Black people are greatly under-represented in Cambridge. But the data does not support the view that institutional racism is the primary cause. Whilst discrimination certainly has a role to play, it cannot be the main cause.
Recently I noticed the trending photos below. Scrolling through Twitter, the conspicuous presence of a friend caught my eye. I immediately thought that the message of the photo – that Cambridge is for black people just as much as it is for individuals of any other colour – was fantastic. After all, who could fail to notice the under-representation of black people here at the university?
Yet I also immediately noticed that the photographs, and the truth of under-representation that they illustrate, had been used to allege that either the university or British society were institutionally racist. Simplified, the message is that there are few black people at Cambridge because of white racism and racist institutions.
The suffering of the black community has always been prime fuel for use and abuse by ideologues on the sillier ends of the political spectrum, each taking this suffering and packaging it into a problem for which the only solution is – you guessed it – the ideologies they sell. In this case, those sharing the inspiring group photos chose to use other students as props in a morality play which shows Cambridge conspiring to disadvantage and limit black people.
What is wrong about this, you might ask? Why isn’t ‘institutional racism’ the obvious answer to the under-representation of a group at an institution?
It is no secret that black people are under-represented in Cambridge relative to the UK population (1.4% of student pop vs 3% of national pop). Any problem of such serious under-representation is likely to have multiple causes, and we should be willing to grant, for the sake of argument, that some may entail discrimination or bias – we cannot shut out legitimate lines of inquiry.
But when we actually look at the ‘institutional bias’ hypothesis, things become immensely confusing. The arguments we constantly hear – that white supremacy or institutional racism is to blame – have yet to explain why East Asians are over-represented to roughly the same extent that blacks are underrepresented (Chinese are 3.4% of student pop vs 0.7% of national pop).
If white supremacy is so efficient at preventing blacks from excelling, why does it seem to promote the success of Asians, or, for that matter, the similarly over-represented Jewish population? Must we conclude that white supremacy is in an unholy alliance with Jewish supremacy and Asian supremacy?
Investigating further, we see that the picture is at once more complex – yet more bleak – than the race-baiters would have us believe. Black underachievement, and overachievement by Asians and Jews, is a phenomenon not only of higher education but indeed of our societal institutions as a whole.
Jews are the highest-earning religious group in the USA, and Asians are the highest-earning ethnic group. Both groups have historically suffered from immense adversity and racism at the hands of the nation’s majority white population – just as black people have. But the similarities end there, for at every level where Asians and Jews excel far over whites, such as in academia or in income, black people also do worse, suggesting a problem far more tenacious than the racism of any given institution.
The average income statistics in the United States are as illuminating as they are depressing in relation to this matter. While Jews, as a religious group, have a higher median household income in the United States than any other discrete ethnic or religious grouping, black people find themselves on the bottom of the ladder. Even looking at racial groups alone, we still find that:
White: $59,698 (77% of Asian)
Black: $36,544 (47% of Asian)
The picture painted here immediately casts doubt on the idea that black under-representation at Cambridge can be blamed on institutional racism. The progressives’ claim that “it must be institutional racism” is a mere conspiracy theory, which suggests that all institutions – not just Cambridge, but across the entire Western world – are conspiring against black people while simultaneously conspiring in favour of Asians and Jews. It is hardly better than the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
So what is the cause of the problem?
The truth of the matter is that black underachievement in the Western world is an immensely complex and deeply-rooted problem that requires addressing and rectification at all levels of policy, not just bias in admissions or examinations processes in universities.
Yet instead of addressing the problem as the multi-layered phenomenon it is, progressive ideologues use it as a hammer with which to bash their political and ideological opponents. They take the tragedy of black community crisis, and offer a reductionist and simplistic diagnosis, with accompanying placebos in the form of policy and reform proposals.
In truth, none of these ideologues care about black people, or the genuine and protracted suffering of black communities in the Western World. Just like fascist ideologues who use black underachievement to reinforce their twisted racist ideology, many progressives are only concerned with black people insofar as they can be used to reinforce their own arguments.
This is not raising awareness. The act of limiting the discussion of black underachievement to how far Cambridge might be institutionally biased isn’t pointing out the problem – it’s covering up the 95% of the problem that you can’t use to reinforce your ideological narrative. The (mostly white) progressives who self-flagellate and cry over Twitter about the pain of the black community aren’t actually helping to solve this problem, because it’s far bigger than any one institution or agency. This is a community in crisis.
Black empowerment is a necessary effort of paramount importance as the West moves on into the 21st century. But to actually achieve this, we have to follow the problem to its source. We need to look at issues of cultural archetypes, unhealthy masculinity, and negative views on academic and professional achievement, with an overemphasis on sporting and physical achievement. It’s no secret, for example, that blacks absolutely dominate in sports, where they are often over-represented to mathematically anomalous proportions. We might consider how black excellence and success is frequently seen in the gym or sports centre, and how this relates to a lack of such conspicuousness in the library or research centre.
The reductionist, grossly simplistic, and statistically ignorant assertion that racism is the sole cause of black under-representation at UK universities is not only wrong, or mendacious – it shuts down the conversations we need to have to solve the problem. And as long as we continue to ignore the main body of this problem and swallow the solutions offered by pathological ideologies, it is likely to go unsolved.
Wael Taji Miller studies Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge.
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