Gulzaar Barn, Academic Racism, and the Problems with ‘Race’ as a Scientific Category

Academia, philosophy, and ‘race’

It was recently brought to public attention that of the UK’s 18,510 university professors, only eight-five are of black origin (Black African/Black Caribbean/Black ‘other’).[1] Some people may want to explain this sobering figure by saying that it is proportionate, or makes sense, when you consider the number of black people entering and remaining within higher education. However, rather than this explaining the situation, it leaves us with the question as to why this is the case. If there are a disproportionately low number of black students entering (and remaining in) higher education then this itself needs to be questioned and discussions had on the social and economic barriers that may be affecting certain sectors of the population. In this article I explore some of these factors, as well as suggesting that the recent resurgence of discussion on ‘intelligence’ and genes within science and bioethics may serve to perpetuate a hostile and exclusionary environment. Such research into intelligence, genes, and race, is falsely premised on notions of ‘race’ and ‘intelligence’ as scientific categories. In so far as there is disagreement over the scientific validity of these concepts, it may be problematic to invoke them in such charged discussions, which could also have socially damaging effects.

Academia and disadvantage

The situation for black academics appears to be more acute in academic philosophy. There are only five black philosophers employed in UK universities, with just two of these being employed in actual philosophy departments (UCL), and the other three in classics, humanities and theology, philosophy and religious studies departments.[2] Philosophy is also notorious for its lack of female representation. Statistics show the number of women gradually reducing at each stage of academia: although 46% of philosophy undergraduates are female this drops to 31% of philosophy PhD students and is at its lowest with only 24% of full time staff being women.[3] The intersection of gender and race in academic philosophy is a further route worth examining in this regard.

Why are these historically disadvantaged groups faring so badly in academic philosophy (and for those of black origin, academia in general)? One reason, perhaps, is the existence of implicit biases operating in the hiring processes and the unconsciousness of those within Higher Education institutions. Recent psychological research shows that “most people – even those who explicitly and sincerely avow egalitarian views – hold ‘implicit biases’ against such groups as blacks, women, gay people, and so on, based on unconscious stereotypes of these groups.”[4] This has effects in how CVs are evaluated, interviewees are perceived, and how journal articles are reviewed. Furthermore, the phenomena of ‘stereotype threat’ leads to victims of stereotypes underperforming because they are unconsciously preoccupied by fears of confirming the stereotypes about their group – so much so that they show an elevated heart rate.[5] Research such as that by Steele et al. shows that in such threat-provoking situations, marginalised groups perform worse in standardised testing, a finding that should perhaps cause us to re-examine our reliance on this method of determining perceived intellectual capability. In a report for the British Philosophical Association on Women in Philosophy, philosophers Jenny Saul and Helen Beebee note that “if philosophy is also stereotyped as male, as seems likely, women philosophers are likely to suffer from stereotype threat quite frequently. This will lead women to underperform at all career stages, including crucially high-stress moments like job interviews.”[6] These findings can be extrapolated to telling us something about the black absence in philosophy if we consider that philosophy is also stereotyped as white.

A further factor to take into consideration when reflecting on the black absence in academic philosophy and academia in general is the presence of institutional racism. This could, as we have seen, be a result of the implicit biases people are unconsciously operating with, and also manifest itself in more explicit actions. The recent ‘I, Too, Am Oxford’ campaign showcased the everyday microaggressions faced by some ethnic minority students, highlighting a clear racial element to their university experience. Although it may be the case that many ethnic minority students do not share this hostile experience (as the counter-campaign ‘We Are All Oxford’ sought to show), it remains that certain students have faced problematic situations that have arisen on the basis of their perceived racial difference, an obstacle unique to students of ethnic minority backgrounds.

Such experiences are bound to have adverse effects. Recent research from HEFCE showed that white university students at British universities receive significantly higher degree grades than their peers from minority ethnic backgrounds, despite both groups entering university with the same A Level grades.[7] It was found that 72% of white students who have grades BBB at A Level went on to gain a first or upper second-class degree, compared with only 56% of Asian students and 53% of black students, suggesting that universities in the UK are failing to support black and Asian undergraduates during their student career.[8] A possible explanation for this disparity is the experience of racism while at university. A recent NUS study found that one in six black students said they had experienced racism at their institution and many linked those experiences with a drop in confidence and motivation, reporting that they felt marginalised and socially excluded, experiences that are likely to have knock-on effects on their studies. It also emerged that a third felt their educational environment left them unable to bring their minority perspective to lectures and tutorials, and 7% even openly labelled their learning environment as “racist.”[9]

