Rhodes has to go because he's like Hitler-squared. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

July 9, 2020   4 mins

Rhodes will likely fall. Late last month Oriel College’s dons decided that they want his statue dislodged from its perch above Oxford’s High Street. So, short of obstruction by the commission of inquiry they‘ve launched, or alumni rebellion, or legal restriction, Rhodes looks set to come down.

The reasons for his downfall have little to do with the truth about the past. The real Rhodes undoubtedly had a morally mixed record. But he was not South Africa’s Hitler, as the Rhodes Must Fall campaign has claimed. Far from being racist, he showed consistent sympathy for individual black Africans throughout his life. Nor did he attempt genocide against the Ndebele during their 1896 uprising — as activists have sometimes claimed — which might be suggested by the fact that the Ndebele tended his grave for decades. And he had nothing whatsoever to do with General Kitchener’s ‘concentration camps’ during the Boer War of 1899-1902, which themselves had nothing morally in common with Auschwitz.

Moreover, Rhodes did support a franchise in the Cape Colony that gave black Africans the vote on the same terms as whites. He gave financial backing to a newspaper, Izwi Labuntu, that was the voice-piece of one of several black African political associations that were the forerunners of the ANC. And he established his famous scholarship scheme, which was explicitly colour-blind and whose first black beneficiary was selected within five years of his death.

But none of this matters to the student activists baying for his downfall, or even to the professional academics who support them. Since I published my view of Rhodes, substantiated by evidence and argument, in the March 2016 issue of Standpoint, no one has offered any critical response at all.

Notwithstanding that, when the Rhodes Must Fall campaign revived four years later in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, the same old false allegations revived with it, utterly unchastened. Thus, according to the Guardian newspaper, an Oxford doctoral student (and former editor of the Oxford University Commonwealth Law Journal) was still slandering Rhodes as a “genocidaire” just last month.

What matters is not fidelity to the truth, but the exploitation of political advantage. The statue of Rhodes has been demonised into a totem of the colonialist mentality that allegedly feeds the ‘white supremacism’ infecting our institutions. Among these are the universities, where racial prejudice is said to manifest itself in the unequal representation of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people among students and professors, and in the ‘Eurocentric’ bias of what is taught. Pulling Rhodes down is merely the first psychological blow in the war to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum.

‘Decolonisation’ would involve admitting more BAME students, appointing more BAME professors, and increasing the quotient of BAME authors on reading lists. It would also involve correcting the national amnesia over the evils of colonialism, by promoting teaching about the history of British slavery, the historic root of the racism that reigns among us today.

Little of this makes sense, either empirically or historically. Empirically, the claim that the admission of students is racially biased doesn’t survive contact with reality. On the latest figures, the BAME population of people aged 19-26 in England and Wales is 18.3%, but the non-white undergraduate student intake in UK universities is 26.2%, and even at stereotypically elitist and hide-bound Oxford it is 22.1 per cent.

Moreover, 9.7% of BAME academic staff are professors, only 1.4 percentage points lower than their white peers. Within BAME groups, the professorial proportion of black staff is just under five per cent, but for their Chinese colleagues it is over 16% — much higher than for whites. These figures simply do not support the claim of structural racial bias in British universities.

As for curricula and reading lists, of course it’s important to grow a graduate citizenry that is aware of the riches of non-European cultures and of how the history of Britain is intertwined with the history of the globe. But that’s long been happening, and if suitable university applicants want to devote the entirety of their student careers to African, South Asian or Chinese studies, no one is stopping them.

But does racial justice truly require proportionate representation of non-whites on all reading lists, regardless of the subject? Must teachers really make the skin colour and ethnic provenance of authors a criterion for recommending them to students? For sure, if I were teaching a topic in African history, Indian economics or Chinese literature, it would be odd — and maybe even suspect — if the list of authors I assigned my students was exclusively populated by ethnic Anglo-Saxons.

But if I’m teaching Cicero, or late medieval Italian literature, or the ethics of war, or molecular biology, or linear algebra, do I really have to spend my time ferreting out BAME authors who have written on these things? And must I assign them, regardless of whether I think that what they say is worth listening to, and, since all reading lists are finite, necessarily displacing others who have better things to say? Besides, what would ‘proportionate’ representation mean here? Proportionate in relation to what? The non-white portion of the UK population, or of the world, or of authors on the relevant topic? The more one thinks about it, the less thinking it bears.

What is more, a ‘Eurocentric’ bias in British education is surely justified. Britain is not Anywhere. It is located in north-west Europe, has a particular history, and has developed particular institutions and traditions. It’s vitally important, therefore, that school education, and even undergraduate studies, should focus on helping budding citizens understand the cultural and political environment for which they are about to become directly responsible — including the contemporary fact of ethnic diversity and its history.

But whether they also need to have their noses rubbed in the facts of slavery, I doubt. It’s difficult to believe that many Britons know nothing about it or that many approve of it. But if they are going to learn more about the story of British involvement, they need to hear the whole story, not just the politically useful part. In addition to the appalling 200 years of transporting slaves to the West Indies and the American colonies, they need to hear about the dogged, 50-year campaign to abolish the trade and the institution within the British Empire two centuries ago.

And they also need to hear that British ‘colonialism’ then spent over a century in deploying the Royal Navy to stop slave-ships crossing the Atlantic and Indian oceans, and in suppressing the Arab slave-trade across Africa. Maybe they’d even learn that the Empire supported action against Arab slavers in Nyasaland in the 1880s through the British South Africa Company. And guess who ran the BSAC? Cecil Rhodes.

Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, University of Oxford