More on the Abyssinian general from Guyana

In a previous blog I looked at the impact of the Italian/Ethiopian war on the African peoples of Guyana.  I related an incident, in October 1935 – the month that Italy invaded Ethiopia – that was reported in 1936 during a hearing of those labour disputes that had rocked the colony. In Demerara, an oversee reported that he had discovered twenty strikers blocking a bridge to the fields. “One fellow laid down and said he was an Abyssinian General. He defied anybody to cross and said he meant to chop anyone who tried to do so.”

I think I’ve found more information on this general.

The Daily Chronicle (Guyana) reports on October 29th 1935 of a court case currently underway, where a group of labourers have been charged with disturbing the peace. They have organized over wage conditions at Pln. Farm, East Bank, Demerara. The charges against 28 labourers are of having entered the farm unlawfully on Oct 15, 1935 and having hindered farmers from exercising their lawful occupation, as well as two days later obstructing District Inspector Billyeald, a peace officer, and openly carried sticks with intent to cause alarm to the public.

The Inspector testifies that on the morning of the 17th, he met a 2-300 strong group of people about 2 miles from the public road, carrying sticks and crying phrases such as “beat all men’s who work today”. He came across perhaps the same crowd later in the morning, carrying sticks as well as two flags – a red and a black one – suspended at the end of bamboo poles. The crowd then settled under some sandbox trees for about 3 hours, with the Inspector and other police watching them.

One of the defendants, E. Barlow, the Inspector recognises as having previously been a policeman around 1923/24, but at this point was a labourer on the Pln.Farm estate. The Inspector reports that Barlow rose and shouted “leh ahwe mek talk”; the group then moved to some buildings across the road to converse in secret. Barlow subsequently reappeared and told the group to reconvene the next day, shouting “Come all you, my men. Come all you, Ras Tafari men, leh ahwe go home.”

The Italy/Ethiopia war is on the minds of the newspaper as well as the “rioters”. The reporter then describes one defendant in the dock, Ferdinand Browne as possessing a “shaggy head and bearded face [which] gave him the appearance of an Abyssinian”.

The Abyssinian general in the plantations of Demerera, leading his Ras Tafari men against the white plantocracy..  Oct 1935…



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How Black Deficit Entered the British Academy

I have written a draft of an article that seeks to address some of the criticisms of current projects to “decolonize” the British academy. I also hope the article will be a resource for those who are undertaking these projects. In Britain we suffer from a paucity of detailed investigation into our own academy; much of the literature is focused on the US academy. While issues of race, education and pedagogy resonate across national spaces, there are also distinctions to be made between academies that are set up within settler-colonies and those that emerge from the imperial centre.

In the article I show how the assumption of Black deficit has never been refuted in the British academy. Such an assumption entered through late 19th century white abolitionist thought, early 20th century social anthropologies of colonial development, and “race relations” scholarship in the immediate post-war period. Through all these inter-connected intellectual dispositions an assumption remained, despite various shifts in argumentation, that Black people enter the colonial urban/the socially modern/the nationally-English milieu with a dangerously destabilizing cultural deficiency and cognitive incompetency.

To the critics of current projects, I would want to say that you need to think again about your assumption that the academy has ever been a space of impartiality and democratic reasoning.

Here it is:

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Cape Coast Castle

All the stone on the castle is painted white in the Cape Coast sun. When you re-emerge from the dungeon, even after only 5 minutes down there, the world will blind you. The dungeon is composed of three or so chambers. The large one –around 7 by 15 metres – is meant to hold a hundred men, easily. There are two slits high in the wall where a tiny amount of light drips through. And if you stand still enough, you’ll feel the faintest of breeze.

When it rains outside, the water spraying through the slits washes the faeces, urine and vomit down two drains chiselled into the stone floor. Otherwise, the kidnapped sit and lie in and amongst their filth. The floor is black, not stone grey. The black has been chemically tested. We are standing on the centuries old sedimentation of excrement that has irrevocably stained the stone. The middle passage begins in the rock of the continent, not on the waves of the Atlantic.

A subterranean passage leads from the dungeon to emerge just before the door-of-no-return. Thereafter that kidnapped will be deposited on the surf, by the waiting boats. After 1833 the dungeon entrance to the passage is bricked-up on orders of the governor. The passage behind remains. Abolition as a plastering over of horror; self-congratulations for good souls. A thin veil.


