Are Universities really as racist as the EHRC claims?

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Unfortunately, many efforts to deal with this issue are apt to produce a cure a great deal worse than the disease. The latest well-meaning production from the Equality and Human Rights Commission is a case in point.

Like any other institutions, universities have their share of hangers-on one would rather not know. This includes a number of deliberate, serious, old-fashioned racists who genuinely detest black people, or Asians, or Jews, for no better reason than that they are black, Asian or Jewish. Stupid and nauseating views like this have no place in any institution dedicated to education and need to be unequivocally condemned.

Unfortunately, many efforts to deal with this issue are apt to produce a cure a great deal worse than the disease. The latest well-meaning production from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Tackling racial harassment: Universities challenged, is a case in point. Its basis is a 2018 survey of university students and staff, whose results satisfied it that racial harassment was constant, powerful and endemic in campuses up and down the kingdom.

At first sight its recommendations, made in the light of this conclusion, look like sweet reasonableness itself, or at worst nothing worse than flatulent verbiage. There needs to be a legal duty on universities to protect their staff from racial harassment by anyone; a culture of easy and widespread reporting of any harassment; data collection and retention on a massive scale; targets set by government for the tackling of racial harassment; and what is referred to in impeccable vacuous management-speak as a need for university bigwigs to “demonstrate leadership and accountability for embedding an inclusive culture across their institution.”

So far, so virtuous. It is only when you look at the details that some of the problems begin to appear. For one thing, despite the survey one wonders just how endemic racial harassment – at least in the sense most of us would give it – actually is. The background is that in 2018 the EHRC invited staff and students at universities just before the beginning of the Christmas vacation to tell them about their experiences of racial harassment. Just over 1400 replied. Now, the difficulty is that samples for surveys like this tend inevitably to be self-selecting. I don’t remember if I was told about the survey or asked for my views; but if I was, I know perfectly well that in common with very many other academics (and students) I would have ignored the request because I had more pressing and important commitments. It is inherently more likely that those responding would be those who had, or saw themselves as having, suffered some form of racialism.

But for the moment concede that point. Some 950, or two-thirds of those who replied, still said they had experienced harassment. This certainly looks disconcerting. But is it? Of the students who responded, 154 described harassment by members of the public, which is hardly a university’s responsibility. As regards the others, we have to remember one thing: the ECHR when in search of what it refers to as harassment draws its net wide. It piously, if legalistically, reminds us at the beginning of its report that harassment under equality law is unwanted behaviour related to a relevant protected characteristic (including race) that intentionally or otherwise violates dignity, or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. This rather vague definition covers everything from, at one extreme, marauding student gangs regularly and frequently seeking out and beating up Asian students, boneheaded drunks repeatedly yelling “N*****s go home or we’ll lynch you next week” while throwing bananas into the window of a black student trying to sleep, or a professor saying that he prefers not to have Bangladeshi students in his tutorials because he thinks all Bangladeshis lazy), to, at the other end, defending colonialism, wearing a KKK hat to a fancy dress party, or casually suggesting to a student from the Middle East in conversation that much of modern terrorism emanates from that part of the world. If it is behaviour of the first kind is rife, we do have a problem that needs immediate attention. If it is the second we are talking about, then whatever the law may technically provide, or the idealists at the EHCR prefer, the issue is more nuanced.

Unfortunately, this is just where the opacity begins. Even statistics such as that 20 per cent of student respondents had experienced physical attacks can do with elucidation. Were the attacks on campus, by other members of the university? How clear was it that they were racially motivated? And what of circumstances? There is every difference between a premeditated punch motivated by cold race hatred, and a slap in the face after a lovers’ tiff accompanied by an “I’m never going out with another black b*****d like you again”. But both come, at least technically, under the rubric of racial attacks.

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Things are also made no easier by the style of the report. To give an impression of demotic approachability, a good deal of it is taken up with anecdotes in victims’ own words; unfortunately, however, a great many of these cry out for elucidation. Bare references on occasion made to modes of speech, to body language, to the demeanour adopted by academics, or to students allegedly treated by white students like a “black object”, are vague, difficult to check, and don’t tell us very much about what actually happened. If an academic in a subject with a large number of foreign students talks to a black student in “religious dress” (presumably Islamic) as if she were a foreign student when in fact, she is English, this could be insulting; it could just as well be an attempt to accommodate her needs based on a not unreasonable assumption. The same goes for a professor’s reported remark to a Pakistani student from Hounslow that the ethnic composition of that suburb had changed. This could be an anti-Asian slight; but it could equally well have been an attempt to make conversation about the student’s home town; and so on.

Admittedly the whole tone of the EHRC report is to say that such distinctions don’t matter, and that even unintentional slights referred to by it as “micro-aggressions” must be regarded as important. After all, its argument runs, not only is this in line with the rather open-ended requirements of the equality legislation; it also reflects the fact that offence is offence whether deliberately-caused or not. But while this may be true as a matter of dry law or even (dare we say) academic logic, it immediately raises a problem. The EHRC’s claim that racism on campuses is an emergency such as to require drastic and immediate measures, no-tolerance policies and so on, can only carry conviction if it does indeed involve constant, deliberate and overt racial slurs: regular express Jew-bating, attacks on Asians for their race, shouts of “n****rs out” echoing across campuses every night, academics telling people they’re not welcome because of their race, or whatever. This does not seem to be the case. Mere instances of conversations that could have gone better, perceived slights by ignoring particular students, and the like may be matters for concern. But problems requiring immediate and drastic measures of suppression they are not.

Which takes us on to a further point. Many of the micro-aggressions that trouble the EHRC are things that form part of everyday conversation and interaction, both inside and outside universities. Calling for and supporting extensive administrative measures for their elimination, such as speech codes, regular reporting, bystander interventions, mandatory logging of complaints and zero tolerance of infractions, will have two effects.

One is that it will encourage Stasi-like monitoring and an atmosphere of serious mistrust. Students and others would be actively exhorted to be hypersensitive; to listen carefully for possible slights even if no-one actually minded; and to report what they saw as undesirable speech to the authorities, who would then be bound to investigate and as often as not to intervene. Conversely, academics and students would increasingly be open to being called in to face accusations on the lines of “You were overheard in conversation saying such-and-such, which is against the University’s values, etc etc.” The prospect is not attractive.

But there is another, worse, prospect. You don’t go to university to be taught as you were in a possibly second-rate school. You go (or should) for self-education; for adult conversation; for no-holds-barred argument; for ideas as to social boundaries to push; and occasionally to make or hear the sort of outrageous suggestion that doesn’t make the grade elsewhere. If all conversation is monitored and students and academics encouraged to stay on the safe side by sticking strictly to their subject and avoiding anything controversial or even possibly offence-giving, one might begin to ask: why go to university at all? After all, if all you get there is the utilitarian information strictly relevant to your course and the transferable skills you hope to get out of it, there are other ways to do that. You could stay at home and join the OU. Or you could save even more money by simply signing up for a correspondence course and sticking in your study in Sunderland, Southsea or Solihull. Now there’s a thought.

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