"They thought I was a driver" - Black professor orders government to act on race inequality

15 June 2020, 15:44 | Updated: 22 June 2020, 14:43

By Seán Hickey

Scotland's first black professor said that the British public have been conditioned to be racist whether they mean to be or not.

Professor Sir Geoff Palmer is Professor Emeritus in the School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and was discussing Boris Johnson's plans to open a commission into racial inequality in the UK.

Professor Sir Geoff tackled the issue of institutional racism by telling Shelagh Fogarty a story of how he was once refused entry to an educational institute and was not let in, only to be asked if he was the chauffeur of the ex-dean of the school when he claimed to know him.

"We're a situation now that we've got to address because even in my position it makes no difference" he said. Shelagh identified with the example of former Conservative MP Sam Gyimah who came out to state that he had gone through similar stereotyping.

"They think something like that because they're conditioned to think certain things" Shelagh stated, adding that "you're talking about – it isn't just law, it's de-conditioning ourselves all of us, myself included."

Professor Sir Geoff noted that "scientists in the 1960s were trying to prove that black people have a lower IQ" and thus some stereotypes have been ingrained in our culture. He went on to tell listeners that if the government is serious about addressing racism, the Prime Minister's commission must have an aim.

Professor Sir Geoff Palmer called on the government to have a plan for their race inequality commission
Professor Sir Geoff Palmer called on the government to have a plan for their race inequality commission. Picture: Parisa Urquhart

"What Johnson has got to do is to set up a committee and we want an aim. That's what in science you gotta do, you set out an aim, and then you do your meetings and discussions to arrive at that aim" the academic noted.

Shelagh referenced an interview where Labour MP David Lammy criticised the government's racial inequality commission plans, where the interviewer asked him if it was possible that poverty that black people go through has nothing to do with their race." She put the same question to the professor.

He saw the question as multi faceted. "It's a black person with a different history and different social circumstances.

"You'd have to put a white kid through slavery – his ancestors, to arrive at an equivalent white kid, what we've got are disadvantages that we've got to acknowledge and address." He was suggesting that although disadvantage and poverty is colourblind, there are generational traumas and institutional issues that make poverty hard to escape for black people.

"A white kid disadvantaged is not the same, it is equally important" he said. Finishing on the government's plans to open a commission, Shelagh asked Professor Sir Geoff Palmer if he trusts the government to act.

"We need someone to recognise what the problems are and address them fairly. This isn't politics, this is about people's lives."