Immediately above the dungeon entrance stands the chapel. The floor of the chapel is the roof of the dungeon. Christians above chant praises to the white god as the captives below are condemned to his hell. When the congregation mumble their prayers, when they listen to the pastor, when they sing their psalms, do they discern the moans, cries, discussion, argument, chants, songs under their heels? Or does it all merge into the sound of breaking waves, a natural scape?

It can’t be so easy.

To the European sensibility nothing of much note can differentiate the captives from the peoples who surround the castle. Who trade food and provisions. Whose authorities meet with those of the castle. Who are servants in the castle. Who fish besides the castle. Who load the stumbling, blinded enslaved into small boats by the rocks. Those in the dungeon are not minority. Nor uncanny, nor phantasmagorical. They are quotidian – the majority.

What is the level of self-deception that is required to render a human being into a dumb animal? What is the psychic investment that you must make to hate those things who should not be talking like humans? You must deny to yourself even the most basic instinctive empathy, despite the evidence in front of your eyes. You must damn them to non-human hell. You must build a chapel on top of their heads to seal the investment. The beast is never buried. Theirs is a living sickness, an acquired taste that you must learn to enjoy.

20170325_122323 xxThe governor’s spacious living quarters are positioned above the chapel. Catching the best of the breeze, a panorama of blue, ending with the lookout hill. Can he smell the dung? Is incense lit regularly? What can he hear? Is it high enough?

Opposite the dungeon in a corner lies a door that leads immediately to another door that leads immediately to another door beyond which is a medium sized cell. There is no window, not even a slat. With just one door shut, the space is already sweltering. When all three doors lock, the tomb becomes a vacuum. The most rebellious of the enslaved are deposited here. The three doors shut and are not opened until two days later to release the corpse.

As you stand in the cell, attention is directed to the patterns on the floor. They are carved by the condemned. I see circles. Almost perfect circles. They must be carved with the iron of the shackles. The more I look, the more there are. I am standing on them. I don’t want to stand on them.  I feel the intimacy of the prison as an antechamber. Are they portals to the ancestors?  Or are they the Adinkrahene, the symbol of chieftancy and leadership? There is a commonly accepted story that only the strongest – the most rebellious – survived the Atlantic passage. I wonder if this is actually the case.

There is another chamber, quite far away from the chapel, at the end of the castle, just by the door of no return. It is where the women captives are stacked. When you condemn an animal to hell there must be some fleeting  recognition of its humanity. Is it better to not be recognized at all? Not even hell blesses the women. Albeit a special, cramped cell for those who refuse to be raped by the governor. There are no drainage channels cut into the stone floor of the women’s hold. Unlike the men, their faeces, urine and vomit mixes on the floor… and mixes… with menses too. No respite come the rain. Slavery was never supposed to reproduce the enslaved.


Just five metres away, and we are outside. The verso to the door of no return has been renamed the door of return. Looking back we are looking forward. The erasure of one word can reveal a whole cosmos. The enslaved are never dehumanised. Individuals, families, groups,  suffer the worst of dehumanisation. But the practice of humanity is woven into every community of fate. Neither is this purely a new world fabric. Africa bears witness from the beginning. Every retrieval is a creation.

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Liberalism and Fascism, Nov 2016

Should we defend liberal modes of governance from far-right fascist takeover?

Yes. Avowedly. Even as we would be supporting colonial difference in the same defense.

I am addressing this contradictory answer to an imagined company of liberals, leftists and alt-lefters living in European, North American and predominantly-white commonwealth countries.


Liberal governance, at least in its western forms, has always reproduced colonial difference.

What I mean by colonial difference is a multi-faceted and (only) partially mutable racialized division of humanity into the humans who deserve empathy, dignity, rights protections and the satiation of needs – and those who are not deserving of the same.

It’s true that liberal governance has and can make these divisions legally, both globally and domestically, especially in settler colonies.  Nonetheless, in the post-slavery and post-colonial era liberal governance also upholds a public sphere defined by equality – especially in terms of treatment and, possibly, opportunity.

Again, legal censures have and do sometimes guard who can partake in the public sphere. But just as importantly – and this is the point I want to emphasize – even the act of partaking in this liberal sphere is mediated by colonial difference.

Think about legal “personality” – that which allows an entity to claim and exercise legal capacity.

There is the individual personality of liberal lore that affirms entry to the public sphere (i.e. nowadays citizenship, maturity, sanity etc). However, this individual personality exists alongside and is complicated by racialized differences. These differences manifest in collective personalities that are placed in a hierarchy of competency fading through ill-competency to un-competency and implicating gender, sex, class, religion etc.  These de-facto – not necessarily de jure – collective personalities nonetheless impinge upon the universal reach and equitable character of the de-jure individual personality.

