The current socio-political climate has brought forth a wave of attention on issues faced by the black community. As though orchestrated by a sort of global hive mind, organisations have come out to show their support for the black community; members of the public from all races have marched side by side in solidarity against police brutality; and certain members of the Hollywood elite displayed their exceptional talent in the sensational rendition; Je prends la responsabilité.
In various forms, there have been calls to purpose, for organisations and individuals alike, to show support to black people all across the globe.
At the University of Surrey, many of my fellow students have come to a political awakening. They have made it their duty to educate their peers on racial issues on social media. They have also kept their followers up to date on prevalent humanitarian crises in the world, and written pieces of their various experiences living in the diaspora.
The current dialogue on racial inequality is great. It shows a renewed interest, by a usually apathetic public, in the socio-political issues affecting them. Although there is a lot of talk on what we want to see get done, there is very little debate and difference in opinion on how we get there. In order to truly solve the most difficult problems of our time, we had better not simply take whatever course of action seems most popular at the moment- rather we must be able to ask all the difficult questions and make a dispassionate analysis of the facts. Only then will the best solutions become clear.
This article does not serve as a report on racial disparities, neither is it a declaration of what policies should be taken or not taken. Rather it is a reflection on how we tend to look at these differences as well as an attempt at offering a better approach which will in turn aid us in devising more effective solutions.
In the University of Surrey there is a significant attainment gap between black and white students. Similar differences are found across the top universities in the UK. But what do these disparities tell us? For us to put forth effective measures in reducing these gaps, we need to be able to study the various factors that contribute to the degrees students obtain.
The problem is these factors are so difficult to study due to the intentional line-blurring of student performance based on ethnicity. In Surrey, prior to the attainment gap report released by the former Vice-President Voice, Ajay Ajimobi, there was no statistical reporting on black student performance. All the relevant reporting on student performance based on race compare the outcomes of white and ‘BAME’ students. It is impossible to get a clear picture with this sort of reporting, as various ethnic groups, that perform very differently and face very different issues, are jumbled up. The resulting information is hence useless.
Then again these disparities have been better studied by various sources for years now and universities have put forth lots of effort into reducing them. Yet, when we look at the results in terms of gaps, we see progress, but at a slow rate.
Part of the reason for this is that universities do not exist in a vacuum. They are not the root cause of the disparities themselves as they operate within the larger society. The socio-economic issues uniquely affecting black students place constraints on the outcomes these students eventually get at the end of their programs. For example, students of any race who come from families with little generational wealth are more likely to drop out of their university programs, regardless of the policies the universities have in place. Knowing nearly half of all black-headed households, in the UK, are in poverty, negative educational outcomes should come as no surprise. The disenchanting reality is that there will be no easy or short-term fixes.
There are many ways to go from here but as far as I am concerned, there are two main questions to be asked. The first is, knowing this reality, what are the steps we black students must take in order to ensure our success in the university right now, regardless of the external constraints? The second is, how can we students affect change in the larger social sphere, knowing this will be a long-term process?
Any group that focuses and relies entirely on what others may do for them is hence restricted by what others may do for them. The presence of racism and economic disparities do not limit the importance of this conversation. If we study the industries where black people overwhelmingly dominate like music and athletics, we will find that our success in these sectors is not simply a function of the lack of racism in these areas. Rather it is the result of our undeniable talent and interest in pursuing success in these areas, and a culture that has followed which inspires a greater percentage of our youth to continue competing in these industries.
There is no shortage of suggestions on what the university should do to reduce educational disparities or what university societies should carry out to increase black representation in clubs and societies. Taking representation for example, while the university, student union and society leaders have great responsibility in improving student experience, the truth is that most of the opportunity to change the things we complain about lie in front of us. It is easy to hold authority responsible, which we do at the start of every academic year. But at a point, individuals as well need to be held accountable. Many societies, for example place large efforts on increasing diversity; but that counts for nothing if we do not, as individuals, encourage our friends to participate in these activities. I remember looking forward to a mental health session last year that was to be hosted by Woke Weekly, the society holding discussions and debates relevant to the black community. The sessions are frequently packed, and I am always told that we need to start speaking up about mental health within the black community. However, on the day itself, barely anyone showed up and all the preparation and hard work by the society was wasted as they had to cancel the session.
