Tackling institutional racism in universities effectively

Research continues to demonstrate that individuals from minority ethnic communities disproportionately experience adverse outcomes in higher education. We shall focus on the United Kingdom, but the situation there is by no means unique. While there is, of course, some variability by ethnic group, both staff and students from minority communities experience considerable disadvantage.  
Minority academic staff members, for example, are more likely to be on fixed-term contracts, face significant difficulties in gaining access to the senior ranks of university management and are paid less.
Indeed, a recent report by Professor Raj Bhopal is sceptical that much has changed in the last 20 years: the vast majority continue to experience subtle racism and feel like outsiders in the ‘white’ space of the academy.

Meanwhile, minority students continue to be less likely to be enrolled at elite universities and to be awarded good honours degrees, even when prior attainment and socio-economic status have been taken into account.

Since they also experience lower retention rates and progression rates from undergraduate study to both employment and postgraduate study, it is not altogether surprising that they express significantly less satisfaction with their university experience than their white peers.

And yet, despite this evidence of the remarkable persistence in racial disadvantage, universities remain extraordinarily complacent.

Unintentional practices

The persistence of adverse racial outcomes in higher education, coupled with the failure of universities to prioritise the issue, has recently led some writers such as Dr Kehinde Andrews to call for the resurrection of the concept of institutional racism.

Rather than assume that racial disadvantage is a result of direct discrimination and that such discrimination, as is commonly assumed, is in turn the product of racial prejudice, the concept of institutional racism opens up the possibility of more complex causal mechanisms at play.
While a simple cause and effect pattern may on occasion be operative, with individuals acting out their personal prejudices in overt acts of discrimination which result in racial disadvantage, the notion of institutional racism reminds us that racial disparities can occur even when individuals act without racist intent.

The source of differential treatment in terms of race does not lie in this view with a few ‘rotten apples’ who let the organisation down, but is the product of a pervasive occupational culture or taken-for-granted organisational practices that, albeit unintentionally, result in racial disadvantage.
Institutional racism emerged as a concept during the late 1960s in the context of the struggle of black people in the United States for social justice.

The authors of Black Power outlined a more radical political analysis and strategy than that of the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. Institutional racism was characterised as a form of colonialism. For, like previous colonial regimes, the collective impact of the way large organisations operate is to maintain white privilege.

This concept proved highly influential and was readily taken up by radical sociologists who were impressed by the persistence of racial disadvantage and found it more persuasive to account for this as the outcome of routine institutional processes rather than as a result of the discriminatory actions of prejudiced individuals.
Collective failure

It took considerably longer, however, for any official report to acknowledge that institutional racism was rife in British society.

The Macpherson report published in 1999 did just that. Although the primary focus of the inquiry was the police, the report suggested that all major organisations in British society are characterised by institutional racism.

The concept is defined in the following terms: as ‘the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin’.
It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through ‘unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people’.

Remarkably, a concept created in 1963 by black power activists to provide a radical critique of the social system, 36 years later was being employed by a conservative judge in the UK to condemn the way major organisations operated.

And perhaps even more astonishingly, the government and indeed myriad other institutions were willing, in the wake of this report, to admit to the charge of institutional racism.
This acknowledgement in the dominant discourse of the applicability of the concept to British society did not last long. Hence the recurrent calls for the concept to be resurrected to address undoubtedly persistent racial disadvantage.

While there is little doubt that its declining prominence is in part attributable to resistance by vested interests that felt threatened, it has to be acknowledged that all too often the concept lacks precision and conflates phenomena that need distinguishing.
The concept of institutional racism may be a politically useful rallying cry to encourage organisations to reconsider their practices and take positive action to promote racial equality, but its value as an analytical tool diminishes when important distinctions, such as that between beliefs which legitimise racial inequality (both biological and cultural), racially discriminatory practices (both direct and indirect) and patterns of racial disadvantage, are obscured.

Macpherson’s definition of institutional racism in my view is too broad, encompassing not only beliefs (conscious and unconscious) and practices (both intentional and unintentional) but also inaction.
Indirect discrimination

The concept of institutional racism alerts us above all to processes in organisations which, however unintentionally, entail disadvantaging members of minority ethnic groups.

Clearly there are such processes and existing race relations legislation acknowledges their existence in the act of outlawing indirect racial discrimination. The question is whether it is helpful to characterise such processes as institutional racism.

There is, in my view, a strong case for employing a more circumscribed concept of institutional racism than Macpherson’s, restricting its use to cover situations where it can be demonstrated that a racist discourse is embodied in institutional processes.

In my own research into one university, I found no clear-cut evidence of a racist discourse embodied in the institutional culture or routine practices.
So, do we need to resurrect the concept of institutional racism to understand persistent racial disadvantage in higher education? My preference for a circumscribed concept of institutional racism suggests not.

However, we certainly need to identify the processes in organisations which entail adverse outcomes and take corresponding action. Universities will not be able to promote race equality unless they see it as their responsibility to take ameliorative action.
No truck should be given to a deficit model which explains away the racial disadvantage faced by minority staff and students.

While there may be no easy answers, the key starting point is for universities to ask what they can do to ensure more equitable outcomes.

Do we have forums which enable us effectively to consult with minority staff and students? What measures need to be taken to ensure diversity in leadership? Are there unconscious biases in selection and promotion boards at play which need to be dismantled? And so on.
Professor Andrew Pilkington is based in the department of sociology and criminology at the University of Northampton, United Kingdom. This article is based on a talk he gave in May at a Society for Research into Higher Education conference on "Race, Ethnicity and Postgraduate Issues".