Academia, philosophy, and ‘race’
It was recently brought to public attention that of the UK’s 18,510 university professors, only 85 are of black origin (Black African/Black Caribbean/Black ‘other’), a soberingly disproportionate figure. Some people may want to explain this incongruence by saying that it is proportionate, or makes sense, when you consider the amount of black people entering and remaining within higher education. However, rather than the problem being solved with this explanation, it re-emerges in questions surrounding the reasons as to why this may be the case. If there are a disproportionately low number of black students entering (and remaining in) higher education, this itself needs to be questioned, with discussions had on financial situations, state education, implicit biases, and other social and economic barriers that may be disproportionately affecting certain sections of the population. In this blog post I will explore these factors, as well as suggesting that discussions on ‘intelligence’ genes within bioethics may serve to perpetuate a hostile and exclusionary environment.
The situation for black academics appears to be more acute in academic philosophy. There are only 5 black philosophers employed in UK universities, with just two of these being employed in philosophy departments (both at UCL), and the other 3 in classics, humanities and ‘theology, philosophy and religious studies’ departments. Philosophy is also notorious for its lack of female representation. Statistics show the number of women gradually reducing at each stage of academia – although 46% of philosophy undergraduates are female, this drops to 31% of philosophy PhD students, and is at its lowest with only 24% of full time staff being women.
Why are these historically disadvantaged groups faring so badly in academic philosophy, (and for those of black origin, academia in general)? One reason, perhaps, is the existence of implicit biases operating in the hiring processes and unconsciousness of those present within HE institutions. Recent psychological research shows that “most people—even those who explicitly and sincerely avow egalitarian views—hold ‘implicit biases’ against such groups as blacks, women, gay people, and so on, based on unconscious stereotypes of these groups.” This has effects in how CVs are evaluated, interviewees are perceived, and how journal articles are reviewed. Further, ‘stereotype threat’ means that victims of stereotypes underperform because they are unconsciously preoccupied by fears of confirming the stereotypes about their group—so preoccupied that they show elevated heart rate. Research by Steele et al. shows that in such threat-provoking situations, marginalised groups perform worse in standardised testing, a finding that should perhaps cause us to re-examine our reliance on this method of determining perceived intellectual capability. In a report for the British Philosophical Association on Women in Philosophy, Jenny Saul and Helen Beebee note that “if philosophy is also stereotyped as male, as seems likely, women philosophers are likely to suffer from stereotype threat quite frequently. This will lead women to underperform at all career stages, including crucially high-stress moments like job interviews.” These findings can be extrapolated to telling us something about the black absence in philosophy, if we consider that philosophy is also stereotyped as white.
Perhaps another factor to take into consideration when reflecting on the black absence in academic philosophy and academia in general, is the presence of institutional racism. This could, as we have seen, be a result of the implicit biases people are unconsciously operating with, and also manifest itself in more explicit actions. The recent, I, Too, Am Oxford, campaign showcased the everyday microaggressions faced by some ethnic minority students, highlighting a clear racial element to their university experience. Although it may be the case that many ethnic minority students do not share this hostile experience (as the counter-campaign We Are All Oxford sought to show), it remains that certain students have faced uncomfortable situations that have arisen on the basis of their perceived racial difference, an obstacle unique to students of ethnic minority backgrounds.
Further, recent research from HEFCE showed that white university students at English universities receive significantly higher degree grades than their peers from minority ethnic backgrounds, despite both groups entering university with the same A-level grades. It was found that 72% of white students who have grades BBB at A-level went on to gain a first or upper second-class degree, compared with only 56% of Asian students and 53% of black students, suggesting that universities in England are failing to support black and Asian undergraduates during their student career. One possible explanation for the disparity in degree classifications achieved by students that entered with equivalent A-level grades, is the experience of racism while at university. A recent NUS study found that one in six black students said they had experienced racism at their institution, and many linked those experiences with a drop in confidence and motivation, reporting that they felt marginalised and socially excluded; experiences that are likely to have knock-on effects on their studies. It also emerged that a third felt their educational environment left them unable to bring their minority perspective to lectures and tutorials, and 7% even openly labelled their learning environment as “racist”. These are profound statistics and merit an open discussion on issues surrounding race and the academy.
