legitimate scholarship, adds Hesse, who has encountered "strangely quaint, finessed, colonial attitudes" at UK universities.

"There's little you could say [to] recommend the UK to a black academic," he adds.

Expatriate black scholars feel valued in US black studies departments, many of which are branching out into considering the "African diaspora".

"We pose questions as foreigners that may not otherwise be asked around colonisation and empire," Small explains. "We have a different experience of constructing racial identity (that) can be of benefit in interrogating [issues]."

Carrington adds that British black academics are more attuned to class differences, while Sudbury says the fact that many are Afro-Caribbean with immigrant parents means they "pay much more attention to the nuances of nation". "We are transnational scholars," she says.

But some question the notion of America as a promised land for black scholars. Kum-Kum Bhavnani, who taught at Central Lancashire and Bradford universities before joining the University of California, Santa Barbara, as a sociology professor, is worried by the US preoccupation with "binary racism", which, she says, can diminish discrimination she faces as an Asian. She adds that the US is more racially polarised than the UK.

Indeed, many expatriates are reluctant exiles. "I'd rather be in the UK," says Hesse, "but it's just not viable."

Next week: can the UK learn lessons from the US?


Mekada Graham 's research is steeped in the Afro-Caribbean communities she used to work among as a social worker.

"I'm particularly interested in black communities of African descent because they're overrepresented across social welfare statistics," says Graham, who did her PhD at Hertfordshire University. "There's a lot of cultural experiences of living in British society that can be useful in designing therapeutic ways of working with such communities."

But while universities in the US and Central America asked Graham to talk about her research, there were no invitations from UK institutions.

"Britain doesn't look at what it has, and (so) people like me look outside," adds the 53-year-old, who upped sticks for California State University in Fresno, where she is an assistant professor in social work education.

"You think of the US as a place of racism, but black people here are able to get established in universities in ways they aren't in the UK."


"The US is a better place to enjoy the life of the mind for a person of colour," says Mark Christian , associate professor of black world studies and sociology at Miami University in Ohio. But his words are tinged with regret. "I consider myself a black intellectual in exile. If I'd have had opportunities in England I may have stayed," he says.

Christian resolved to emigrate in 1998 after finding himself, "with three degrees, a Fulbright Scholarship and publications" to his name, signing on at a Liverpool dole office. He fielded offers from two other US campuses before plumping for Miami four years ago.

In the UK, all he could find was casual work. He says the absence of black studies departments belies a "major black experience".

Christian is one of 13 children of a Jamaican father and Liverpudlian mother, and his brothers were behind 1980s pop group, The Christians, who were inspired by black American soul music. His own "love of black culture" led him to take American studies at Liverpool Hope University College, where meeting a visiting US professor convinced him to complete a masters in black studies at Ohio State University. Returning home, he earned a PhD in sociology from Sheffield University, before landing a Fulbright scholarship to Kent State University.

Christian talks of an insidious racism in the UK. "It's a smiling face, [saying] 'we've got your application, it's very good, but we've someone with more experience'." There is also a dearth of opportunities in fields black scholars of race are interested in, he adds.

"The best you can generally hope for as a black studies intellectual [in Britain] is part-time work."

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.