For example, in liberal global governance all (or the vast majority of) polities might enjoy a de jure personality that expresses sovereign equality: the individual state sits next to other individual states.

And yet the “international community” constitutes itself as a historically racialized collective personality that deems itself more competent to defend the law of sovereign equality than the rogues or failed personalities of statehood.

(It is telling, by the way, that the key principle in the evolution of European international law was not so much sovereignty for all but more so non-intervention for some – Europeans vis-à-vis other Europeans).

Such racialized divisions of collective personality are also de facto implicated in domestic liberal governance alongside and despite de jure individual personality.

Laws require political will to put into action and to monitor. And that requires empathy for those who are considered deserving. Yet the reach of this empathy is practically segregated through colonial difference. In other words, even within liberal governance, some collective personalities are felt/assumed to be more deserving of the law, of protection and of their needs to be satiated than others.

Remember that the era of neoliberal governance, at least in the UK, was the era of statutory anti-discrimination acts. Yet these acts in no way stopped the counter-terrorist Prevent agenda that de facto targets Muslim citizens from nursery school onwards. “British values” is consonant with the “international community”: both enunciate a competent collective personality in distinction to ill-competent and un-competent personalities (secular-Christian vs Muslims, gay and women defenders vs harbingers of Sharia etc) despite of and in the presence of the proclaimed legal equality of liberal governance.

Neither have the UK anti-discrimination acts arrested a greater disproportionality in the number of black people in UK prisons than in the United States.

Indeed, some worry that the incompetent nature of collective Black personality to be properly “civil” could even be infecting the competent nature of white personality through the reach of “urban” culture. So believes David Starkey when, in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings in urban England, he claims that the whites (involved in rioting) are becoming the new “blacks”.

And we could go on.

But where is the outcry?

Tell me, seriously, where is the PUBLIC OUTRAGE over these affronts to liberal principles of governance? I will tell you. The economy of outrage is differentiated along racialized lines and made common-sense through collective personalities. (There is always outrage enough, however, for the “men in Brussels” and spurious stories of straight bananas).

True, the one thing liberal governance offers for all is “recourse” to the law. Yet that is costly and procedurally obscure. And, once more, the political will to uphold the “spirit” of the law is quite simply lacking in the first place. Worse, it seems to be a non-issue.

Yes there are legal victories sometimes, even for the “dubious” personalities. Inquiries too over institutional racism, for example.

Are these important?

Of course.

Must we pursue them?

Every time.

Could we even argue that liberal governance, as we know it now, is a space of formal equality at least partially molded from the struggle against colonial difference?


Is liberal governance the solution to colonial difference?

Absolutely not.


Fascism comes from colonial difference. Examine the history of the first fascist state, Italy, if you are unsure.

What does fascism do? It institutionalizes colonial difference as the fundament of governance by removing liberal instruments that guarantee a formal space of equality – especially the individual personality of civil society.

Fascism generalizes in extremis the difference that liberal governance keeps as its “underbelly”.

That is to say, if contemporary liberal governance by and large manages to effect a de facto difference in collective legal personalities via memories of precedent, tacit knowledge and cultural assumptions, then fascism grasps this difference formally – legislatively and executively.

With the fascist personality supreme, there is ONLY the deserving compliant indigens versus the alien races and race traitors (like the UK judges who dared to return the decision to implement Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to Parliament.)

With fascism, the public space of liberal governance is shut down. Colonial difference is everything.  In that situation, even white people suffer from race. Of course, black and brown people suffer more, even if some of those who already suffer the most might not quite see a difference day-to-day… I don’t know.

I teach a module on Race and World Politics. In parts, I wish to provoke my students to think on the complicity of liberalism in race and racism.

But I shiver at the prospect of not being able to appeal, in the first instance, to the liberal sensibilities of my students, especially my white students who, like all my students, undertake the module in good faith.

If those sensibilities were no longer present, then I guess I would hope that many of my students’ religious sensibilities might still be appealed to. Of course, most of those sensibilities are historically implicated in colonial difference, but then again so is liberalism.

In any case, I would not even be able to offer the module under fascism. Or, someone else would be teaching it some other way.


So now, do I think liberalism is as bad as fascism?


There is NOT an equivalence.

And I don’t believe that the FAILURE of liberal governance is the incubator of fascism.

That’s far, far too comforting.

Liberalism is the governance structure that holds what is called fascism, in abeyance – for some.

Liberalism is not fascism. But it is not the absence of fascism.

Liberal governance HOLDS fascism – in abeyance, as colonial difference.

