Cecil Rhodes in Oxford: from unnoticed statue to political scapegoat

Monica Richter argues that the inward looking Rhodes Must Fall campaign detracts from greater issues of social justice.

On 28 January 2016, Oxford’s Oriel College announced that it would not be removing the statue of Cecil Rhodes—a British imperialist and benefactor of the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship—that has been at the centre of a student campaign demanding its displacement. The decision was made following a private consultation process undertaken by the college that found “overwhelming support” for keeping the statue and revealed a risk of fundraising losses upwards of £100m.

The campaign in question, Rhodes Must Fall (RMF), claims to pursue the “decolonisation of education”, which in practice entails efforts to remove statues and other symbols commemorating British imperialism and colonial history from university campuses. RMF began at the University of Cape Town, where student protesters demanded the removal of a prominent statue of Rhodes (who had donated land for the campus) on the grounds that it symbolised the university’s institutional racism and white privilege. One activist and former Rhodes Scholar explained that removing the statue served the metaphorical purpose of “[transforming] the university curriculum, culture and faculty, which many blacks feel are alienating and still a Eurocentric heritage.” The statue is now gone, but it remains to be seen how—or indeed whether—this laudable goal is any closer to being realised.

The Rhodes statue in Oxford adorns a Grade II* listed national heritage building that was funded with Rhodes’ bequest to Oriel College. According to one activist, it serves as a reminder that the university “was built off the back of exploiting labour and the colonial project and it’s something that still gets celebrated in the form of a statue”. In December 2015, Oriel announced it would undertake a six month consultation process about the statue’s removal, which culminated prematurely with the 28 January statement that the statue would remain. Rhodes Must Fall has attracted many followers and considerable national and international publicity. However, the basis of the campaign is problematic for at least two reasons: first, it exploits the malleability of political symbols to its own advantage; and second, it is unlikely to make any substantive impact on the pressing challenges of diversity and equality of opportunity in British higher education.

Importantly, although the movement has already faced substantial criticism both from within and outside the University, much of it misconstrues or simply ignores the group’s objectives. One example of this is the suggestion that RMF seeks to “whitewash” the past (an unfortunate choice of verb). This is disingenuous: statues do not teach history; they are what we use to commemorate individuals and causes. For many black students, the legacy of European colonialism is an inveterate part of their personal, cultural and political identity, and one that they want rectified, not forgotten. I am unconvinced that the current campaign against the Rhodes statue is an effective means to that end. However, mere opposition to symbols does not amount to historical denial, as existing taboos against Nazi swastikas and the Confederate flag clearly demonstrate.

My issue with RMF is not that people find the statue distasteful; this is understandable. Rather, what is far more disturbing is that RMF has deliberately sought to invest in the statue a particular range of symbolic meanings to serve its own political agenda. Symbols, crucially, are social constructions—their meaning is neither immutable nor independent of us, but varies across time and context. The statue of Rhodes at Oriel is notable for being utterly nondescript; it is high on the building’s facade and draws virtually no attention from passersby on High Street. Despite the recent flurry of media coverage, few people notice it at all. It is true, of course, that Rhodes was a racist even by the moral standards of his time, and he should not be exculpated for that legacy simply because he bequeathed his ill-begotten fortune to a scholarship trust. But no one is suggesting exonerating Rhodes, including the Rhodes Trust itself, which states “the current vision and ethos of the Rhodes Scholarship programme stands in absolute contrast to the values and world view propagated by Cecil Rhodes and much of his generation.” Today, his name is associated chiefly with the scholarship, which has brought over 8,000 exceptionally talented individuals to Oxford since its inception and evolved with the times to champion postmodern values that its namesake would have likely scorned. Yet the empowerment and progress of transcending this barbaric part of our history—what Mary Beard describes as “a cheery and self confident sense of unbatterability”—is being eroded by the propagation of a sententious narrative of victimhood that uses Rhodes as a symbol of entrenched racism and white privilege. With Rhodes now reintroduced in his full notoriety, a newfound hysteria has crept into the public consciousness, with students suddenly declaring, “there’s a violence to having to walk past the statue every day on the way to your lectures”. The statue seems to have become a scapegoat for real social change and a politically expedient tool for social mobilisation.

RMF claims that removing the statue is a step towards greater social justice. Yet even this position is inherently misguided. In the hierarchy of social justice, removing a single statue achieves little to no substantive change, and instead detracts from worthier causes that bear far more tangibly on people’s lives. The media attention supplies a smokescreen behind which there lurk uncomfortable truths about Oxford’s well documented diversity problem. As reported in the Guardian, only one per cent of undergraduate students in Britain attend Oxford and Cambridge, and of these, approximately one per cent are black. One per cent of one per cent is not good enough: the number is scandalous and a far greater injustice than the presence of an unremarkable statue of an objectionable historical figure. And problems of educational opportunity and underrepresentation stretch far beyond Oxford. 16 per cent of Britain’s undergraduate student body is black or minority ethnic (BME), with a whopping 60 per cent of all black students and 36 per cent of all Asian students attending only 30 universities. Yet these institutions are politically undervalued, underfunded, and frequently overlooked in employer recruitment strategies. On a national level, the British education system is wracked by inequality of opportunity and access. The socioeconomic and political ramifications of these statistics are profound. If our goal is indeed greater social justice, these issues need to be addressed. It is unclear how the mere removal of a statue would do anything to redress the troubling status quo. Instead of arguing about inanimate objects of contrived significance, we should be concerned with changing the behaviour of living people. In this broader picture, the fixation on Rhodes’ statue as a symbol of unmitigated injustice and racism simply confirms the view that Oxford’s stock is inward-looking, elitist, and out of touch with the realities of British society.

Monica Richter is a former Dahrendorf Scholar at St Antony’s College, Oxford, where she also contributes to the Free Speech Debate project.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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