Perhaps another factor explaining the lack of black academics is the lack of black students at elite universities.  In an increasingly competitive academic job market, one’s pedigree in the form of university background is highly important, with qualifications from elite universities serving as Pavlovian indicators of academic capability.[10] It seems that young black British people are far less likely to attend the UK’s most selective universities, a factor which could be making it harder to get academic jobs. The Independent Commission on Social Mobility pointed out that “there are more young men from black backgrounds in prison in the UK than there are UK-domiciled undergraduate black male students attending Russell Group institutions.”[11] Despite Britons of Caribbean heritage making up 1.5% of all domestic students attending UK universities in 2012-13, just 0.5% of domestic students at Russell Group universities are from black Caribbean backgrounds. Analogously, Black African students make up 4.4% of total domestic students, but comprise just 2.1% of students attending Russell Group universities.[12] What are the reasons for this discrepancy? Some potential reasons are that black students are far less likely to achieve the requisite A Level grades, and are also less likely to be offered places when they do apply. A recent study has shown that “Russell Group applicants from state schools and from Black and Asian ethnic backgrounds remained much less likely to receive offers of admission from Russell Group universities in comparison with their equivalently qualified peers from private schools and the White ethnic group.”[13]

Philosophy and race

Although philosophy is not alone as a discipline in lacking black academics, I would suggest that certain discussions within bioethics are harmful to ideals of racial equality and may be contributing to a hostile and exclusionary environment. Scientific advances in genetics have been met with a revival in eugenics debates and there is a trend in bioethics literature towards examining the ethics of enhancing our cognitive and moral capacities through biotechnological means. Dominant philosophical bioethics has focused on the ethics of new technologies detached from ideas about justice and somewhat to the neglect of philosophy of health and the examination of social and environmental indicators of health inequalities. In particular, the ethical implications of genetically enhancing our cognitive capabilities have been considered, with it being argued that we have a moral duty to select embryos on the basis of their displaying so-called “intelligence” genes.[14] Prioritising human life on a particular conception of “intelligence” is dubious enough, but when these discussions spill over onto questions regarding biological “race” and “intelligence” we should be concerned. Peter Singer, one of the world’s most well known moral philosophers, and third in the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute list of the ‘Top 100 Global Thought Leaders of 2013’,[15] has defended the pursuit of research into a ‘link’ between ‘race’ and ‘intelligence.’ In an opinion piece for Project Syndicate, he argued that to say we should not investigate this link “is equivalent to saying that we should reject open-minded investigation of the causes of inequalities in income, education, and health between people of different racial or ethnic groups.”[16] He has also considered group differences in a later book, Practical Ethics, in order to make the claim that even if such differences did exist, they would not justify different moral treatment, defending the idea that individuals’ abilities have nothing to do with the moral consideration we grant them.[17] In his piece for Project Syndicate, however, that is likely to have reached a wider and non-philosophical audience,[18] he was not clear that he was discussing racial differences only for the sake of argument, and instead the context suggested that such differences were potentially very real and should be explored. In Practical Ethics, he also discusses sexual difference, stating that

The fact that there are more males at both extremes of ability in mathematics, whereas females tend to cluster more around the average level, does support Lawrence Summers’ ill-fated remark about the relative scarcity of suitable female candidates for Harvard positions in those areas of science and engineering in which mathematical ability plays a key role. Only those with exceptional ability become professors, and even within that select group, only those among the very best have any prospect of becoming a professor at an elite institution like Harvard. It isn’t difficult to see that males are likely to be overrepresented among those at the extreme upper end of the scale of mathematical giftedness.[19]

Again, he does not consider the social, cultural and environmental causes of low female attainment in maths such as the hundreds of years of oppression that still have resonating consequences today despite formal equality.

The problem with having such brief and unsubstantiated discussions on race and intelligence is that they introduce controversial ideas without fully addressing and interrogating the categories invoked, leaving too much room for misunderstanding and misappropriation. Throughout the book, Singer engages in a discussion on racial differences without anywhere defining ‘race’ or pointing to any scientific basis for this concept. He also says that it would be “inappropriate” for him to “attempt to assess the scientific merits of biological explanations of human behaviour in general, or of racial or sexual differences in particular. [His] concern is rather with the implications of these theories for the ideal of equality,”[20] and he is sure to emphasise that the individual’s moral equality is not affected by such findings. However, it is perhaps somewhat irresponsible to discuss potential racial and sexual differences, even hypothetically, without sufficiently dissecting their validity, when such discussions have the potential to cause harm.

Despite acknowledging that factual differences cannot ground equality differences, it is problematic that he goes on to talk at length about “group differences” in the hypothetical, but using real research and data, such as The Bell Curve and the work of Arthur Jensen and H. J. Eysenck. Despite arguing for his principle of equal consideration and stating “we can admit that humans differ as individuals and yet insist that there are no morally significant differences between the races and sexes,”[21] he goes on to have an explicit discussion on sexual and racial differences, if only to say that such differences do not have implications in terms of equality. I would argue, however, that these kinds of uncritical, essentialising discussions are still harmful. The undercurrent to the debate (and it is compounded by his use of real data) appears to be that genetic differences do exist. It is this view that I am arguing is harmful, largely on the basis that concepts such as race and intelligence are not coherent enough concepts for these kinds of discussions to be had.