To hold fascism is NOT a failure of liberal governance, rather, it is liberalism’s post-colonial STEADY-STATE (and post-nothing in settler colonies).

But knowing this, I would still defend existing liberal governance structures against fascism.

And every time I know that we would be left with the problem of colonial difference along racialized lines.


Am I living in bad faith with liberalism? I would prefer that than to live in good faith with fascism.

Or, perhaps, to put it another way:

Before, during, and after liberal governance there are the projects of living other-wise to colonial difference, other-wise to the unjust racialized division of humanity into collectively competent, ill-competent and un-competent personalities (legal and otherwise). These other-wise projects, as un-perfect as they always are, have nonetheless always been the wellspring of resistance to fascism – NOT liberalism.

In the current Trexit moment, AS WE CARRY THROUGH WITH THOSE PROJECTS, we need to defend liberal governance from fascist takeover. Not for liberalism’s own sake. Nor to partake in a comforting fantasy that we are working the dialectic through liberalism in order to get to socialism. But solely for being against fascism.


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The many meanings of Haile Selassie I

In my last blog I bemoaned the return of the theatre adaptation of  Ryszard Kapuściński’s famous book The Emperor.

I criticized the portrait of Haile Selassie I in the book and the play, a portrait of a feudal gothic overlord that even Kapuściński later refuted.

I worried about the consistent artistic reduction of all things African to pathology.

I suggested that “perhaps the complexity of Haile Selassie I is the complexity of Ethiopia, is the complexity of Africa, is the complexity of the Third World, is the complexity of humanity.”

Here, below, are some of the meanings of Haile Selassie I that I know of, from various sources – living, theological, intellectual, political, archival – and many others..



Almighty I

I and I God and King

Black Redeemer

Black Messiah

Christ returned

Christ in his kingly character


Tafari Makonnen

Ras Tafari

Haile Selassie I

Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah (Or, “the Lion of Judah has Prevailed”)

King of Kings

Elect of God

Emperor of Ethiopia

Ababa Janhoy (father majesty)

His Imperial Majesty

H.I.M. (called by both members of the Rastafari faith and British diplomats)

Prince of Peace

Prester John

The “Catholic” (called by some in the Orthodox Church during his early reign to signify a dangerous harbinger of foreign influence)

God-fearing member of Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church

Defender of the Faith (officially titled by the Eastern Orthodox churches)

The diminutive but charismatic Emperor

First ruling resister of fascist aggression



Amhara overlord

From the minor Southern line of Shoa nobility

Inscrutable Amhara

Suspiciously Oromo by bloodlines and birthplace (Ejersa Goro)

Governor of the multi-faith Eastern city of Harar


225th descendent of King David

The African Frederick the Great

The African Machiaveli

Usurper of Menelik II’s lineage (Lij Iyasu)

Of the English Public Schoolboy disposition

First Emperor to insist on crowning of Empress on the same day

The modernizer

Great reformer

The Traditionalist



Feudal lord

Best dressed figure of the 20th century

American stooge


The Elder World Statesman

Father of Africa, first Chair of the OAU

Accomplished diplomat

Wise Counsellor, with the “wisdom of Solomon”








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There is more to Ethiopia and Africa than Dog Piss

I write this blog as a response to the new production of a play  due to run at the Young Vic, London, based on Ryszard Kapuściński’s famous book The Emperor, about the final days of the reign of Haile Selassie I, emperor of Ethiopia.

The book was turned into a play in the late 80s. Salman Rushdie personally recalled the reception of the play:

Some years later, a stage production of The Emperor, put on in London at the Royal Court Theatre (an English adaptation of one of those mentioned by Ren Weschler), led to one of the most surrealist political demonstrations I have ever seen. (And I say this as someone whose work has occasionally led to protest; I’m something of a connoisseur of the form.) Outside of the Royal Court Theatre, in Sloane Square, there was a protest that only Kapuscinski could have conjured up. Half of the demonstrators wore extremely expensive suits and carried rather well printed placards and were members of the old Ethiopian monarchist party, which objected to his portrayal of Haile Selassie, because, after all, he had been their emperor. The other half of the demonstration were people in knitted hats and dreadlocks who were Rastafarians and thought of Haile Selassie as God and objected to the blasphemy of Ryszard’s portrayal. So you had on the one hand ganja-smoking Rastas and on the other the cigar-smoking Ethiopians. And I thought, this book must be doing something right.

Good for Salman.

I wonder, though, what did he actually know of Haile Selassie I, or Ethiopia, or of Rastafari?

