Black Lives Matter

Inaction is a weapon of mass destruction. Faithless, 2004.

In the middle of a worsening pandemic, this week protests flared up after the brutal killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by police in Minneapolis, which was filmed and shared on social media. This was followed by further police violence against unarmed demonstrators across the USA. Since then there have been further protests around the world, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. This particular murder was far from unique, and is the latest in an unbroken sequence of police or police-sanctioned killings of black people that can be traced back to the days of slavery. Even documented cases are undoubtedly the tip of a much larger iceberg, and of course fatal violence is merely the most extreme way in which racism continues to undermine the pretence of freedom and equality which are supposed to be the founding principles of the USA and most democracies. Freedom, equality and justice don’t exist unless Black Lives Matter. 

It’s far too easy for me to write a paragraph focusing on the USA (I am white and I live in the UK), as if racism were a problem that doesn’t affect me and is beyond my control. In fact it does affect me, and I affect it, whether through action or inaction. Following Twitter this week as the demonstrations unfolded, I could see a clear consensus among the many black people in my timeline who took the time to explain how non-black people could help. That message was in essence: educate yourself, and commit yourself to improving the system. Although more direct and short-term action, such as donating and demonstrating could be helpful, the core message that I received is that much more fundamental and long-lasting change is critical and that white people like myself are still not getting it. 

This pandemic has stopped the world turning, giving us a chance to stop and reflect on the world as is it is, the way it is broken, and the way we want it to change. Isolated from the usual day-to-day excuses and watching those terrible images flooding in over the week (so far) of protests met with brutality, I looked inside myself, and I couldn’t deny it. I am ashamed of my ignorance and inaction.

Shame. When we are ashamed of something we either keep silent or change the subject. Shame is a very double-edged sword – it can be used to enforce conformity, for example – but it can also help us behave morally when it is against our selfish interests to do so. That is what is happening now; I feel ashamed because I have done so little to stop the injustice. I feel ashamed because I am still largely ignorant about the ways in which I benefit from racism and the suffering it causes other people. Being silent or changing the subject only helps to perpetuate my shame. If I am ever to see freedom, equality and justice, I need to own it. I won’t change the subject.

Ignorance. The easiest way to avoid dealing with a problem is to ignore its existence. Ignorance requires zero energy and is favoured almost like a law of nature. White people benefit from racism, historical and present. Many of us are content to recognize and deplore structural racism all around us, but we are less keen to analyze its causes. Indeed, one of the main causes has to be our own ignorance. If we do not understand how we ourselves participate in and benefit from racism, if we don’t fully understand the harms it causes, we can avoid the urgent need to take action. If ever I want to see freedom, equality and justice, I need to learn about racism.

Inaction. In a system that needs to change, inaction is what keeps things the same. Being passive feels comfortable: “I didn’t do anything wrong”. But if your inaction sustains or exacerbates injustice, it is wrong. It’s been said a hundred times in many different contexts:

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” attributed to Edmund Burke, 1770;

“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” John Stuart Mill, 1867.

“Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.” Mahatma Gandhi, 1946.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Desmond Tutu, 1984.

Martin Luther King, in particular, identified silence and inaction as a central component of racial injustice on so many occasions, it is easy to imagine he may have seen it as the most important barrier to progress.

The reason why so many people have had to articulate this idea so many times, is because i) it’s a universal truth and ii) people don’t want to understand or believe it. After all, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” For many white people that is precisely how racism works – accumulated centuries of power and wealth depend on continued ignorance and inaction. The problem is not unique to racism and it could be seen as the overarching cause driving the converging global problems of this century, from climate change to the pandemic response; inaction really is a weapon of mass destruction.

I hope I can live up to my paragraphs on shame, ignorance, and inaction, because anti-racism can’t be a performance art. But because being silent and changing the subject are not an option it is necessary to speak up, if only to say “I am ashamed to be part of this, and I want to learn how I can change”. If you are in the same situation, below are some links to a few books that have been recommended by various knowledgeable people I follow on Twitter (there are many more books, this is a white British scientist orientated selection). I have not yet read all of these myself, but I am making a start.

Akala, Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire

Afua Hirsch, Brit(ish)

Angela Saini, Superior: the Return of Race Science

Crystal M. Fleming: How to be Less Stupid About Race

I am grateful to Crystal Fleming (@alwaystheself on Twitter) whose thread indirectly pointed me to Charles W Mills chapter “White Ignorance”. As a piece of academic philosophy is probably too technical to recommend here as general reading but which certainly informs and aligns with the advice I’ve received and tried to pass on here.

