26 November 2020

Universities UK’s embrace of Critical Race Theory is a disgrace

By Andrew Tettenborn

The sidelining of learning in favour of modish management mantras and extreme social-justice-speak continues apace in our universities. A report this week from Universities UK, the higher education industry association, called ‘Tackling racial harassment in higher education’ eloquently makes the point.

In 2018, just before Christmas, the Equality and Human Rights Commission surveyed some 1500 academics and students, of whom about two-thirds said that they had experienced racial harassment of one sort or another. Although it was difficult to make much of these figures, because they generally lumped together everything from seriously racist attacks to minor social gaffes and from acts by those unconnected with an institution to those by professors in it, the Commission took this as an indication that racism was endemic in higher education and its elimination needed to be given top priority.

All this clearly struck a chord with Universities UK; that body not only caught the ball lobbed by the Commission but delightedly picked it up and ran with it. Their report combines an orgy of corporate self-abasement with something looking like an elementary textbook on race theory by a left-wing professor from a fashionable second-rank US campus.

The tone is clear right from the beginning: “We recognise,” says the executive summary, “that racial harassment is just one manifestation of structural racism in higher education”. Later on, the text is embellished with what seems to be a quote from a student: “Years of racist structure really weigh down on your lived experience and we aren’t given the tools to articulate it.”

The meat of the matter comes in Chapter 3 (‘Steps to prevent and respond to racial harassment’), the statement by the higher education great and good of what it sees as the best practice for UK higher education to follow. It makes for some pretty remarkable reading.

People running universities, it is said, being predominantly white and thus deprived of the opportunity for proper empathy with those suffering racism, must educate themselves by encouraging non-whites to recount their “lived experience”, always remembering that “recounting of difficult experiences may be traumatising for those involved”. They might even go further: the authors of the report are enormously impressed that the UEA top brass “have recently undergone white allyship training”.

And, for that matter, this need not only affect those at the top. All “white colleagues”, while similarly unable to understand the full horror of the non-white experience, should nevertheless be “proactive in addressing harassment by supporting allyship” and anyone providing support for students needs to have their “cultural competence” enhanced in understanding the experiences of non-white people.

Corporately, universities need to make sure they have a “common understanding of racial harassment”: it is imperative that they “build awareness that microaggressions are forms of racism that can be just as damaging as overt racism”; and (of course) they must immediately adopt the police definition of a racist incident as anything which the victim or anyone else perceives to be racist.

How are they to do this? The authors once again have the answer. Institutions had better recognise that many staff are “not aware of the impacts of white privilege”, and thus, when designing training, “incorporate the concepts of white privilege and white fragility, white allyship, microaggressions and intersectionality, as well as racialised unconscious bias training”. And to add to all that, don’t forget all those disciplinary hearings you’ll find yourself holding: disciplinary body members need careful training in “racial literacy, structural racism, microaggressions, white privilege and understanding manifestations of trauma”.

On race more generally, links to slavery and colonialism can (of course) “shape the experience of individuals” and therefore need to be dealt with. But be careful here, because, as you should not need reminding, one has in this connection to be “mindful of the impact on historically marginalised groups”. Even attempts at racial integration need to be approached cautiously. It may, we are told, “be helpful to have separate spaces for Black, Asian and minority ethnic staff and students to discuss among themselves, as well as discussion forums for white students and staff”. Again, singled out for particular praise is an effort by the University of Bristol to offer “culturally appropriate counselling sessions for Black, Asian and minority ethnic students via a community charity”.

And, of course, it goes without saying that what is taught will also have to be shaken up. We must all, of course, realise that “curricula that are based on Eurocentric, typically white voices will perpetuate existing inequalities and are unlikely to reflect the experience or viewpoints of many members of the student and staff body”; all universities must take steps to deal with this in order to give BAME students a “sense of belonging”.

The obvious comments we can get out of the way quickly. A great deal of the report is about an apparent need for senior managers to spend a lot more time and energy producing more papers, policies and projects on race in the institution they work for. (It is actually a good deal longer than that because of the strange desire of the authors to speak in a kind of pseudo-management Volapuk apparently aimed at showing the rest of us that they have some obscure technical skill we don’t – phrases like “stronger senior leadership ownership of activity” abound – but that’s what it comes to). One rather doubts whether that is likely to be very productive, except of more bureaucrats and more expense: but then if one thing is clear from the verbiage, it is that all this will cost (sorry: it shows the necessity of “dedicating and prioritising funding and resources”).

The concrete proposals made are pretty uniformly bad. Courses slanted against Eurocentric, white voices on the basis not of intellectual merit but correspondence with political beliefs and students’ supposed own lived experience; a deliberate obsession with “microaggressions”, something roughly translatable as incidents so minor that you have to be reminded that you have the right to take serious offence at them; engaging with historical connections that most students don’t care about and many won’t even be aware of unless and until reminded; the list goes on.

Even less attractive, but very important to note, is the authors’ apparent desire for outsiders to see all this as somehow just an exercise in trusting the experts, and keeping up with the latest scientific developments. “This guidance,” they say in a very important passage, “draws on the framework of critical race theory. This proposes that racism is an ordinary rather than abnormal experience, supported by societal structures, and that concepts such as ‘colour blindness’ will only rectify the most overt forms of racism while maintaining structural inequalities. In addition, white people, who as a collective group benefit from structural racism overall, can be complicit (albeit unwittingly) in perpetuating racism and thereby have a responsibility to counter it”.

Wow. Not only is critical race theory well over 30 years old, so hardly cutting-edge: it is extremely controversial, and has indeed been debunked a fair number of times, most recently by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay this year in Cynical Theories. More importantly, as a theory it comes close to saying that there is no such thing as objective scientific fact as against the views of a political hegemony, thus becoming largely unfalsifiable; it holds that abstract identity matters more than the individual bearing it; and in most manifestations admits cheerfully that it is a political creed, and that its proponents should not engage with those who argue with its starting point of universal structural racial inequality. Not only is all this highly unattractive; but that anything as tendentious as this should be put forward by UUK as an obvious truth, and indeed something ideally to be believed, followed and where necessary enforced by universities that ought to be favouring free and open debate, is a disgrace.

The other point which will not have escaped you is that what is proposed here is if anything an idea that universities should be becoming more racialised, not less. Colour-blindness is out because, don’t you know, it maintains structural inequality. In its place we have the positive promotion of separate spaces for white and non-white members of universities, separate counselling for non-white people, and apparently positive encouragement of the belief that what is good for one cannot be good for the other. One would have thought that beliefs of this sort happily died in 1991 in South Africa; that well-meaning organisations like UUK still apparently hanker after them makes one wonder what, if any, value for money universities are getting for the £11 million-odd per year they provide in order to bankroll it.

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Andrew Tettenborn is Professor of Law at the University of Swansea. He specialises in private, commercial and maritime law.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.