Or did that not matter?

Was the spectacle sufficient in that it was abstractly amusing for its gothic mix?

But knowledge of things African has never been needed to judge things African.

Kapuściński, the famous Polish war correspondent of the Cold War certainly had vast experience in and of the African continent. Yet his book on Haile Selassie I is largely a fiction. It is a work of art. And people treat it as an actual biography. Kapuściński was never entirely honest as to the nature and purpose of his book, although it is true that he wrote it more as a poem on courtiers than he did on the reign of the Emperor. Still, he never stopped the overwhelminging majority of readers from reading it as a factual biography of Haile Selassie I.  It must have surprised many readers to learn of his positive assessment of His Majesty in his later years.

That being said, take  the book’s infamous first “report” from an informant in the royal court: it is about the Emperor’s little dog, Lulu, who was allowed to piss on the feet of dignitaries.

The amount of times I have heard this story repeated as fact. It is FICTION.  The only truth in the story is the existence of a dog called Lulu. Any amateur reader of Ethiopian society and culture would know that this would NEVER have happened. Just as unlikely as Queen Elizabeth II allowing her corgis to piss on the feet of dignitaries.

Yet the complex, dynamic, and CENTRAL part that Haile Selassie I played in Ethiopian, African and World History in the 20th century is reduced in the popular mindset to dog piss.

Well, that can’t stand. I want to bring it back to basics. I’m not interested in hagiographies of His Majesty, nor in “converting” people to the Rastafari faith.

All  I want you to do is consider, for one moment, that investigating the life of a leader from 1916 (when Haile Selassie took on the title of Ras Tafari) to 1974 (his overthrow by the Derg) – almost 60 years of rule…

…the life of one who entered Ethiopia into the League of Nations in 1923, who addressed both the League and The United Nations,  sought to abolish slavery AND PROVIDE MEANINGFUL REHABILITATION to the previously enslaved (unlike the European slaving powers), gave the African Diaspora supporters of Ethiopia a place of return to the continent, provided – on his own initiative – the first constitutions, a modern military, a general education system – for boys and girls, funded and built more mosques than any other Christian King I am aware of, launched legal battles against South Africa and more…

…one who also had to most definitely navigate with realpolitik the impossible waters of intra-Ethiopian political intrigues, intra-African imperial politics, inter-national imperial politics, cold war politics, inter-African postcolonial politics, the frictions and fractures of old and new political, tribal, religious and ethnic faultlines, etc etc…

…well, I want you just to consider that this life might be instructive of many of the things that make us human in every aspect, that’s all.

Perhaps the complexity of Haile Selassie I is the complexity of Ethiopia, is the complexity of Africa, is the complexity of the Third World, is the complexity of humanity.

Or is Haile Selassie I a pathological despot, Africa pathological despotism, the Third World a lost cause, humanity only for certain humans and not others?

One example of a different Ethiopia.

In 1943, 6000 Greek refugees, fleeing Nazism, crossed to Turkey and there, having made arrangements with the British government, were taken via the Sinai to Djibouti and also to Dire Dawa and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. After the liberation of Greece, most returned home, but some remained.

Today, that crisis is reversed, and people, as we know, flee the other way, to an impoverished and crumbling Greece.

In 1943, Ethiopia had barely recovered from the appalling and savage occupation of fascist Italy. It remained in the war. Yet still, Ethiopia welcomed the Greeks.


What of this smells of dog piss?

How many more stories of all types and interpretations litter 1916-1974?

I want to salute the late and great Ras Seymour McLean who tirelessly worked to present a different image of Ethiopia and Africans, one more befitting of equitable engagement. Here’s a dramatisation of his works; watch it in parallel to the BBC2 TV production of The Emperor.

I am aware of the present-day myriad struggles in Ethiopia. Still unfinished after all these years. I know it is extremely complex. I claim no expert knowledge, just an amateur’s commitment to understand better. I write this only for the humanity that Ethiopia has blessed the world with. That is our Rastafari tradition.




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Black Academia 1.2

For the last couple of years I’ve written a bit of commentary on the Equalities Challenge Unit’s statistical reports on higher education, paying especial attention to what they say about the state of Black Academia in the UK. So here are some comments on the latest report, incorporating data from the 2013/14 academic year. I’m not a quants or stats person so do let me know if you think I have figures wrong.

Please note that, if I don’t mention it otherwise, I am mainly talking about UK-national students and academics rather than non-UK-national (i.e. international). This is because, while international students and academics can most certainly be affected by racialized structures of discrimination and exclusion, I am  fundamentally interested in the sources of these structures and the way in which they interact with other such structures in the UK life-cycle. Additionally, I do not talk about those who have defined as “mixed race”, which to my mind is not necessarily a useful category for doing the following kind of analyses.

