“Structural racism at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, finds report,” thundered the Guardian last Monday, referring to what it saw as a “damning review”. There’s nothing too unusual about such headlines, especially as regards universities and cultural institutions, whose administrators often have whole swarms of bees in their bonnet about the need for radical steps to extirpate the structures of racism rampant in their institutions. Look closer, however, and this episode shows neatly how highly tendentious and often misguided ideas can take hold unless the rest of us keep a careful lookout.
The first thing that should give us pause is the report itself, and the premises from which it drew its conclusion — predictably, that baked-in structural racism showed a need for a programme of immediate and pervasive anti-racism initiatives. These premises were threefold. One was raw figures showing racial disproportion in employment and in the student body, and differences in academic attainment; another, perceptions of staff and students; a third, statements about the history of the School, such as that it had “benefited from and contributed to colonialism”, and that historically its research agenda had been “heavily influenced by British commercial interests in Britain’s colonies”. All were less than straightforward.
There was a demand for an immediate commitment to racial equity
The first might indicate racism, but any such inference was (as the admirably sceptical Sewell Report suggested earlier this year) at best tendentious and at worst dangerous. It might have been due to any number of other factors, such as underlying social conditions, particularly since it was apparent that there were differences between different non-white racial groups. As for the second, while incidents of blatant racism did appear (and clearly need suppressing), many cited impressions were remarkably vague. They referred to such things as failure to acknowledge a colonial legacy, belief by non-white staff that they had equal opportunities, or a student’s impression that an academic had low expectations of her because she was black. Such unsupported perceptions are an insecure foundation for inferences of widespread racial problems. Again the third (the past colonialist background) was clearly true; but it was risky to assume that such events of many years ago must necessarily shape the modern School, without descending to specifics.
Whether or not LSHTM is actually a hotbed of institutional racism, the report’s prescriptions were certainly drastic, not to mention giving the impression of being distinctly on the political rather than the intellectual side. There was a demand for an immediate commitment to racial equity (candidly admitted to mean equality not of opportunity but of outcome), and for the setting up of a department explicitly devoted to it led by someone “with a track record of working with marginalised and disadvantaged communities (in particular communities of colour)”. Both, it seems a fair inference, would very effectively divert attention from the School’s primary function. Equally uncompromising were proposals for attendance at anti-racist training sessions to be compulsory for anyone wanting any promotion; targets for recruitment based on skin colour; a clampdown on microaggressions, involving (and paying) organisations like Decolonising Global Health, BLM and FAIR to promote it; and — interestingly for an organisation apparently devoted to hard science — a “curriculum informed by a decolonial outlook” in place of the excessively “Eurocentric” one.
How did all this anti-racist millenarianism get here? Interestingly, it did not come directly from academics at LSHTM, politically committed or otherwise. The report actually emanated from Nous, a sizeable outside management consultancy engaged by the School to investigate it. It might seem surprising at first sight that such an unashamedly commercial organisation should reach the conclusions it did, or for that matter that it should have been involved at all (many other academic institutions have produced similar reports on their own without difficulty). But then perhaps it shouldn’t.
Wokeness is now embedded in both our culture and our commerce
For one thing, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the School, although it engaged an independent organisation, was actually looking for a conclusion on these lines. According to the report, Nous was engaged following the BLM protests “to conduct an independent review to address racism and advance race equity” at LSHTM; its terms of reference were to “consider LSHTM’s history, colonial legacies, cultural dynamics and any cultural systems or process challenges to race equity and decolonisation”. Faced with this, it would be a brave investigator who questioned whether there was actually a problem of structural racism to deal with at all, or who demanded anything other than drastic measures to counter it. Furthermore, of the three experts engaged by Nous (who presumably were not experts in the finer points of critical race theory and race equity), two were academics known for their views that racism is structurally embedded in institutions like LSHTM. The School might have wished to present Nous’s report to the outside world as a dispassionate answer to neutral questions. But from the way it instructed the institution, one suspects it knew very well what it was going to get.
Wokeness is now embedded in both our culture and our commerce. The theory that we’re all racists if we’re white, whether we try to be or not, and that a mix of allyship and anti-racist zealotry are our only hopes of redemption, imbues big and medium business in largely the same way it inspires academics or media types. Memos about it feature as much in the boardroom of Coca-Cola or Goldman Sachs as in any senior common room. Perhaps the only surprising thing is that the revolving door between woke academia and woker UK Plc isn’t spinning even faster.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe