Slacktivism: Do #BlackLivesMatter to LSE?

Written by Almas Talib (MSc Social & Cultural Psychology) and Gen England (MSc Social Anthropology MSc), who are both part of the Decolonising LSE Collective. This article was first published in The Beaver, the newspaper of the LSE Students Union.

Tweet from @LSEnews on June 2, 2020

The barbarous murder of George Floyd has sparked monumental acts of solidarity transatlantically. The upsurge of outrage has shown just how thin the façade of respectability thrown up to cover Britain’s colonial and racist past has worn. Rising anger drew fresh attention to cases of police brutality against Black people in the UK, and seeing statues of former slave traders and colonial figures (finally) meeting their demise. Digital organisation fit for a pandemic has led to thousands of protesters in British cities taking the knee in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. 

With the upsurge of anti-racist rhetoric, LSE was quick to respond on social media by hashtagging Black Lives Matter and declaring that challenging racial inequality is part of its ‘founding purpose’. At time of writing, this remains the only comment on George Floyd’s death and the anti-racism movement the School has made. It seems glaringly obvious that racism will persist in a country which fueled its industrialisation through the commodification of slave labour. Behind the seemingly harmless trade of sugar, tobacco, and cotton lurks the very sinister truth that Britain’s economy, one of the biggest in the world, was built on the backs of slaves and colonial rule in much of the Global South. 

What action has been taken by LSE to address its legacies of colonialism and racism? The reference to ‘challenging racial inequality’ being a ‘founding purpose’ nods to the work and socialist values of the founders of the school, members of the Fabian Society. But the Fabians were also proponents of eugenics, with many subscribing to the idea that progress within society can come from decreased reproduction amongst those with “undesirable genes”Yet, the School continue to unquestioningly celebrate these founders.

The lack of a critical eye on our history doesn’t stop there. The Beveridge Cafe is named after the fifth director of the LSE, William Beveridge, lauding his work on the state welfare system but rarely mentioning his eugenicist motivations. The Department of Anthropology’s library was also, until 2020, named after a racist, in this case the anthropologist Charles Seligman.

LSE’s official attainment gap in 2018 (for home undergraduate students to achieve a merit) was 8.7% for Black students and 8.3 % for Asian students compared to their white peers. Once the data are broken down, taking into account gender and different ethnicities, a far larger inequality is shown. Research undertaken by Dr Sara Camacho Felix, using LSE data on module attainment from 2013/14 to 2017/18, illustrates there is a 17.1% gap between UK white male students and UK Black female undergraduate students and, for non-UK undergraduate female Pakistani and Bangladeshi students, a gap of 12.1% at distinction level. 

Despite entering on the same merit (some may argue more, considering the systemic racism encountered along the way), Black students are on average less likely to achieve to the same standard as their white peers. Beyond the student experience, race-related issues take a more sinister edge in light of contemporary hiring practices at the school.

For example, the one Black professor at the LSE is a ‘visiting professor’, nothing more than an honorary title, meaning the school has effectively appointed zero Black professors. Cleaners (who are majority Black) are not given the same working conditions as other staff members, essentially treated as second class employees. Fairly recently, the School admitted a white nationalist student and gave tenure to a race scientist claiming Black women to be ‘less attractive’ than other women. 

Considering the institutionalised racism prevalent in the LSE, their use of the hashtag of Black Lives Matter is a dangerous act of ‘performative allyship’. This one-time declaration on social media (providing a virtual pat on the back) not only rings hollow, but elides the fact that the school is a site of institutionalised racism. A simple move to start targeting the latter problem would be to decentre whiteness by recognising the plethora of non-white figures who play a central role in LSE’s history of excellence. From the first Black professor in the UK,  Sir Arthur Lewis, to the late Thandika Mkandawire, Black academics helped make LSE what it is today; celebrating their work seems an easy choice over memorialising known eugenicists in bricks and mortar. Other universities are already starting the renaming process.

To avoid merely adorning the school’s walls with Black academics of the past, LSE must also nurture Black academics of the future. School departments must decolonise their curricula to create an environment where its academically excellent students of colour can achieve to the same extent as their white counterparts. This could begin with the incorporation of critical race theory, intellectual work which acknowledges how colonialism shapes our past, present, and future, validating people of colour as knowledge producers and recognising their experiences.

This benefit is twofold, as undiversified curricula are a loss to the wider intellectual project of the school that dilute the richness and variety of thought, narrowing our intellectual horizons and abilities to think creatively or to see the ways in which the world could be different. Decolonising curricula would thus not only be a move towards justice for students of colour, it would benefit the School as a whole. 

In our time at LSE, we have seen some progress towards the school becoming a more equitable institution. However, this has mostly been down to the tireless campaigning, dialogue, and resistance of unpaid students and staff mobilising through movements such as Decolonising LSESeligman Must Fall, and Justice for LSE Cleaners. The Seligman Library is now ‘The Old Anthropology Library’, the cleaners treatment is still far from adequate or on a par with other LSE staff, but they have, at least, been brought in-house. In the face of COVID-19, Justice for LSE Cleaners continues to work tirelessly to fight the treatment of cleaners as second class employees. Decolonising LSE supports such campaigns, and provides a space for students to talk about decolonising curricula, to discover decolonial thinkers, and to learn how to navigate colonial, academic spaces from one another. The necessity of these campaigns demonstrates the lack of care or concern for Black lives from LSE. 

Surface level activism or ‘slacktivism’ not only normalises, sanctions, and legitimises LSE’s institutionalised racism but it also plays into a wider discourse of the supposed ‘subtlety’ of racism in the UK. Racism can seem subtle if it only presents as a distant news report or something you stumble upon in history. But for people of colour, for Black people in the UK, racism is an everyday reality. When your every movement is circumscribed by systemic racism, ‘subtle’ is far from how you would describe such oppression.

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that the greatest stumbling block towards freedom was the white moderate, more devoted to “order” than justice. LSE must listen to us and work to decolonise the institution. LSE must improve the conditions of cleaners, ensure it’s hiring practices increase the presence of Black faculty members, and decolonise their curricula. If #BlackLivesMatter to LSE, they need to take over the anti-racist fight that students and staff have been leading for years. Frankly, we’re tired. 

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