First, a few comments on the status of Black academics.

The percentage of UK-national staff on academic contracts  who are Black is now back to 1.19% – the same as when I wrote the first of my reports in 2014. Not only is this proportion far less than the proportion of Black people in the UK population (3.3%); it is also far, far less than the proportion of UK-national students who are Black – 6.4%. In contrast, 91.7% of UK-national staff on academic contracts are white, and thus not only overrepresented in academia as a percentage of the broader UK demographic (at 86%)  but also visavis the 79.6% of the student population who are white.

There are now 70 UK-national Black professors and 30 non-UK-national Black professors, giving a total of 100 Black professors, or 0.55% of all professors working in UK academia. As a comparison, there are 16,465 white professors (UK and non-UK national), and they comprise 91.1% of all professors in UK academia. Nonetheless, this figure is an improvement. But I want to draw attention again to the importance of the UK-national distinction: it is easier to “buy in” diversity from abroad; not so easy to cultivate “equality” at home. What we really want to see is an increase in UK-national Black professors, although, of course, a general increase is also to be encouraged and welcomed.

There are now 5 UK-national and 5 non-UK national Black academics who have senior managerial roles. A slight improvement from last year, yet still, only 0.67% of all senior mananger academics are Black. Compare, again, with white academic senior managers – 1400 of them – who comprise around 94% of all senior management academics. As much as academics still hold institutional power in the Higher Education (HE) sector, these are some of the ones who do so. And they are overwhelmingly white.

Meanwhile, out of all ethnicities, Black academics are by far the least likely to earn over 57,032GBP – only 8.9% of UK-national Black academics do, compared to 20.7% of Asian academics and 19.7% of white academics. This, again, demonstrates a significant lack of Black academics at the higher reaches of UK academia.  

At the start of the career ladder, Black Postgraduate Research students are most likely, amongst all ethnicities, to be part time. 48.4% of Black PG students are part time, compared to 36.5% of Asian PG students and 36.4% of white PG students. Moreover, out of all ethnicities Black PG students evidence the biggest decline in full time numbers after the 1st year of study –  a 10% decline compared to an 8% decline in white students and a 7.6% decline in Asian students. It is well known that, all other things being equal, part time PG research students are at a disadvantage to full time PG students in terms of introduction and access to research networks and other career-forming opportunities. 

ScreenHunter_02 Jul. 10 07.43

Delegates at the First Black Writers And Artists Congress, 1956, Sorbonne University, Paris

Now what about students? In what follows I discuss solely the UK-national demographics.

The percentage of Black students vis-à-vis the whole UK student population remains high at 6.4%. In England, the figure rises to 7.5% and in London, further still to 16.7%. Bear in mind that Black people constitute just 3.3% of the UK population as a whole (and 13.3% of the London population).

The concentration of Black students in London is notable. Working in a London institution I have some thoughts on the implications of this. Anecdotally it seems to me that many London-based Black students live at home and continue to heavily rely upon their existing social and friendship networks. If they attend an institution that is somewhat alienating to them – i.e. institutionally and visually white – their response is often to fall back on those existing networks. This might mitigate against the building by Black students of meaningful associational and professional (not necessarily friendship) networks within university. This could be a hidden, unintentional but long-term detrimental effect of the notable concentration of Black students in London, although it might be experienced differently across different institutions. I also wonder if the same issue applies in Birmingham.

Also of note is the slow but inexorable increase of continental-heritage students as a percentage of Black students and the relative decline of Caribbean-heritage students. This reflects the changing composition of the UK Black population. It is also interesting to note that continental-heritage Black students (or “Black African” in the stats) is the LARGEST defined BME group 22.6% of the total BME student population; the second largest is Asian-Indian at 16.7%. These points are important because, as we’ll see, continental-heritage Black students are, in the main, not doing as well as their Caribbean-heritage peers, and indeed usually do worse amongst all groups in most indicators.

The highest concentration of Black students by subject field are in: Subjects Allied to Medicine (19.3% of all Black students), Business and Administration Studies (16.7%), Social Studies (14.3%) and Biological Sciences (9.2%). I thought I would try and calculate some student ratios  of UK-national Black students to UK-national Black staff.

