When faced with a professor being racist, why does Oxford Uni not take immediate action?

‘It’s tiring and disappointing and frankly, the faculty should do better’

Last week, a philosophy professor at the University of Oxford came under fire for historic comments which he made about black peopleNick Bostrom, in an email sent in 1996, stated that “blacks are more stupid than whites” as part of his embracing of an “uncompromisingly objective way of thinking and speaking”. 

In response to this racist email being unearthed, the Philosophy Faculty Board Chair sent an email to all philosophy undergraduates last Friday. Whilst the second sentence of the email reads: “I am sure you will be as appalled and upset as I am to find these comments made by a member of our Faculty”, it was followed immediately by the statement that the faculty has the “utmost respect for academic freedom of speech”.

As a black philosophy, this is ridiculous and I’m tired of it. To me, the statement against racism was almost immediately undermined in order to defend freedom of speech. Of course, the faculty would go on say it “rejects both the views expressed and the abhorrent language” and that it “utterly condemns racism in all its forms” – it seems that being explicitly racist would be too far. However, the simple fact that the Faculty stated its respect for freedom of speech before actually stating it rejects the racist views, tells me a lot about where its priorities lie.

Despite this, I am not surprised by this tame reaction to racism. Racism in academia is constantly ignored, defended and rationalised. In fact, the very email Nick Bostrom sent is an example of this trend in academia. In the 1996 email, Bostrom seems to revel. He “likes” the sentence and thinks it is true, but complains that people think he’s a ‘racist’ (he makes use of quotation marks around the term racist in the email) because of it.

He complains that for other people, the sentence “Blacks are more stupid than whites” is synonymous with “I hate those bloody n***ers” (he, of course, did not censor the use of the n-word both in the original email or when he uploaded it on his website last week as part of his apology).

He thinks it laudable to speak with the “provocativeness of unabashed objectivity”. However, since this racism is couched in academic terms, he seems to think it gets a free pass. 

A screenshot of the historic email sent by Nick Bostrom

Furthermore, the Faculty has still not taken any action against him publicly. Somewhat ironically, this lack of swift action against racism amongst members of the Faculty is happening at the same time as think-tank, Civitas, ranked Oxford as second in “campus wokery”.

Campus wokery is a stupid term, and the index itself is quite silly, but it does show that Oxford is still too woke for these people, even while employing people it knows to have held racist views.

It shows how the idea that woke ideology is infecting our universities has gotten out of control – a truly woke university would take immediate action against racist comments like these, yet in reality racism is once again being talked about in the same breath as spurious claims about freedom of speech. 

As a black philosophy student, this all leaves me in a strange place. To me if feels like the department does not really take racism that seriously, yet we still are told about the University’s Race Equality Task Force, and that the Faculty is “committed to the work of antiracism”. The messages are mixed – there do seem to be many initiatives in place to take antiracism seriously, yet when faced with a fairly clear cut case of a professor being racist, no immediate action is taken. It’s tiring and disappointing and frankly, the faculty should do better.

A spokesperson for the University of Oxford said: “The University and Faculty of Philosophy is currently investigating the matter but condemns in the strongest terms possible the views this particular academic expressed in his communications.

“Neither the content nor language are in line with our strong commitment to diversity and equality.”

Professor Nick Bostrom was approached for comment but did not respond. In his apology published on his website, he said: “I completely repudiate this disgusting email from 26 years ago. It does not accurately represent my views, then or now. The invocation of a racial slur was repulsive. I immediately apologised for writing it at the time, within 24 hours; and I apologise again unreservedly today.”

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Featured image before edits via Tim Wildsmith on Unsplash