Perhaps another factor explaining the lack of black academics is the lack of black students at elite universities. In an increasingly competitive academic job market, one’s pedigree, in the form of university background, is highly important, with qualifications from elite universities serving as Pavlovian indicators of academic capability. And, it seems, black British young people are far less likely to attend the UK’s most selective universities, a factor which may make it harder to get academic jobs. The Independent Commission on Social Mobility pointed out that “there are more young men from black backgrounds in prison in the UK than there are UK-domiciled undergraduate black male students attending Russell Group institutions.” Despite black Britons (of Caribbean heritage) making up 1.5% of all domestic students attending UK universities in 2012-13, just 0.5% of domestic students at Russell Group universities are from black Caribbean backgrounds. Analogously, Black African students make up 4.4% of total domestic students, but comprise just 2.1% of students attending Russell Group universities. What are the reasons for this discrepancy? One major factor is that black students are far less likely to achieve the requisite A-level grades – but this itself is a phenomenon in need of explanation, through an analysis of the social and environmental indicators of educational attainment. Another reason is that black students are less likely to be offered places when they do apply – a recent study has shown that “Russell Group applicants from state schools and from Black and Asian ethnic backgrounds remained much less likely to receive offers of admission from Russell Group universities in comparison with their equivalently qualified peers from private schools and the White ethnic group.” Again, another phenomenon in need of further research and explanation.
Philosophy and race
Although philosophy is not alone as a discipline in its poverty of black academics, I believe a dialogue needs to be had on the hostile climate perpetuated by certain discussions within bioethics. There is a trend in the literature towards considering the ethical implications of genetically enhancing our cognitive capabilities and selecting embryos on the basis of their displaying so-called “intelligence” genes. Prioritising human life on a particular conception of “intelligence” is dubious enough, but when these discussions spill over onto questions regarding biological “race” and “intelligence” we should be concerned. Peter Singer has defended the pursuit of research into a ‘link’ between ‘race’ and ‘intelligence,’ arguing that to say we should not investigate this link “is equivalent to saying that we should reject open-minded investigation of the causes of inequalities in income, education, and health between people of different racial or ethnic groups.” In his book, Practical Ethics, Singer engages in a discussion on racial differences without anywhere defining ‘race’ or pointing to any scientific basis for this concept. He also discusses sexual difference, stating:
“The fact that there are more males at both extremes of ability in mathematics, whereas females tend to cluster more around the average level, does support Lawrence Summers’ ill-fated remark about the relative scarcity of suitable female candidates for Harvard positions in those areas of science and engineering in which mathematical ability plays a key role. Only those with exceptional ability become professors, and even within that select group, only those among the very best have any prospect of becoming a professor at an elite institution like Harvard. It isn’t difficult to see that males are likely to be overrepresented among those at the extreme upper end of the scale of mathematical giftedness.”
Operating within such discussions on genes, ‘intelligence,’ and ‘race’, are the following assumptions:
- That there are certain, specific genes that correlate with intelligence, and that these can be isolated and identified.
- That genetic determinism is true (that intelligence is largely determined by genes).
- That intelligence is a scientifically testable category to the extent that allows for these conclusions about genes and intelligence to be drawn.
- That race is a scientifically testable category.
These are all glaring assumptions that ought to be questioned rather than taken as axiomatic premises. I do not have time to sufficiently deconstruct them in a single blog post, but will attempt to say a few words on each:
- The inheritability of IQ is a debated issue. A recent scientific study showed that most reported genetic associations with general intelligence are probably false positives. The idea that we can isolate a few genes that correlate with intelligence and call them the ‘intelligence’ gene is a contested one.
