Black Lives Matter – Letter from Professor Nalin Thakkar, Vice President for Social Responsibility

Like most of you, watching the wretched events of the last few days unfurl across the USA, starting with the brutal killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and followed by the harsh treatment of peaceful protestors by those in authority, has filled me with horror and profound dismay. It was a grim reminder if we needed any, that racism particularly against Black people, is still very much entrenched in our society. With unrelenting regularity this continues to manifest itself in such shocking disregard for Black lives.

We released a statement expressing these feelings last week, but having had more time to reflect on the implications of these events for our University, I want to write to you again from a personal perspective and share with you some more information on the steps our University is taking and where we need to do more.

We at The University of Manchester condemn all racist violence and oppression. We also recognise the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement and understand that this is about focus and not exclusion. Many people have countered that ‘all lives matter’ and of course they do, but we also need to recognise that Black people specifically have been the victims of violence and have faced continuing structural inequalities around the world. So, the Black Lives Matter movement is important to bring a forensic focus on the specific challenges faced by Black people around the world. It does not detract from a range of other injustices. Our society is still very far from Dr Martin Luther King’s vision of a time when “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”.

As a member of an academic organisation committed to researching and teaching about social, historical, economic and political inequalities, I know that such disregard for Black lives does not arise in isolation but on the background of a history of slavery and repression and continuing systemic inequities in our society. These systemic inequities manifest in more insidious and pervasive ways through the lives of not just ethnic minorities, but also many vulnerable groups and all those who, irrespective of race, suffer from socio-economic deprivation, disadvantaging them through life, education, and work.

Racism and discrimination have no place in our University and all our community of students and staff have a right to expect that they will be treated equally and fairly and can work in a safe, secure and fulfilling environment.

"...my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character...”
Dr Martin Luther King

Our University also has a role in removing systemic inequities and speaking up for those without a voice.

Universities exist to improve the world through their research, teaching and engagement activities and through how they operate with regard to their own practices. Our role in addressing issues of race and ethnic discrimination is therefore not a neutral one – the knowledge we produce and share with others will play a profound role in achieving the sort of change that is necessary.

On research, our Centre for Dynamics on Ethnicity is working with public and third sector agencies to ensure public policy in areas such as work, health and education can address racial discrimination and inequality. Sociologists at Manchester have produced a pioneering Our Migration Story resource for UK educators to support the decolonisation of the curriculum in British schools and contest dominant narratives of what British identity is, making anti-racist resources freely available for use in classrooms. And academics in American Studies have used their knowledge to work as expert witnesses in criminal legal cases to mitigate racial discrimination.

On teaching, a wide range of our programmes in the humanities, social and natural sciences are actively teaching future generations of professionals and citizens to understand racial discrimination and injustice. Students at Manchester are involved in our Miscarriages of Justice Review Centre which have addressed issues of racial discrimination. And we are actively working to decolonise our curriculum.

On our engagement we operate key civic and public cultural institutions that, whilst rooted themselves in colonialism and empire, have been working to actively address what they can do to tackle discrimination and aid understanding between cultures. We see this in our work with communities in Moss Side who we worked with on our The Reno at The Whitworth project, through the pioneering work with local South Asian diaspora in the creation of our nascent South Asian Gallery; and of course in our investment in our unique AIU Race Relations Resource Centre and Education Trust based in Manchester’s Central Library, which exists to archive the life stories of BAME communities in Manchester, by running oral history projects, hosting events and exhibitions, and working with schools, for past, present and future generations.

In terms of our own operations, we will continue to progress the race equality work we have started. Current activities include:

  • Appointing a University lead for race equality, Professor Dawn Edge. This role includes dedicated time to help develop initiatives that support our race equality ambitions.
  • We have achieved the Race Equality Charter Mark for the second time and are one of only a few institutions nationally to achieve this. The Charter aims to improve the representation, progression and success of minority ethnic staff and students within higher education.
  • Our ‘Speak Up! Stand Up!’ campaign is a collaboration between the University and the Students’ Union. It encourages people to speak up wherever they see injustice and not to be silent witnesses or bystanders. Our Report and Support platform provides a space where members of our community can report an incident and seek support, including signposting to specialist services.
  • Our Inclusive Advocacy Programme is a sponsorship programme designed to ensure high-performing, BAME staff reach their full potential. The aim is to increase diversity in leadership positions and promote inclusivity within the organisation.
  • As part of our Teaching and Learning Strategy, we have established The University of Manchester Institute of Teaching and Learning and commenced the delivery of the Curriculum Evolution project with a focus on inclusion, employability and well-being.
  • We have embedded the Diversity & Inclusion Student Ambassador Programme in partnership with our Students’ Union and will continue to work together to co-produce activity with our students to support the reduction of the unexplained gap in degree outcomes between White students and Black and Asian students.
...we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the vaults of opportunity of this nation...
Dr Martin Luther King

We have also developed specific webpages to support our race equality work and encourage staff and students to visit it.

Despite all of this, I acknowledge that in many areas we have not succeeded fully or progressed as we should have. I refuse to believe that we cannot do any more. As Dr King said in 1963 “we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the vaults of opportunity of this nation.” Our University is committed to championing racial equality and to continuing to diversify our curriculum, so it reflects our collective histories, endeavours, views and achievements. We will also continue to diversify our student and staff body so that it reflects all our communities and affords equal opportunity to all.

Equality, diversity and inclusion feature prominently in Our Future, our vision and strategic plan. I believe that our future will be brighter and stronger when we achieve a more diverse and inclusive community and address issues of racial discrimination through our research and teaching. Everyone in our community has a role to play in creating a different future. This involves acknowledging our own institutional shortcomings and working with communities, citizens and policy-makers to address deep rooted structural inequalities and discrimination.

My hope, seeing people of every race and background standing shoulder to shoulder in peaceful protests around the world in reaction to the death of George Floyd is that out of this shameful episode, there will be redemption, a renewed drive for a more just society. I pledge that I will play my part in this effort. If we need to be reminded, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (and women) to do nothing” (Edmund Burke).

Professor Nalin Thakkar

Vice-President for Social Responsibility


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