Behind the Rhodes Statue: Black Competency and the Imperial Academy

I’ve written a new article, which should hopefully come out in the History of Human Sciences next year. In the meantime, I’ve provided the introduction below, and you can read the full draft of it here.

Stuart Hall was a central figure in the formation of Britain’s “new left”, a founding force in the field of cultural studies, and a scholar who introduced thousands of mature and working students to the study of modernity via his Open University courses and text books (Warmington 2014, 92–94). Hall entered the British academy in 1951 as a Jamaican youth to read an undergraduate degree in English at Merton College, Oxford. Much later in his life, Hall  (2017, 169, 2010, 179) reflected that, in his days at Oxford, Black culture, colonial questions and Commonwealth politics “formed an indispensable, active seam” of his intellectual enquires. Hall’s recollections situate a community of Black and Commonwealth students within the heart of British academia discussing the fate of empire and the prospects of independence. That Black intellectualism was an uncomfortable intrusion into the academy is suggested by Hall’s (2017, 158) comments on the stretched politeness he experienced at Oxford: “I was conscious all the time that I was very, very different because of my race and color. And in the discourses of Englishness, race and color remained unspeakable silences.”

In this way, Britain’s most accomplished public intellectual of the 20th century started his academic career as a Rhodes Scholar. But Hall’s intellectual community of non-white Commonwealth citizens would have been met with considerable distaste by his benefactor. After all, Cecil Rhodes intended his scholarship fund to develop a cadre of leading colonists working across race and religion expressly for the “retention of the unity of the Empire” (Stead 1902, 23). In 2015, Rhodes’s legacy became entangled in inter-generational struggles over the structural legacies of Apartheid in South Africa, the failures of ANC rule, and continued institutional racism in the country’s sites of higher learning. By April, the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) student movement had succeeded in bringing down the mining magnate’s statue at the University of Cape Town. At this point in time, and approximately 60 years after Hall’s residency, students brought RMF to Oxford, agitating for the removal of Rhodes’ statue outside Oriel College, his Alma Matter.

Academic critics were quick to attribute fault to the RMF Oxford campaign. For Will Hutton (2015), principal of Hertford College, University of Oxford, and former editor-in-chief of the Observer newspaper, Rhodes’s thoughts and actions needed to be placed in his historical context, and such an undertaking required “an open mind, freedom of debate and unobstructed access to facts: a trilogy which campaigners tend to neglect”. Anthony Lemon (2016), an esteemed geographer and South Africa specialist at Oxford, similarly criticized the tenor of RMF for its over-emotiveness, reminding activists that “a healthy culture does not cease to remember those with whom it has come to disagree”.  Mary Beard (2015), popular classicist at Cambridge, likewise argued that, rather than a “great statue cull”, the challenge was to “look history in the eye and reflect on our awkward relationship to it”. Effectively, the critics claimed that RMF ran the risk of disavowing self-reflective and impartial inquiry, hallmarks of the academic ethos (see also Anthony 2016; D’Ancona 2016; Grove 2015).

But RMF Oxford did not only push for a statue’s removal. The campaign also insisted that “many people from marginalized groups … have made valuable intellectual contributions and we believe their exclusion reflects an on-going legacy of racist imperialism”. In this respect, statue removal segued into a broader student movement to “decolonize” the academy’s epistemological and phenomenological “whiteness” when it came to institutional practices, reading lists, and faculty (Chaudhuri 2016; see as examples Hussain 2015; Richards 2015). Henceforth, many critics of RMF’s activism equated “decolonizing” with vulgarizing and relativizing academic inquiry by making the criteria for knowledge inclusion that of racial identity rather than the intrinsic worth of ideas (Williams 2017). Even nuanced engagements with “decolonizing” advocates (for example Malik 2017) inevitably rang the same alarm: the narcissism of identity politics degraded intellectual inquiry to the extent that the academy might no longer be considered a place of “higher” learning.

