How Appropriate Is It To Characterise Western Universities as Institutionally Racist?

By Andrew Pilkington.

Published by The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Global Studies

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The Macpherson report, the outcome of a judicial inquiry into the murder of a young black man and subsequent police investigation in the UK, claimed in 1999 that public organisations, including universities, were characterised by institutional racism. This paper critically examines the concept of institutional racism before using it as a sensitising concept to investigate ethnographically one university in the UK over a ten-year period. While I was initially sceptical of the analytical utility of the concept of institutional racism, since it seemed to gloss over important conceptual distinctions, the concept ultimately proved revealing in accounting for significant continuities in the approach of universities, including Midshire, to race equality. In the decade following the report, there was a reluctance to identify race equality as a priority and to take corresponding action because of what has been called "the sheer weight of whiteness" (Back 2004, 1). A comparison of Midshire University with Midshire Police reinforced this perception. While it identified contrasts in the occupational cultures of the two organisations, at the same time it pointed to surprising parallels in their approaches to race equality, which stemmed from a taken for granted white norm. Despite this, the concept of institutional racism as defined in the Macpherson report and employed in the Parekh report fails to capture significant differences between public organisations and changes over time. The author outlines a more circumscribed concept of institutional racism and on that basis concludes that Midshire University is not appropriately characterised as institutionally racist.

Keywords: Institutional Racism, Higher Education, Widening Participation, Equality and Diversity

The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Global Studies, Volume 7, Issue 2, pp.13-23. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 479.173KB).

Prof. Andrew Pilkington

Professor of Sociology, School of Social Sciences, University of Northampton, Northampton, Northamptonshire, UK

Andrew Pilkington is Director of the Centre for Research in Equality and Diversity at the University of Northampton, United Kingdom. He has taught sociology in universities in both the UK and US, and is co-author of a very popular textbook in sociology, Sociology in Focus (Causeway Press, 1996, 2003, 2004, 2005). His research has espcially focused on issues relating to race and ethnicity, and he has published widely in this area, including Racial Disadvantage and Ethnic Diversity in Britain (Palgrave, 2003) and Institutional Racism in the Academy (Trentham, 2011).