Interesting Times (Part I)

Today is the 75th Anniversary of V.E. day and we have a bank holiday in the UK. Like everyone else we’re in the middle of a pandemic. Here in Britain, and in most places around the world, people are living in quarantine, apart from one another. I go out of my house at most once a day, and except if I am shopping I don’t meet people outside my household, which for the moment comprises myself, my wife and one of our two late-teenage daughters. This has been going on for many weeks, and although there are suggestions that the current restrictions might be eased over the next few weeks, there’s no sense that things will go back to “normal” soon, and when the quarantine is over, life will inevitably change.

lockdown tally
Lockdown Tally from a whiteboard in our house.

Continue reading “Interesting Times (Part I)”

A tale as old as time

It’s a tale as old as time: managers would like to pay workers less.

The proposed changes to University staff pensions are disadvantageous compared to the current arrangements in two ways:

  1. staff will receive less income in retirement
  2. staff will now carry the risk associated with the investments (defined contributions DC) – these risks are currently carried by the employers (defined benefits, DB).

University managers, represented by UUK, have presented the changes as necessary in order to make the pension scheme sustainable into the future. There are reasons to be sceptical:

  1. in secret discussions UUK members have discussed other motivations:
    • the desire to cut staff costs
    • concerns about competition and borrowing – shared pension liabilities are affecting the credit which different institutions can access
  2. the concept that the current scheme is unsustainable is based on a very conservative valuation and a set of tests that is unrealistic for a multi-employer scheme. 
  3. the members of UUK seem divided about their ‘risk appetite’ and willingness to pay greater contributions. It appears that UUK is not accurately representing a consensus view.

It’s not difficult to see that today’s university managers, with their focus on finance and growth at the expense of teaching, learning and research, are likely to be attracted to changes to the pension scheme that will leave them with more money to spend as they wish, and they some of them would also like to gain an advantage over their ‘competitors’. In order to achieve this outcome though, they would need to make the current scheme appear unworkable. Fortunately, from their perspective, they are able to do this merely by expressing an opinion about their appetite for risk.

So that is what seems to have happened. Managers would like to pay workers less, and have found a way to do it. The trick is to sabotage pensions rather than cut wages – it’s in the future so people are less worried about it, and the sabotage element makes it harder to see who’s responsible. But once you see it, it’s impossible to unsee.


Some useful refs: (also downloaded on Mac)

Rise of the McUniversity

Since 5th March I have been participating in UCU Industrial Action – a strike over UK academics’ pensions. It’s impossible to overlook the causes of the strike, a failure of leadership that runs much deeper than the current dispute.

Universities are being ‘led’ or at least ‘managed’ by people (Vice-Chancellors, Provosts etc.) who, on the whole have accepted the marketisation of higher education. Let’s try to look at the world from their perspective.

They see themselves as leading competing businesses.

A large part of their income comes from student fees. In 2015 the admissions cap was removed. Unless universities recruited as many students as possible, there was a real danger that someone else would take their share of the market, with less resources they would compete less effectively and eventually go bust. Realising this, university managers decided that they each needed to increase their market share – in order, at least, to be more resilient to the competition. To do this, they felt they had to expand student numbers which generally meant building new facilities. In order to do this they borrowed (and are borrowing) as much money as they could, and they cut (and are cutting) other costs as much as possible.

Most of their costs are staff salaries and pensions, and a good way to cut costs (while expanding) is to employ a greater proportion of young and relatively inexperienced teachers and researchers on low salaries, fixed-term and zero-hour contracts. As well as being paid less, they can be dispensed with (if recruitment targets are not met, for example) without incurring redundancy costs and in some cases they do not qualify for pensions (another cost saving). Note that these priorities are driven by market forces and do not relate to the quality of teaching or research; to the extent they are in conflict, the student experience and research excellence inevitably suffers. Real leadership would involve working with government and other institutions to prioritise excellence in teaching and research over competition and market share, but this kind of leadership has been very rare.

Brilliant young academics are making huge contributions to the country’s research and teaching – but they deserve decent salaries, job security, pensions and they deserve fulfilling jobs where they can use their exceptional talents to create and share the new ideas we’ll need for the rest of the 21st century, rather than being treated as dispensible, temporary ‘human resources’.

The current strike is a symptom of the underlying issue – marketisation – and as in any serious illness, it would be dangerous and foolhardy to treat the short-term symptoms without investigating and remedying the underlying disease. It is exactly the same cause that led to the introduction of student tuition fees, the increase in those fees, the cuts to student maintenance grants. The vast majority of academics, those who actually teach students and carry out research at universities, opposed these things because in the end, we want to be a part of a higher education system that is open to everyone and completely focussed on world-class teaching, learning, knowledge and discovery.

Universities are not businesses – they are communities of students, teachers, scholars, researchers, and the vitally important administrators, librarians, technicians and others that make learning and research possible. We’re all being let down by our so-called ‘leaders’.