No refuge for racists within the academy

June 7, 2002

Geoffrey Sampson's views are irresponsible and discredited and unworthy of the defence of academic freedom or free speech, says Ian McDonald

One year ago, race riots swept across Northwest England. One month ago, the British National Party won an electoral breakthrough in local elections. Now, amid a media-driven and government-stoked panic over asylum seekers, comes the furore in higher education caused by Geoffrey Sampson's ill-constructed article "There's nothing wrong with racism (except the name)" on his website. The article, though no longer available on the web, leaves in its wake a number of arguments and counter-arguments about racism, academic responsibility and freedom of speech. Underpinning these arguments is the critical question: what action, if any, should Sussex University management, staff and students take against their now-notorious professor?

The argument of Sampson's polemic is as follows: racism is an incorrect term for "racialism". Racialism is our preference for people who appear to be genetically similar to us. It is inevitable and universal, and as natural as sexual feelings between the opposite sexes. Second, socially significant biological differences exist between the "races", as evidenced by IQ tests: "yellow-skinned Orientals tend to be rather brighter than whites, Negroes tend to be rather less bright". Third, successive governments have permitted "large-scale immigration" and then have had to resort to law and social policies "to root out natural racial feelings from people's minds". But, "you simply cannot change basic biological nature by law".

Sampson, who joined Sussex in 1991, is professor of natural language computing in the School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences. He is not a geneticist, sociologist or a psychologist, as the eminent panellists John Maynard Smith (evolutionary biologist), Saul Dubow (social historian) and John Drury (social psychologist) noted at the well-attended Sussex University forum that philosophy lecturer Andrew Chitty organised to refute Sampson's article. A clue to the politics behind his argument is the fact that Sampson was a Tory councillor until recently, when he was forced to quit because of bad publicity caused by his article.

Although Sampson's essay had sat on the web since October 2001, it was The Observer of May 12 that drew attention to it. In the following week, psychologists at Sussex and a group of senior academics from around the country condemned his views in a letter to the University Bulletin . They stated that research and theory in psychology and biology suggest that there is no genetic basis for "racial" categories. "What counts as ('racial') similarity or dissimilarity is socially, culturally and historically constructed," they said. And they disputed the validity of IQ tests on methodological and empirical grounds, concluding that "it is deplorable that a university professor, who is in a position of power among students of different backgrounds, should be actively involved in the rationalisation of racism".

Alasdair Smith, Sussex vice-chancellor, has disassociated himself and the university from Sampson's views. But he rejected calls for action, adopting a Voltairian stance that universities must support freedom of expression, however unpopular: "Dangerous and misleading ideas have to be defeated by science and by argument, not by suppression." He later added that racist ideas, however repugnant, are no exception to this position.

But is this a question of academic freedom and freedom of expression? Can ideas be seen in a vacuum? Is the opposition to Sampson's right to articulate his prejudices a suppression of debate?

In Sampson's case, the defence of academic freedom is a red herring. In my view, his article is not an academic piece. Even so, it is not as if "science and argument" have not discredited "scientific" racism. It is now recognised that this tradition of "research" is not a quest for truth, and has not advanced knowledge, but has been a political attempt to rationalise and legitimise racism. Racism and racist research disqualifies itself from the defence of academic freedom because it is an academic fraud and is intellectually flawed.

The more general defence of freedom of speech is also questionable. There is no absolute freedom of speech, legally or politically. Sampson, who is in a position of power at the university, has to balance his freedom of expression with a responsibility for the freedom of students and staff to study and work without fear of infringement or intimidation. Some students in Sampson's school have defended their professor, saying that he is "firm but fair" in his treatment. But as an administrative staff member said in confidence: "It is very difficult for students to speak out, especially at this time of year when their exams are being marked by Sampson."

Sussex's students union has adopted a clear position: "It is detrimental to student welfare to have some students reliant on a professor who deems them to be genetically inferior." It has demanded that Sampson retract his statements or resign. What eventually happens at Sussex will be decided by its students, staff, senior management and Sampson. However, whether a discussion of racism and racist research falls within the ambit of academic freedom is a question that everyone in education must address.

Outside the academy, Sampson's article represents little more than a footnote in the outpouring of racist myths and lies of the past few years. But, if unchallenged, its potential power lies in the rationalisation of an intuitive sense that many people will hold, namely that preference for racial familiarity is "natural". The BNP's defence of Sampson, as the man "who has dared to state the obvious", may chime with people, be they white, black or brown. These ideas, though without intellectual merit, can prosper in the fertile social conditions created by an unjust and irrational global economic and political system.

In Britain, the hopes for a more tolerant society that accompanied the publication of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report in 1999 now seem distant and naive. The arrival of refugees and asylum seekers has been used to whip up racist prejudices and to exploit the sense of frustration and despair caused by new Labour's failure to deliver better public services and quality of life. Asian communities have borne the brunt of new Labour policies and the attendant increase in racial hostilities. The mixture of economic deprivation, social disadvantages and political scapegoating will contribute to bunker mentalities and a retreat to comfort zones.

To besieged and disempowered white working-class families, it will appear that asylum seekers are causing, or at least adding to, their housing and other social problems. Non-white and especially Muslim families (after the 2001 riots, September 11, and the 2002 May elections) will of course feel more secure in their communities. These feelings may be genuine, but it does not automatically follow that they are "natural". Attributing this to genetics confuses "heritability with fixity". As many scientists have argued, biological determinism is a powerful weapon that is used to legitimise an unequal society.

Where the "natural" preference for one's racial group exists, it is simultaneously a product of and a response to historically specific, socially produced circumstances. Fortunately, in a time-honoured dialectical fashion, these same circumstances have resulted in an increasing number of people making "un-natural" mixed-race selections. This is not necessarily a guilt-ridden outcome of the suppression of the natural genetic impulse, as the logic of Sampson's argument may suggest, but is an affirmation of the ever-changing profile of the human race.

Ian McDonald is a lecturer in politics and sociology at the Chelsea School, University of Brighton.

Ian McDonald will host a debate on racism and academic freedom from today in The THES Common room ( www.thes.co.uk/commonroom )

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