RMF Oxford made one further demand: for better representation and welfare provision of Black and minority ethnic students (RMF Oxford 2015). It is important to note that debates over statues and decolonizing agendas have been intricately bound to policy-oriented conversations regarding the increased – but unevenly distributed – presence of Black and minority ethnic students in British higher education (for example, Alexander and Arday 2015; Bhambra, Gebrial, and Nişancıoğlu 2018). In fact, the politicization of the Black presence in academia has increasingly functioned as a postcolonial bellwether for elite-manufactured concerns over the displacement of white Britons in their “own” country caused economically by globalisation, culturally by immigration, and politically by anti-discriminatory legislation (see Sveinsson 2009). In February 2016, four months before the EU referendum, Toby Young, a self-styled “progressive eugenicist”, took issue with Prime Minister David Cameron’s focus on the relative paucity of Black students in the country’s most prestigious universities. Writing in the Telegraph, Young claimed that “[Cameron] is wrong about the ethnicity of those students and wrong about where the problem lies. It’s working-class white boys who fare the worst, not black boys…” (Young 2016).

When appraising RMF Oxford across all these dimensions it becomes clear that the campaign has exacerbated a longstanding fear of the intellectual degeneration of higher education in service of politically instrumental goals (for example, in 1950s Britain see Oakeshott 2004; in 1990s USA see Searle 1993). This fear invokes a defense of the academic ethos – impartiality, curiosity and discernment – against a contaminating wave of identity-politics, narcissism and vulgarism. The academy, its defenders claim, is confronted by outside forces that would compromise and partialize the higher pursuit of knowledge:  that is, multicultural politics in the public sphere brings reactionary identity politics into the academic sphere. Crucially, this defensiveness associates degenerative political forces external to the academy with the intimate presence, inside, of “non-traditional” students – and increasingly those with correspondingly racialized – and gendered – bodies (see especially Nkopo, Madenga, and Chantiluke 2018). It is not that the critics of RMF have wished to remove these bodies from the academy. But the nature of their defense necessarily problematizes the presence of these bodies within the academy.

In this article, I aim to historically and intellectually contextualise the apprehension that an intimate Black presence destabilizes the ethos of higher education. Prompted by Hall’s recollections of 1950s Oxford, I seek to disturb the grounds upon which critics contrast RMF (and other decolonizing campaigns) against an ideal image of the impartial and discerning academy. I do not directly address the contemporary impact of racialized institutional habits on Black students, especially the assumption that the lower attainment of this cohort is somehow due to a cultural deficit (see Shilliam 2016a; and most recently, Royal Historical Society 2018). Rather I seek to contribute to a literature that reveals the complicity of the British academy in politics concerning the fate of imperial rule (for example Pietsch 2013; Steinmetz 2013; Bailkin 2012). Specifically, I excavate a genealogy of academic debates that sought to assess the effects of an increased proximity of Black presence to empire’s white spaces.

In what follows I move behind the battle over statues (see especially Rao 2017) to argue that historical debates over Black presence implicate the British academy in the Empire’s southern African interests. These debates were initiated by social anthropologists in the inter-war years primarily (albeit not solely) with regards to studies of southern Africa’s urbanizing spaces. Furthermore, I demonstrate how such debates were highly influential to the study of “race relations” in Britain’s post-war era of Commonwealth immigration. Critically, all these debates problematized the cognitive competency of African/Black peoples to inhabit white spaces in ways that were not destabilizing of imperial order. Current campus campaigns such as RMF should not be evaluated against an ideal image of the academy. Rather, they form part of a continued confrontation with the afterlives of academic dispositions that were implicated in the imperial project that Rhodes was integral to.

The etymology of “disposition” comprises a sense of arrangement as well as a sense of determination. By disposition, then, I mean the epistemological arrangement of heterogeneous elements that come together in a particular context, a coming together that is also an orientation towards particular commitments (see in general Bussolini 2010).  An intellectual disposition frames a set of elements into a coherent problem at the same time as this framing clarifies ethical commitments to the redressing of that problem. For the sake of conciseness, I explore these dispositions through the thought of key intellectuals primarily in the fields of social anthropology and sociology. And I tease out the ways in which the Southern African milieu influenced these dispositions by way of engaging variously with intellectual biographies, substantive inquiry, and analytical framings.

I first turn to “colonial development”, a disposition indebted to the humanitarianism of white abolitionism but which substantively inquired into the destabilizing effects of urbanization on African natives principally regarding Britain’s imperial interests in southern Africa. Secondly, I investigate how “race relations” dispositions emerged out of these substantive and analytical engagements amongst social anthropologists of South African provenance as well as those clustered around Edinburgh University. Thirdly, I demonstrate how the race relations disposition in Britain struggled to overcome the association of Black proximity with a cognitive incompetency that was destabilizing of empire, even at empire’s end. In this struggle, intellectual biographies and analytical framings variously continued to implicate the southern African imperial milieu.


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