There are 10740 Black students in Biological Sciences; and there are 65 Black academics in Bioscience. (I’m not sure if the Biological sciences include other subjects so please let me know if I have this wrong). This gives a ratio of 1 Black academic to 165 Black students. The comparative ratio for white students in this area is 1:20.  There are 19455 Black students in Business and Administration; and there are 210 Black academics in Business and Management Studies. This gives a ratio of 1:92. The comparative ratio for white students and academics in this area is 1:18.

You get the picture. Black students – even in the subjects that they tend to take most – will find far fewer Black academics than white students will find white academics. I don’t mean to infer by this that Black students are better taught (or even want to be taught) by Black academics. I am simply pointing to the fact that even amongst subjects most popular with Black students there is still a relative dearth of Black academics. In short, there are no “black” subjects and no “black” parts of the university.


NUS Wales Black Students conference

Let’s now look at the figures that tell us what happens to students at the end of each academic year (except the final year).  I am especially interested in transfers (which usually indicates that the student has some kind of problem with their institution), and “no longer in HE” (the student has left university before gaining a degree).

1.6% of white students transfer at the end of the year compared to 3.7% of Asian students and 4% of Black students.  Black students tend to transfer more than any other white or BME group. And this suggests that Black students are relatively less settled and secure in their institution than any other ethnicity. 6.5% of white students leave higher education without finishing their studies, compared to 6.8% of Asian students and 11.1% of Black students. Look at that figure: far more Black students fail to gain a degree at university than any other ethnicity including white. It’s also important to note that slightly more continental-heritage students transfer than Caribbean-heritage students, and that more Caribbean-heritage students leave before gaining their degree than continental-heritage students.

It seems that the most recent statistics on GCSE results for continental-heritage Black students shows a slight reversal of their recent success story. The last time that I looked these students were performing just above the national average for attaining 5 or more A*-C GCSEs including English and maths. Apparently these students are now 1.3% below the national average (which has also increased). Nonetheless, continental-heritage students are now performing at 0.4% above the national average in terms of achieving an EBacc. The English Baccalaureate is the new “gold standard” recently put in place by government to ensure students going through to college and higher education have undertaken “core” subjects.  It remains, then, unfair to automatically ascribe an academic “deficit” to continental-heritage students as they enter university (and also to Caribbean-heritage students, but that is another story).

It is crucial to note that the long-term increase in attainment at secondary school by continental-heritage students has yet to be reflected in a proportional improvement in university attainment. A number of years separate GCSE results from Undergraduate attainment, and what we should be seeing now, I would say, is the dividend from the drastic improvement in secondary school results for continent-heritage Black students over the last 6 years at least.  But we are not. In fact, these students are attaining the same – if not slightly worse – than their Caribbean-heritage peers, who still suffer from various discriminations at secondary school resulting in attainments that are a good 10% less than their continental-heritage peers.

22.4% of white students attained a first class degree compared to 14.7% of Asian students and only 8.7% of Black students. Alternatively, only 3.7% of white students attained a Third Class/Pass mark compared to 7% of Asian students and 11.7% of Black students.  Again, Black students suffer the worst attainment amongst all ethnic groups – and by a significant margin. (Black students do marginally better in Scottish institutions, it must be noted. Additionally, Black students get marginally more first class awards in SET subjects than non-SET subjects).

Let’s put this in context. It is well known that the major graduate employers will cut through CVs by excluding all applicants who have a 2:2 (second class lower honours) award or less (ie a Third/Pass). So to have a chance at landing a good graduate job you really need to have a 2:1 (second class upper honours) or a 1st (first class honours) degree. And even that result is increasingly a basic requirement nowadays.  77.3% of white females attain either a 1st or 2:1 compared to 46.3% of Black males. That is the widest differential of attainment when it comes to the intersection of gender and race. It is a difference of over 30%. Think of the challenge that this difference presents to inter-generational social mobility along race lines. Yes, it’s true that the attainment of white and BME groups has experienced a secular rise over the last 10 years. But the differential between groups has remained fairly constant.

What is more, slightly more Caribbean-heritage Black students attain 1sts (9.5%) than their continental-heritage peers (8.5%). And again, more Caribbean-heritage students attain 2:1s (43.2%) than their continental-heritage peers (40.1%). Conversely, more continental-heritage students attain 2:2s (39.8%) and 3rds/pass (11.6%) than their Caribbean-heritage peers (36.2% and 11% respectively).  In other words, despite massively outperforming their Black Caribbean-heritage peers at secondary school, Black continental-heritage students have worse attainments than them at the end of university life! And out of all ethnicities, Black continental-heritage students have the worst attainments – by a notable margin.

