Singular failure to tackle plurality

March 12, 1999

The under-representation of non-white academics in British universities ("The colour blind spot", THES, March 5) is little short of a scandal, but by focusing almost exclusively on recruitment policies, Jennifer Wallace overlooks the fact that the central emphasis of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry was on the failure of the police - and, by extension, of all other public agencies - to deliver an adequate service to members of ethnic minority communities.

If we adopt Sir William Macpherson's suggestion that institutional racism should be understood as "the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin", incompetent professional practice emerges as much a source of disadvantage as is straightforward discrimination in recruitment and promotion. Discriminatory practice should not, therefore, be seen as the only yardstick with which to measure the adequacy of the universities' responses. The role we play in setting the intellectual and conceptual agenda for society is at least as important, and in many ways more so.

With such a focus, a very different set of issues comes to the fore. Do we provide our students with as much analytical insight into the interests, behaviours and concerns of the non-hegemonic components of Britain's social order as we do with respect to members of its hegemonic English majority? How far, in other words, have we managed to move beyond the commonplace liberal commitment to being unprejudiced to ask some much more substantial questions about the way in which established academic agendas need to be modified to cope with the ever-increasing ethnic plurality of contemporary Britain?

If we were we to do so, the impact would be far reaching. Could the history of the British Empire be left in the dustbin to which it is consigned almost everywhere? Or would the subject have to be dusted down and re-examined, to present a thoroughly uncomfortable vision of the "glories" of our recent past? Could the history of Asia, of Africa or of pre-Colombian America be left languishing far from the mainstream of intellectual endeavour? Could subjects as diverse as ethics, music, literature, philosophy, psychology, sociology and theology be taught within such comprehensively Eurocentric conceptual and analytical frameworks? Would it be possible to keep such widely spoken British languages as Urdu, Punjabi, Gujarati and Bangla in the exotic arena of oriental studies? Or would they at long last be recognised as the modern languages they surely are?

Equally pressing questions would arise in more applied fields. Insofar as universities provide training to all manner of professional service deliverers, how far do courses address the skills and competencies needed to function effectively with all sections of their future clientele, no matter what their ethnic affiliation may be? Despite the existence of a few small-scale initiatives aimed at addressing such matters, any suggestion that these issues are being systematically addressed is clearly laughable.

From this perspective, issues of recruitment are but the tip of the iceberg, to the extent that non-whites are poorly represented on faculty. Could it be that academia has also developed a "canteen culture"? It may articulate itself in much more intellectually rarefied terms, but its effects are the same. Well-qualified potential recruits are made to feel so uncomfortable that they opt for career paths in less hypocritical professional arenas. Institutional racism is a far more serious disease than Wallace appears to appreciate, and higher education is seriously infected. And the remedy? Systematic faults require equally systematic solutions. Until we get to a position in which non-European people, and all aspects of their cultural, linguistic, philosophical, religious and social traditions, are accorded an equal value to those of Western Europe, little progress will be made. It is going to be a long haul.

Roger Ballard Department of religions, University of Manchester

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