British universities aren’t riddled with racism

At an Oxford University symposium earlier this month, Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy accused the Oxford admissions process of having a racist ‘unconscious bias’. ‘Are you saying there’s no unconscious bias? Are you suggesting that?’, he asked.

The symposium was held to showcase Oxford’s programme for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are encouraged to enrol on a foundation year of study. It ended with Lammy attacking the university for being hopelessly prejudiced, and lacking proof of its commitment to combating racism. ‘The burden is on this institution to demonstrate that there is no unconscious bias’, he said.

According to the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU), unconscious bias is defined as ‘making incredibly quick judgements and assessments of people and situations without us realising’. ECU added that people may ‘not even be aware of these views and opinions’. It’s an insidious idea that transforms racism from an ugly, explicit worldview into a pathological problem requiring therapy and interventions by professionals, specially trained in highlighting and evaluating our unconscious motives.

The reasoning goes that there are so few ethnic minorities studying at elite universities because the staff suffer from unconscious bias. But it’s a claim that is both impossible to prove and impossible to challenge. Indeed, no one can defend themselves against accusations of holding dodgy views subconsciously. What’s more, it emboldens thoughtpolicing bureaucrats. They push their zero-tolerance training programmes and unconscious-bias workshops, staffed by an army of diversity experts, as the only solution to this hidden problem. In the end, it’s a crude attempt at policing people’s minds, at micromanaging our unconscious opinions.

The truth is that British universities – and British society more broadly – are not as racist as some would like us to believe. Racism is no longer an organising principle of the British state. Indeed, it could reasonably be argued that Britain is an anti-racist society. Even the campaign group Hope Not Hate had to concede recently that Britain is a ‘more tolerant and confident multicultural society than it was five years ago’. In 2014, the World Values Survey concluded that the UK is among the most racially tolerant nations in the world. The likes of Lammy seem totally unconscious of these facts.

Courtney Hamilton is a writer based in London.

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