I’ve said this before and I want to keep saying it: something is seriously wrong if a relative success story at secondary school is being reversed through higher education. When it comes to continental-heritage Black students specifically, university seems to be complicit in reversing their social-mobility, or at the very least dampening or slowing down this mobility.  And remember, this is the largest defined group of BME students in university.

So let’s look at employability after university.  

61.5% of white students find full-time work six months after graduating, and 49.7% of them find professional full-time work.  53% of black students find full-time work and 41.3% find professional full-time work.  4.6% of white students and 9.7% of Black students are unemployed 6 months after graduating. So there is a 10% difference between Black and white graduates finding professional work and a 5% difference in terms of unemployment, both to the detriment of Black graduates. Approximately the same percentages of white and Black graduates enter into postgraduate study. It is also important to note that continental-heritage Black graduates are less likely than Caribbean-heritage Black students to gain professional and general full time-work, and more likely than their Caribbean-heritage peers to be unemployed.

Certainly we can see here an effect of the attainment differential. But I also want to suggest, at least on first glance, that even with the inequitable attainment differential Black graduates are doing really, really well to shrink the difference when it comes to securing general and professional employment. What positive resources are our graduates drawing on in this respect? I would like to know more.


Blackness in Britain Conference, 2015

Finally, I want to look at the institutions through which Black students graduate. This is important because there is a de-facto hierarchy of higher education institutions in the UK despite the nominally “public” nature of the vast majority. We should be careful to conclude that more “prestigious” institutions are actually better at delivering higher education. Rather, I would want us to parse “prestige” through Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of “cultural capital”. Higher education has, for a long time, (decreasingly so nowadays) professed a meritocratic aim to set adults up for their future on the basis of their work and talents rather than their family name and connections. Yet it is still the case that the existing “cultural capital” that comes with inherited privileges by and large reproduces itself through the differential of “prestigious” and “less prestigious” institutions. That is why the more prestigious institutions tend to gift more employability to their students than less-prestigious institutions.

The Russell Group are the most prestigious higher education providers in the UK. 82.3% of their student population is white, 8.6% Asian and just 2.8% Black. Consider that the general demographic of Black peoples in the UK is 3.3%. Consider that Black students compose 6.4% of the student population. And compare this with the percentage of Black students who compose the less “presitigous” Million+ group student population: 14.7%. Let me parse this another way. 22% of white students go to Russell Group institutions; 22% of Asian students go to Russell Group institutions; only 9.6% of Black students go to Russell Group institutions. Now you can see how woefully under-represented Black students are in the most “prestigious” institutions. It’s difficult to find another similarly stark differential in terms of percentages of students across the various groupings of institutions than the Russell Group statistic for Black students. Seriously.

Nonetheless, whilst there is still concern over bias in admissions from Russell Group universities, a recent parsing of UCAS datarecent parsing of UCAS data suggests that differences between offer-rates to Black students and general offer-rates do not map neatly onto e.g. Russell Group universities. It is certainly a diverse set of institutions who suffer from this differential.

Does geography have something to do with this? I suspect that relatively more Black students study and live at home than white students. And Black students are far more likely to apply and be admitted into institutions located in cities and BME population centres – London, Birmingham etc. We also know that Black students tend to have a much older (“mature students”) demographic and to be more female than any other ethnicity. So thinking intersectionally, it might be the case that Black students tend to be less mobile than other ethnicities, with perhaps more social and familial responsibilities that require them to use the social networks that they already have.

I wonder then: which Russell Group universities have seriously undertaken outreach to potential Black students? Not to “disadvantaged communities” per se – I know a number are doing that. But let’s not conflate prospective Black students with “disadvantaged communities”; and also let’s not assume that the outreach to Black students is going to be the same as outreach to (usually white) disadvantaged students. I would be really interested to find out which Russell Group universities are expressly seeking to attract Black students by putting actual resources into targeted outreach.

Well, in conclusion I wish I could say many more positive things about the stats. But it’s hard to do so. What’s clear to me is that “inclusion” is not enough. In fact, in some ways,  inclusion is the wrong emphasis. There are plenty of Black students in the university system! The far more pressing and challenging issue is to change institutional and sectoral cultures and practices that lead to such outrageously skewed differentials regarding the placement, experience, retention, attainment and success of Black students. The difficulties in effecting such change is compounded by the refusal by many (and overwhelmingly well-meaning) academics to believe that their practices and non-practices have anything to do with the problem.

But I do want to end by listing some positives:

These positives suggest that Black is not a deficit colour. Rather, it is institutionalised whiteness that generates deficiencies.














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