- There is strong evidence against genetic determinism. It is widely recognised that social and environmental factors, such as early nutrition and development, child care, and education, influence and explain IQ variation more than genes. (See here, here, and here for elucidations of such views.)
- There is no universal definition of intelligence. It is a transient, context-dependent and culturally relative category. Standardised testing, and the means we have of determining perceived intellectual ability should not be taken as the apex of verification. Iris Marion Young, amongst others, has highlighted that “most criteria of evaluation used in our society, including educational credentials and standardized testing, have normative and cultural content,” and that “impartial, value-neutral, scientific measures of merit do not exist.”
- There is broad scientific agreement that essentialist and typological conceptualisations of race are untenable. Race is more appropriately conceived of as a social construct, rather than a scientifically testable category.
It is important to note that I am not calling for censorship in research, but am questioning the legitimacy of research into genes, race, and intelligence, when it relies on so many debated premises. Further to this, I urge that we ought to be particularly concerned when research such as this could have adverse social effects and the potential to cause harm. Perhaps in a situation where intelligence and race were perfectly verifiable, coherent concepts, such research could be conducted. They are not, however. It should also be considered that historically, they were created and used to reinforce social inequality, and justify discriminatory behaviour. Bearing in mind the context of their inception, we should therefore, be very wary of their re-appropriation as testable categories. Especially when there exists widespread intellectual disagreement on their validity.
Further, we should not underestimate or ignore the effect that this kind of thought has on a) people’s perceptions of others b) people’s perceptions of themselves. Although Singer states that, “no matter what the facts on race and intelligence turn out to be, they will not justify racial hatred, nor disrespect for people of a different race,” he may be naïve to think research into such ‘facts’ will not garner prejudice. We cannot take this kind of research to be occurring in a vacuum, immune to producing consequences. Such research could be contributing to an adverse climate in academia, feeding phenomena such as implicit biases and stereotype threat, exacerbating the situation. It’s almost no wonder that there is a black absence in the academy, with research like this, premised on dubious suppositions being heralded as legitimate ‘scientific inquiry.’ It should be considered that research like this could have prescient and alienating social effects. I’ll end with a quote from Dr Nathaniel Coleman, one of the 5 black philosophers employed in the UK, who recently spoke in the Times Higher Education supplement on philosophy and race. Speaking on the worrying effects that suspect science can have on perception and attainment, he writes:
“In 1789, in London’s Diary, the Sons of Africa wrote that “the nation at large is awakened to a sense of our sufferings, except the Oran Otang philosophers”. Without doubt, this reference was to philosophers who had bought into the theory of Edward Long, according to whom “the oran-outang and some races of black men are very nearly allied”. Indeed, “[t]hey are, say the most credible writers, a people certainly very stupid and very brutal”.
Fifty years later, even the abolitionist William Wilberforce still described Long as “a writer of the highest authority on all West India subjects” and referred to Long’s “celebrated history of Jamaica”. More recently, Phillip Atiba Goff, assistant professor in social psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, has found “evidence of a bidirectional association between Blacks and apes that can operate beneath conscious awareness yet significantly influence perception and judgments”. Thus, that unspoken and unspeakable suspicion, that sits on the tip of your tongue, and that might mean I don’t become a professor of philosophy, is the question: “Is Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman an oran-utang?” The threat of this stereotype, Claude Steele, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University, tells us, causes stress to those, who, like me, spend an inordinate amount of time, energy and resources, to ensure that no one has any reason to think we are acting according to type. Yet, when we do dodge the threat of the oran-utang, our academic achievements are frustratingly attributed to luck, to fluke, to outside help. “How long shall they kill our prophets?”, Bob Marley once asked. Stereotype threat and attribution bias are killing our prophets.”
Philosophical inquiry, and the work that goes on in the academy, should not be thought of as isolated from the causes of the black absence in academia. Along with the social and environmental indicators of educational achievement, it could all be part of the same story.