I do, in the end, believe that black leaders, whether it be in societies like the ACS or in the Student Union, can do a lot if we work strategically. From the kind of workshops we organise to the guest speakers we invite; these all play a critical role in shaping the culture we foster on campus.
While the above mentioned holds true, the effort an individual makes to succeed is impeded or aided by the society he or she exists in. So how do we students effectively affect change in the larger society? University campuses have a great culture of activism and hence a lot of students who are usually apathetical towards politics are kept engaged with the politics going on in the wider society. Campus activism in the form of peaceful protests and signing petitions work as they give students the ability to hold authority accountable and make their voices heard.
However, in order to affect permanent long-term changes, a less spoken about approach is needed. Far too many individuals take part in political warfare without having a proper understanding of policies and their effects. The most important thing is education. The more educated we are, the more equipped we are, in making the right political decisions. Keep in mind that when I say education, I do not simply mean reading books about how all whites are inherently racist or others of that nature. Such reads only serve to profit off of the moral grievances of black people, create more division based on pseudo-intellectual arm-chair theories, and offer no real utilitarian solutions on how we might achieve concrete success in the actual world.
Without in-depth knowledge, how else can one determine what policies are truly beneficial? Other than what they sound like on paper, what are the incentives they create? What are the indirect consequences? What are the justifications for preferential race policies other than their obvious intentions in helping marginalised groups? In the US, policies like affirmative action aimed at increasing diversity on campuses, have brought more black students into universities, but have not closed the racial attainment gaps. Part of the reason for this is that in order to get a predetermined composition of students based on their race, certain groups must be admitted at higher standards of entry relative to others. The consequence of this is that there is a greater percentage of higher performing students in some races relative to others, which in turn leads to certain races attaining a higher number of preferable degrees. In various universities, racial quotas have been pushed in order to increase the diversity of staff on campus. The strategic implementation of such quotas for staff in departments like mental health, where feeling represented can have major positives, is a good idea. I am not convinced however, that a selection criterion of lecturers in highly competitive academic fields, based on their race, is a remotely smart approach. Furthermore, racial quotas have overwhelmingly helped already well off, well-educated black adults seeking positions, as institutions are incentivised to pick token black faces to showcase their diverse culture. However, this serves to distract us from the root causes that keep a greater number of black people in disadvantaged positions in the first place. Popular top down policies such as these, attempt to reshuffle societal outcomes without any analysis on the factors contributing to the disparities in the first place and basically serve to paint up a broken kettle.
Bottom-up studies that look at the differences in educational outcomes within the different black communities making up the diaspora are often helpful as race is controlled and we are, hence, able to study other key variables that are often overlooked.
If the key variables are not addressed, those disparities will eventually re-emerge. A well-functioning society should focus on creating equal amounts of opportunity whilst addressing the root causes of the negative disparities.
Diversifying our knowledge base and encouraging debate within a wide range of viewpoints also helps to sharpen our insight on the socio-economic issues affecting our communities. Black students typically only look in one direction for political and economic advice, delving deeper and deeper into our self-reaffirming echo chambers. As we are less critical of certain ideas than others, we become susceptible to being manipulated by organisations and politicians that spout the common tropes simply to purchase our support, without considering if they truly benefit us or not. As Noam Chomsky writes in The Common Good, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum”.
Finally, I believe there is a case for some optimism. Black students have indeed made stunning progress overtime considering blacks started further behind. Between 2013 and 2018 the percentage of black students achieving first class or 2:1 degrees increased by 10.7 percentage points, much higher than their white counterparts who increased by 7.7 percentage points. Progress such as this is hardly spoken about. This is so because, when discussing the progress black people in the UK have made, we typically speak in terms of gaps. When we speak in terms of comparisons without any context of the trend overtime, all the progress made becomes non-existent. For example, the previous point raised can also be represented as; “in 2013 there was a 26.4 percentage point gap between white and black students, five years later in 2018 that gap has only dropped to 23.4 percentage points”.
History is filled with examples of minority groups, which have suffered routine discrimination and even violence, rising to affluence through focusing on entrepreneurship and education. Whilst we hold authorities to account, as it is the leaders of society, who have the greatest influence over needed structural change through policy making, the burden of responsibility also lies with us, black individuals, as we have the greatest influence over the culture we promote and the industries we choose to venture into.