To illustrate, we find operating within Singer’s analysis and other such discussions on genes, ‘intelligence,’ and ‘race’ the following assumptions:

  • That there are certain, specific genes that correlate with intelligence, and that these can be isolated and identified.
  • That genetic determinism is true (that intelligence is largely determined by genes).
  • That intelligence is a scientifically testable category to the extent that allows for these conclusions about genes and intelligence to be drawn.
  • That race is a scientifically testable category.

These are all glaring assumptions that ought to be questioned rather than taken as axiomatic premises. To address each in turn:

  • The heritability of IQ is a debated issue. A recent scientific study showed that most reported genetic associations with general intelligence are probably false positives.[22] The idea that we can isolate a few genes that correlate with intelligence and call them the ‘intelligence’ gene is a contested one.
  • There is broad scientific agreement that essentialist and typological conceptualisations of race are untenable. It is likely that there is no biological basis for race, and that it is more appropriately conceived of as a social construct.[25]
  • There is strong evidence against genetic determinism. It is widely recognised that social and environmental factors, such as early nutrition and development, child care, and education, influence and explain IQ variation more than genes.[23]
  • There is no universal definition of intelligence. It is a transient, context-dependent and culturally relative category. Standardised testing, and the means we have of determining perceived intellectual ability should not be taken as the apex of verification. Iris Marion Young, amongst others, has highlighted that “most criteria of evaluation used in our society, including educational credentials and standardized testing, have normative and cultural content,” and that “impartial, value-neutral, scientific measures of merit do not exist.”[24]

It is important to note that I am not calling for censorship in research but am instead questioning the legitimacy of research into genes, race, and intelligence when it relies on so many debated premises. Such research is may easily fall into reinforcing the prejudices from which the false premises regarding race and intelligence are derived.  Research on race is inherently misguided and such misinformation will always have detrimental effects. Perhaps in a situation where intelligence and race were perfectly verifiable, coherent concepts such research could be conducted. However, they are not. It should also be considered that historically: they were created and used to reinforce social inequality and justify discriminatory behaviour. Bearing in mind the context of their inception we should be very wary of their re‑appropriation as testable categories, especially when there exists widespread intellectual disagreement on their validity.

Furthermore, we should not underestimate nor ignore the effect that this kind of thought has on people’s perceptions of others and of themselves. Although Singer states that “no matter what the facts on race and intelligence turn out to be, they will not justify racial hatred, nor disrespect for people of a different race,”[26] he may be naive to think research into such “facts” will not garner prejudice. We cannot understand this kind of research as occurring in a vacuum, with no consequences. Such research could be contributing to an adverse climate in academia, feeding phenomena such as implicit biases and stereotype threat, exacerbating the situation. It is almost no wonder that there is an absence of black academics with research like this, premised on dubious suppositions being heralded as legitimate ‘scientific inquiry.’

It should be considered that such research could have prescient and alienating social effects. I’ll end with a quote from Dr Nathaniel Coleman, one of the five black philosophers employed in the UK, who recently wrote in the Times Higher Education Supplement on philosophy and race. Commenting on the worrying effects that suspect science can have on perception and attainment, he writes:

In 1789, in London’s Diary, the Sons of Africa wrote that “the nation at large is awakened to a sense of our sufferings, except the Oran Otang philosophers”. Without doubt, this reference was to philosophers who had bought into the theory of Edward Long, according to whom “the oran-outang and some races of black men are very nearly allied”. Indeed, “[t]hey are, say the most credible writers, a people certainly very stupid and very brutal”.

Fifty years later, even the abolitionist William Wilberforce still described Long as “a writer of the highest authority on all West India subjects” and referred to Long’s “celebrated history of Jamaica”. More recently, Phillip Atiba Goff, assistant professor in social psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, has found “evidence of a bidirectional association between Blacks and apes that can operate beneath conscious awareness yet significantly influence perception and judgments”. Thus, that unspoken and unspeakable suspicion, that sits on the tip of your tongue, and that might mean I don’t become a professor of philosophy, is the question: “Is Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman an oran-utang?” The threat of this stereotype, Claude Steele, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University, tells us, causes stress to those, who, like me, spend an inordinate amount of time, energy and resources, to ensure that no one has any reason to think we are acting according to type. Yet, when we do dodge the threat of the oran-utang, our academic achievements are frustratingly attributed to luck, to fluke, to outside help. “How long shall they kill our prophets?”, Bob Marley once asked. Stereotype threat and attribution bias are killing our prophets.[27]

Philosophical inquiry and the work that goes on in the academy should not be thought of as isolated from the causes of the black absence in academia. Along with the social and environmental indicators of educational achievement, it could all be part of the same story.


