I am writing to you as Head of the School of History to express my outrage at the brutal killing of George Floyd. I know that students and colleagues share that outrage. Our thoughts are with Mr Floyd’s family. Their tragedy is sadly unsurprising: as the killing of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others in the US makes clear, Mr Floyd’s death is typical of a system shaped by societal and structural racism. So too is the response to those protesting these deaths. Together, these create a moral imperative for me to state unequivocally on behalf of your School that Black Lives Matter and to support the Black Lives Matter movement. QMSU has provided a list of resources and ways in which students and staff can express this support.
Recognising that Black Lives Matter is a movement from the black community to address anti-black racism, the School underlines its commitment to tackling anti-black racism. I also believe, however, that we need to take this moment to address the wider issues of racism and inequality in our university and facing our students and staff.
The United States of America is different from the UK, but none of us should be under any illusion about the effects of systemic racism in this country. This is evident across, but certainly not limited to, the police and criminal justice systems, health, employment and education. As this article by Gary Younge explains, during the COVID-19 pandemic inequality resulting from racism has in recent months killed very large numbers of people. Here the moment not only requires us to meet the unequal impacts of the pandemic, but also adds additional momentum to actions we should be taking in any case.
The School of History is committed to doing its part in eliminating racism from our campus. So doing requires a critical look at ourselves. A third of our students are people of colour. Our permanent academic staff are almost all white. Many of those staff, myself included, have benefited from advantages and privileges accorded structurally, socially and culturally to white people, especially with respect to our educational and career development opportunities. The School is proud of the choice it gives its students, but there is much more work to do to make its modules more diverse and inclusive. Despite recent success in greatly reducing the gap between white and BME students in the award of good honours, the gap in the award of First class degrees remains. As the 2018 report by the Royal Historical Society makes clear, these disparities are not unique to the School, but they do not just reflect the state of the field. We have not always in the past taken the choices that we could have to address them. The work to do better in these regards was already ongoing, but this is a time to restate and reclarify our commitments, and direct attention specifically to the crises that we are in.
With that in mind the School recognises that the impact of these killings in the US and the global racism that underpins them will be felt more acutely by our students and colleagues of colour. We recognise too that the challenges faced by applicants, students and colleagues of colour have been exacerbated by racism and that this disparity will be deepened by the pandemic. We commit ourselves to working closely with and increasing support for those affected in these ways. As we plan for next year, we recognise that these different risks will remain and that they may affect how students and staff of colour regard a return to on campus activities. Drawing on the work of Karis Campion, we also recognise that home working may disproportionately disadvantage these staff and students. We will seek to mitigate these disadvantages. We further remind all students and staff of their responsibility to be aware of these differences and to be respectful and supportive to their colleagues, peers and those they are teaching or advising.
We are committed to listening and responding to the experiences of students and colleagues of colour and we are conscious of the wide variety of settings in which their voices need to be heard. But we are also determined that this should not mean that they are asked to do the work that is the responsibility of all. As an indicator of the importance that we attach to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, our EDI Lead sits on Management Committee (which meets fortnightly), and their report is the first item on that Committee’s regular agenda. We will undertake Equality Impact Assessments on the major changes that have to take place as we adapt to the effects of the pandemic. These will be discussed by the School’s EDI committee and made publicly available. We have already initiated a process of curriculum review, and will be making a combined Race and Global Encounters module compulsory for all single honours History students in their first semester at University.
As a School, we are fortunate that the Royal Historical Society has laid out a range of recommendations for university historians seeking to take up their responsibilities on race, ethnicity and equality. These have previously informed our actions – but I want to make a much more specific commitment here.
I ask everyone reading this message to look at Chapter 4 of its 2018 report, sections a-e of which identify 34 areas for action within a School. These include guidance for individual staff members on recognising their own subject positions, understanding the importance of representation and broad curriculum coverage, and being aware of and challenging micro-aggressions. Heads of School and their teams are charged with making sure that staff and student have access to and understand university policies and the law, improving training, facilitating student led change and being proactive in recruiting, promoting and supporting BME historians at all levels, and ensuring that induction processes for students and staff address racial discrimination.
Working with the School’s EDI, Staff Student Liaison and PGR Committees, and inviting contributions from all staff and students, we will establish by the end of September 2020 a clear, time limited set of goals to demonstrate progress against each of these 34 points over the next academic year. We will make these goals publicly available and provide regular updates to you all. I understand the concern that lots of the pledges of doing better being offered at this moment are not really meant or will not be fulfilled. This approach is meant to guard against that and give us the means to achieve the concrete changes that so many of us want to see.
The work of tackling racism and other forms of discrimination is not something with a fixed end date. This is a perpetual struggle, not least within ourselves, that is part of our duty to ourselves and to each other. The School is and will remain committed to this work.