Cambridge's Slave Trade Inquiry Is Not Enough – It Must Be Followed By Concrete Action

Tuesday's announcement is a good step but Cambridge must become pre-emptive and not reactive – the onus has been too often been placed on marginalised students to do the work which the university should have already been doing

While the University of Cambridge’s announcement may come as a surprise to some, those who have been paying attention to student activist life on campus may have found it less shocking. The activism and recent surge in anti-racist protests makes it unequivocally clear that pressure from staff and students themselves, not the university, has initiated this investigation.

There is certainly no doubt this detailed inquiry is important but the manner and timing has raised questions. Many elite British institutions are widely-known to have been built upon the foundation of slavery, and this nexus is further strengthened within Cambridge with the existence of the collegiate system. The colleges act as autonomous bodies and receive external funding; to an extent, they enact class divisions, as certain colleges receive more financial grants than others, and this is reflected in demographic makeup in colleges such as Trinity, St. Johns, and King’s. The university is not a centralised organisation, and must seek to actively include the colleges in their investigation, or else the findings will be skewed. The very decentralised nature of colleges indicates they must be a key part of the enquiry, or the research will avail little.

Along the same lines, any attempt to invoke the past must be carefully managed; there is great danger that the university may seek to excuse itself from enacting action in the present by directing general focus to its deplorable presence in the past. Similarly, Cambridge can claim the scholarship of many famous abolitionists, but they must not be allowed to be fall back on these names as a means of seeking to balance the part they played in upholding the institutions. Interrogating the past must be done in order to expose and understand the racism which has been – and continues to be – perpetuated throughout Cambridge’s history.

This in turn must be acted upon in the present. It is pointless to profess concern about its problematic past while – until yesterday – it supported the likes of Noah Carl at St. Edmund’s, allowed a student at Pembroke accused of neo-Nazi remarks to continue to threaten the existence of minority students, and continues to do little to ensure the safety and comfort of its black students currently at the university.

“Public acknowledgment” is simply not enough. “Public acknowledgment” is futile if it is not followed by concrete action and tangible change. Most importantly, this change must be quantifiable, or else it will be impossible to ensure any active measures have been taken to work towards progress, and this will ultimately determine whether Cambridge’s intentions are merely lip-service or genuine interest in developing.

Narratives must be changed; the university should seek to work alongside Decolonise the Curriculum and similar movements to diversify scholarship and both faculty and student bodies. Public historical memory must also be challenged, and memorialisation will be invaluable; permanent changes such as naming of buildings, the opening of exhibitions, or statues will serve in this regard. In a more material sense, scholarships for African and Caribbean students should be funded extensively, partnerships forged with African and Caribbean universities, and changes to admission criteria should work towards breaking down barriers which exist as a result of racist histories.

Furthermore, this work will not be – and should never be – finished. Declaring the work of uncovering and correcting injustice ‘finished’ is its own form of erasure. The history of slavery is inextricable from the history of Britain itself, and it would be irresponsible and naïve to assume that the investigation will be over in Autumn 2021. This will inevitably trigger a wave of information which we can only hope will encourage the same sort of introspection of other established institutions across the entire nation.

The university should prepare itself for this, and use this as an opportunity to interrogate other aspects of its entanglement with racist structures. The way that racist incidents are dealt with – or, more accurately, ignored – must be reformed, an accommodating environment must be created for current and incoming black students, and the way racism is discussed must change.

While this is certainly a step in the right direction, Cambridge must seek to become pre-emptive and not reactive. The onus has been consistently placed on marginalised students to do the work which the university should have already been doing, and the university then piggybacks off of their labour.

It is not the responsibility of any student to dismantle Cambridge’s racist structures, nor does the university absolve itself of any guilt by merely hearing these students’ concerns. It is high-time for the university to stop hearing, and listen – to stop talking, and act.

Rianna Davis is the president of Cambridge University Student Union BME Campaign


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