Gulzaar Barn is a D.Phil student in Philosophy at Mansfield College, Oxford.



[1] Wendy Berliner, ‘Where are all the black professors?’, The Guardian, 23 July 2013 [web and print]; and ‘HESA staff record statistics’, 2011/12, <; [accessed 1 May 2014].

[2] Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, ‘Philosophy is dead white – and dead wrong’, The Times Higher Education Supplement, 20 March  2014 <; [accessed 1 May 2014].

[3] Helen Beebee and Jenny Saul, ‘Women in Philosophy in the UK: A report by the British Philosophical Association and the Society for Women in Philosophy in the UK’, Joint BPA/SWIP Committee

for Women in Philosophy, September 2011 <; [accessed 1 May 2014], p. 8.

[4] Ibid., p. 12.

[5] Claude M. Steele, ‘A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance’, American Psychologist, 52.6 (1997), 613-29.

[6] Beebee and Saul, ‘Women in Philosophy in the UK’, p. 13.

[7] Richard Adams, ‘White students get better degrees than minority peers with same entry grades’, The Guardian, 28 March 2014 <; [accessed 1 May 2014].

[8] Ibid.

[9] Aaron Kiely, ‘Why are Britain’s universities still failing black and Asian students?’, The Guardian, March 28, 2014; [accessed 1 May 2014].

[10] In philosophy, partial hiring data from this year shows that the majority of tenure track hires (88%) are people from Leiter-ranked programs. Leiter-rankings is a ranking system of graduate programs at English-speaking institutions based primarily on the quality of faculty, by Brian Leiter of the University of Texas at Austin. Hiring data showed that only 12% of hires are from people of unranked programs, while 37% of all tenure track hires come from just 5 schools. See ‘On sample data on this year’s TT hires’ <; [accessed 1 May 2014].

[11] Independent Reviewer on Social Mobility and Child Poverty, ‘University Challenge: How Higher Education Can Advance Social Mobility’, October 2012 <; [accessed 1 May 2014].

[12] Vikki Boliver, ‘Hard evidence: why aren’t there more black British students at elite universities?’, The Conversation, 9 April 2014 <; [accessed 1 May 2014].

[13] Vikki Boliver, ‘How fair is access to more prestigious UK Universities?’, British Journal of Sociology 64.2 (2013), 344-64, p. 344.

[14] Julian Savulescu, ‘Procreative beneficence: why we should select the best children’, Bioethics 15.5-6 (2001), 413-26.

[15] Karin Frick, Peter Gloor and Detlef Gürtle, ‘Global-Though-Leader 2013’, GDI Impuls, 4 (2013) <; [accessed 1 May 2014].

[16] Peter Singer, ‘Should We Talk About Race and Intelligence?’, Project Syndicate, 1 November 2007 <; [accessed 1 May 2014], para. 11 of 13.

[17] See Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[18] Project Syndicate’s members include more than 500 newspapers and other publications in 154 countries, and their commentaries reach 300 million readers; see <; [accessed 1 May 2014].

[19] Singer, Practical Ethics, p. 32.

[20] Ibid., p. 25.

[21] Ibid., p. 19.

[22] C. F. Chabris, ‘Most reported genetic associations with general intelligence are probably false positives’, Psychol Sci 23.11 (2012), 1314-23.

[23] See Jean Ait Belkhir and Michel Duyme, ‘Intelligence and Race, Gender, Class: The Fallacy of Genetic Determinism’, Race, Gender and Class 5.3 (1998), 136-76; Kathleen Sloan, ‘The Fallacy of Intelligence and Genetic Determinism’, The Centre for Bioethics and Culture Network <; [accessed 1 May 2014]; Mae-Wan Ho, ‘No Genes for Intelligence’, Institute of Science in Society, 30 January 2012 <http://www.i‑; [accessed 1 May 2014].

[24] Iris Marion Young, ‘Affirmative Action and The Myth of Merit’, in Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).

[25] See J. C. Long et al., ‘Human DNA Sequences: More Variation and Less Race’, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 139.1 (2009), 23‑34; Jon Marks, ‘Ten facts about human variation’ in M. Muehlenbein (ed.), Human Evolutionary Biology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 265‑76; Ian Tattersal and Rob DeSalle, Race? Debunking a Scientific Myth (Texas A&M University Press, 2011); Clarence Gravlee, ‘How race becomes biology: embodiment of social inequality’, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 139 (2009), 47-57.

[26] Singer, ‘Should We Talk About Race and Intelligence?’, para. 13 of 13.

[27] Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, ‘Philosophy is dead white – and dead wrong’, para. 4-5 of 15.

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