Tom Slater

Nottingham university’s shameful treatment of Tony Sewell

Nottingham university’s shameful treatment of Tony Sewell
Tony Sowell (photo: BBC)
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If you want a glimpse of how toxic the UK’s race debate has become, take a look at the treatment of Tony Sewell.

Sewell has devoted much of his working life to improving the lives of ethnic-minority Brits. The charity he chairs, Generating Genius, has been helping some of the most deprived young people get into high-paying Stem fields for more than 15 years.

Here is a man who truly walks the walk, amid a race-relations industry that is full of solution-free, identitarian jabber.

And yet, he has been thoroughly demonised. As chair of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, he produced the now infamous 2021 race report, which dared to argue that, while racism is still an issue in Britain that must be confronted, our society is not ‘institutionally racist’.

For his trouble, Sewell has been called a ‘token black man’, likened to a Klansman and – to complete the set – is now being shamed by his old university. In 2019, the University of Nottingham – where he earned his PhD – selected him for an honorary degree. But it was withdrawn last December, following the backlash to his report.

Word got out about this last month. A Nottingham spokesman said the ‘political controversy’ around Sewell meant the degree award was no longer appropriate. The university claimed not to be ‘making any judgement on Mr Sewell personally or expressing a view on his work’, but sadly the ‘criteria preclude us from awarding [honorary degrees] to figures who become the subject of political controversy’.

In response to fierce criticism from some commentators and MPs, Nottingham is now doubling down – while shifting the blame from its rules to its students. Dropping Sewell, the university has now said, is necessary ‘to ensure our graduates do not have a potential distraction overshadow their celebration’. Apparently the presence of this esteemed alumnus could ruin their ‘special day’.

The cowardice here is breath-taking. As is the admission that avoiding controversy is now apparently university policy. Call me old-fashioned, but I thought intellectual controversy was what university life was all about. While we’re here, Nottingham would do well to explain to us why Sewell is considered ‘controversial’, while former Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming, who has dismissed Uighur re-education camps as ‘fake news’, is not. He received an honorary doctorate in 2017.

What Sewell has said on race is also not remotely controversial outside of Twitter and the Guardian comment pages. He – it should hardly need pointing out – is anti-racist. His report proposed various ways in which policing, health and education could be improved to the benefit of minorities. But because he disagrees about the extent of racism – because he doesn’t think it explains absolutely everything – he is being treated as if he is a moral leper.

The abuse directed at Sewell since his report landed makes Nottingham’s decision all the more shameful. He and his colleagues haven’t just been violently disagreed with, they’ve been subjected to vile racist insults. The day the report was published social media was awash with people calling Sewell an 'Uncle Tom', a 'house negro' and a 'coon'. When we talk about the ‘controversy’ around the race report, this is in large part what we’re talking about.

But rather than stand by one of their own, someone on the receiving end of abuse and character assassination, Nottingham has essentially joined the pile-on. An accomplished black Brit is lambasted for having an opinion, and the high-status move is to side with his critics. This is modern racial politics summed up.