Over the past few weeks, the Black Lives Matter protests have moved from the streets into boardrooms. Public bodies and private companies across the Western world are revisiting their histories, publishing statements apologising for past involvement in slavery and committing themselves to tackling racial injustice in future. But is this ephemeral virtue signalling or a harbinger of substantive change?
The moral outrage over the tragic killing of George Floyd is a product of hopelessness and frustration – born of years if not decades of inaction across two spheres. The first is inequality (described by one commentator as anger’s seed). Covid-19 has shone a spotlight on aspects of our society we had chosen to ignore. The pandemic may have affected us all, but ethnic minorities have disproportionately fallen victim. The economic costs of the shutdown, likewise, have disproportionately affected BAME workers in the hard-hit service and hospitality industries.
The second sphere is the nature of history itself, unfolding in two directions. This is exemplified by the statue debate. An anachronistic form of memorialisation, coterminous with the heyday of empire, has suddenly and unexpectedly become a lightning rod for a public reckoning about nations’ colonial or segregated pasts and unequal presents. The reality of history unfolds in two directions. On the one hand, the discrimination and injustices of the present provoke debates about our past. On the other, the difficult and divisive legacies of that past work themselves out in the present. Only by working simultaneously in both these directions will genuine progress be made. Understanding history properly can help to create a focus on what we do today to make a more equal society – and the reverse is equally true.
The Black Lives Matter statements commit private firms and public bodies to more than a simple recognition of, or reparation for, the past. They commit them to building a more diverse culture in the present. This calls for various types of action.
One is action on representation: diversifying boardrooms, executive teams and the wider workforce, all areas in which recent data highlight limited headway so far. Another is action on acknowledgement: recognising that rectifying the wrongs of the present is inseparable from achieving a fuller and more inclusive sense of national identity, which in turn depends on achieving a fuller and more inclusive sense of nations’ pasts.
In the case of the UK, owning our past to move forward into our future is the message sent out by the pulling down of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol and demands to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford. Action on acknowledgement is about seeing history for what it is: not a settled and sealed thing but something living and breathing, with which we are in constant conversation. When we are in denial of the legacies of the past that spill over into the present, our public discourse on race, nationality and immigration is diminished and distorted. The Windrush scandal, a stain on UK public life very long in the making, makes that painfully clear.
By taking responsibility for how the past configures the present, we are opening a door to responding at last to the reviews into Windrush, Stephen Lawrence’s murder and various other manifestations of racial injustice – including Labour shadow minister David Lammy’s 2017 review. The repeated failures to implement their recommendations have dented confidence in the UK’s political system.
If universities fail to respond likewise then good faith in our educational institutions may be a casualty of Black Lives Matter, too. At my own university, Oxford, the statue of Rhodes on the front of Oriel College has reignited a conversation about why people were memorialised in the past and the problems of institutional racism in the present. Four years after a student-led campaign, the fellows of Oriel have expressed their wish for Rhodes’ removal and appointed an independent commission to decide his fate.
But making statements and moving statues is not enough. Pulling down statues may risk becoming a diversion if it creates the false impression that the problems they represent have been dealt with. For instance, universities, like many public institutions, face the challenge of diversifying representation on governing bodies and departmental and faculty committees. Education’s role as a key driver of mobility is such that scrutiny is also required of the numbers of BAME students progressing to undergraduate and postgraduate study (and into the ranks of university faculty and leaders). Attainment gaps and the content of curricula are also causing contention.
Universities are nonetheless in a powerful position, as centres of learning and critical enquiry, to help us address history in a way that informs the present and shapes the future. History and culture – not simply legislation and administration – ultimately explain why people do or don’t feel as though they belong. And public ignorance and amnesia about the imperial past are preventing us from thinking through the history of empire and its meanings for modern Western nations.
In response to the Windrush scandal, the former UK chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, remarked that there are still parts of white society more concerned about the status quo than justice and humanity. A university-led combination of concerted action on representation, acknowledgement and education could help ensure that the words in corporate Black Lives Matter statements produce real change.
Author Bio: Andrew Thompson is executive chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council and professor of global and imperial history at Nuffield College, University of Oxford.