Discrimination dialogue:
race not won

Racial discrimination has been front page news once again, with the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 by law enforcement officers in the US. It has triggered the Black Lives Matter protests, not just in America, but throughout the world.

The data that emerged from our survey revealed that racial/ethnic discrimination was the second biggest global factor in preventing an inclusive society for all at 58%; second only to poverty. The region which cited it as having the biggest impact was, perhaps unsurprisingly, North America with 83%.

COVID-19: disease & discrimination

COVID-19 has served to underline social inequalities, as the poorest in our society are hit hardest by the pandemic. Internationally, many of the lowest paid workers are from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds (BAME) and have paid the highest price for these circumstances.

A disproportionate number of ethnic minorities, relative to population sizes, have been infected and this appears as much to do with circumstances as it does to genetic makeup according to a report by Public Health England's Beyond the data: Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on BAME groups. Indeed, The Office for National Statistics concluded that black people are 1.9 times more likely to die from Covid-19 than white people.

According to the UK's National Education Union, poverty rates are universally higher for ethnic minority groups – impacting particularly on Pakistani and Bangladeshi families. Over half of Bangladeshi people are trapped in poverty, compared to 19% from white ethnic groups, while Black African and Pakistani groups have higher rates of persistent poverty.

Discrimination is often a barrier to essential services for certain groups of people including migrants, ethnic minorities, refugees, women, people living with HIV/AIDS, stateless individuals and those with disabilities.

Discriminatory laws, policies and practices may mean these groups are also denied the right to work, adequate housing and a high standard of health. Racial discrimination and other types of discrimination can have a multiplier effect, compounding social exclusion and, in the worst cases, fuelling violent conflict.

It is not just COVID-19 that has highlighted the disparities of how health affects people of different races. According to Sandra L Shullman, president of The American Psychological Association, ‘we are living in a racism pandemic’ which claims to be seeing a psychological toll on African American citizens, which can lead to serious health consequences.

They state that racism is associated with a host of psychological consequences, including depression, anxiety and other serious, sometimes debilitating conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorders. Moreover, the stress caused by racism can contribute to the development of cardiovascular and other physical diseases.

Racism in academia

While Britain is regarded as a multi-cultural society, rich in diversity, with single streets often inhabiting people from dozens of different countries and continents, its record of inclusivity is chequered. The doors to its centres of research and universities are often among the hardest to open.

Data generated from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) in 2012–2013 revealed that out of 17,880 professors, only 85 were black, 950 were Asian and 365 were regarded as ‘other’ (including mixed race). The vast majority – 15,200 – were white.

In terms of black female professors, there are just 17 in the entire British university system and, as of January 2017, for the third year in a row, HESA figures recorded no black academics in the elite staff category of managers, directors and senior officials in 2015–2016.

Expert analysis

Patrick Vernon – British social commentator and political activist – talks about race & academia

Racial discrimination has been a long-standing problem irrespective of the recent Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations. BLM has done a great job of amplifying this, but the survey result stands up on its own anyway. The key problem is, we’ve gone backwards as a country when it comes to improving race equality. That’s the frustration and it’s reflected in the UK today. 

If you look at the data that the UK government produces around deprivation, often people from ethnic backgrounds are living in deprived neighbourhoods. The key characteristics are often high degrees of unemployment, poor quality housing, overcrowded conditions and fear of crime. As a result of austerity there have been massive cuts in public and funded services which makes people’s lives more vulnerable; if you overlay these issues with race, it becomes a much bigger problem.

It’s not surprising that the percentage is higher in North America – it has a long history of segregation and discrimination. Also, in the UK, we have some key institutions like the NHS which provides free healthcare at the point of access, which isn’t available in the USA. These fundamental differences around the health and social care system help to buffer some of the extremes of the USA when compared to the UK.  

It’s clear that academia is not doing enough work to break the glass ceiling for academics, as well as administrative staff. It’s perceived that higher education is a fair equal employer – in my experience, this isn’t the case: it’s more racist than the NHS, local government or the police.

I know people who have had to move to a new country to get their first academic position. Academia presents itself to be open and accessible but looking at the numbers of black and ethnic Vice Chancellors, Heads of Departments, Professors – it’s a different story. 

The Equality and Human Rights commission needs to do an investigation into what’s happening in our education – that might put pressure on universities to address these statistics. Furthermore, with the Coronavirus pandemic having a severe impact on academic funding, there is an opportunity to review the university funding model. If universities want to be dependent on government and individual students’ funding, they need to demonstrate how they are tackling this barrier. 

Patrick Vernon


Patrick Vernon

Find out more on Patrick's website

Academia presents itself to be open and accessible, but looking at the numbers of black and ethnic Vice Chancellors, Heads of Departments, Professors – it’s a different story

Patrick Vernon

What's in the report?

The report contains an introduction and 9 sections; use the grid below to navigate, or click to go to the next section.

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Through the barricades: establishing barriers to inclusivity

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Breaking good: taking down the walls of academia

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Driving inclusivity: responsibilities within academic research

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