Cambridge University assigns white academic to look at slavery links

Campaigner criticises ‘bizarre’ choice and asks why black academic was not chosen

The equal rights campaigner and former Labour politician Trevor Phillips has criticised the University of Cambridge’s “bizarre” decision to appoint a white academic as head of a study into the institution’s historical links with slavery.

Prof Martin Millett of Fitzwilliam College is to oversee the two-year research project, which will investigate ways in which the university “contributed to or benefited from the Atlantic slave trade and other forms of coerced labour during the colonial era” in an effort to “acknowledge its role during that dark phase of human history”.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday, Phillips said: “It’s bizarre they couldn’t find a black academic to lead this.

“If they’re trying to send a signal about what they’re like then that would have sent a great message to the world that Cambridge understands black folks are not just great entertainers or sportspeople, but that we can be brainy too.

“I’ve got nothing against the guy they’ve put in charge, it’s just he’s an expert on Roman archaeology.”

Phillips cited the philosopher Prof Kwame Anthony Appiah and the author and critic Prof David Dabydeen – both alumni of the university – as well-qualified BME academics who could otherwise have been given the post.

But he said there are other “more useful” ways the university could seek to contribute to discussions about racial equality.

He stressed that research should be commissioned on problems facing people of BME backgrounds today, such as discrimination as a result of artificial intelligence (AI) programmes used in making decisions on mortgage applications and insurance premiums.

“They could put some of their brilliant people on to this if they really wanted to tackle this issue of racism, instead of putting these guys in a basement somewhere to look at plantation records from 200 years ago and come up with stuff everybody already knows. That would actually be of service to people of colour,” Phillips said.

Phillips is not the only public figure to have expressed scepticism about the project. Speaking in an interview with the Varsity student newspaper earlier this week ahead of his talk at the Cambridge Union, the American civil rights activist Al Sharpton said that while the study is “a step in the right direction”, he does “not think it is enough and the real question is where it will go”.

Similarly, Rianna Davis, the president of the students’ union’s BME liberation campaign, said: “We hope this inquiry will highlight the ways in which the university has been complicit in legitimising slavery and has profited from the slave trade, [but] the university should not consider its complicity in racial oppression merely a thing of the past.

“Uncovering Cambridge’s entanglement in the legacies of slavery should help us understand and correct the racial inequalities and racist discourses that continue to be actively perpetuated today.”

Davis’s statement referred to the recent controversy over research into eugenics conducted by Noah Carl of St Edmund’s College, who had his fellowship revoked on Tuesday night after a review panel concluded his work “demonstrated poor scholarship, promoted extreme rightwing views and incited racial and religious hatred”.

Responding to Phillips’s comments, a spokesperson for the university said: ‘The study’s panel represents a diverse range of experience, with five out of eight members from a BAME background. The investigation will also be drawing on the wide views of the BAME academic community.

“The relationship between AI and racial bias is a topic of study at Cambridge’s Centre for the Future of Intelligence and features in our landmark AI ethics roadmap, recently published with the Nuffield Foundation.”


Will Neal

The GuardianTramp

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