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#BlackLivesMatter, Racism and Legacy

Reflections on the Past, Present, and Future of the Rhodes Scholarships

14 June 2020

Embracing the Work of Anti-Racism

George Floyd’s brutal and callous killing by Minneapolis police officers, coming on the heels of the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many other Black victims of police brutality and racist violence, has caused anguish and anger around the world.

All of us at the Rhodes Trust stand in heartbroken solidarity with our Black Rhodes Scholars and Scholars of colour for whom this pain is intensely personal, grounded in their own and their loved ones’ everyday experiences of injustice and connected to a continuing history of pernicious systemic racism. 

We acknowledge that racism continues to shape the unequal power structures and deep social and economic inequities of today’s world.  At the same time, we are inspired by the protests across the globe, including here in Oxford, where people of all races are gathering to speak up against personal and institutional oppression. 

The #BlackLivesMatter movement has also brought new energy and urgency to those demanding a fuller and more honest confrontation with institutional legacies of slavery, imperialism, colonialism, White supremacy, racial exclusion and bias.  In Oxford, this effort, spearheaded by different protest groups, recently coalesced around a revival of the 2015 Rhodes Must Fall movement. 

In this moment, we are called upon to speak up on questions of racism and legacy.  So, in the spirit of an invitation to continued dialogue, I offer these reflections on the Trust’s past and present, and on our commitments for the future.  Additionally, because some recent public commentary about the Rhodes Scholarships is based on incorrect information, I provide some Key Facts below. 

As Ibram Kendi, author of How to be an Anti-Racist, recently noted, “The heartbeat of racism historically has been denial… By contrast, the heartbeat of antiracism is confession, is admission, is acknowledgement, is the willingness to be vulnerable.” 

In other words, we cannot reconcile or heal if we do not acknowledge and see.  In that spirit, we acknowledge that racism has played a significant role in the history of the Rhodes Scholarships.  Yes, we have moved beyond our racist and sexist past in important ways.  But we know that much more is required.  We embrace the journey ahead and invite our global Scholar community to join us in shaping it.

The Rhodes Scholarships and Race: Past and Present

The Rhodes Trust is steward of the world’s oldest international scholarship, the Rhodes Scholarship, based at the University of Oxford since 1903 and established through Cecil Rhodes’ will.

Many elements of Rhodes’ original vision for the Scholarships were wrong and are obsolete.  We reject his vision of educating young men to carry out a civilising mission, because of the imperialist, racist and sexist assumptions underlying its notion of civilisation. 

But the qualities sought in a Rhodes Scholar - intellectual distinction combined with concern for others, energy to lead, and a focus on public service - remain as compelling as they were over a century ago.  

Over the past 117 years, thanks to the courage, conviction and hard work of critics and reformers, we have gradually overcome some of the exclusions that defined the Rhodes Scholarships in the past.  Many Scholars have played leadership roles in this struggle to break barriers and make the Scholarship a more just and diverse community.

For example, Rhodes’ will explicitly limited the Scholarships to men, and it took years of activism and an Act of Parliament for women to finally become eligible in 1977. I am a direct beneficiary of that activism, selected as a Scholar in 1983.

The issue of race is a bit more complicated. The Will stated that “No Student shall be qualified or disqualified for election to a Scholarship on account of his race or religious opinions.”  While Rhodes himself may not have envisioned Black Scholars when writing this, the first Black Rhodes Scholar, Alain Locke, was selected out of the United States in 1907, in just the fourth cohort of Rhodes Scholars.  He went on to forge an extraordinary career, becoming one of the fathers of the Harlem Renaissance. 

In the ensuing years, Black Scholars were selected out of several constituencies.  They included such towering figures in the anti-colonial struggle and in race theory as Jamaican National Hero and Premier Norman Manley (1914); Jamaican-British sociologist and theorist of race and multiculturalism Stuart Hall (1951), and Nigerian Scholar Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem (1983), Secretary-General of the Pan-African Movement. 

But entrenched racism within and beyond the Rhodes community resulted in a gap of 56 years before the next two African-American Black Rhodes Scholars were selected in 1963, Stan Sanders and John Edgar Wideman. 

Racial barriers also took a very long time to fall in South Africa.  In 1970, 85 Rhodes Scholars signed a petition denouncing the allocation of certain South African Scholarships exclusively to Whites as a “stark evil” and “intolerable example of the most extreme form of racial prejudice.” These efforts led to the creation of the new South Africa-at-Large Scholarship and the selection of the first non-white South African Rhodes Scholars, Ramachandran Govender in 1977 and Loyiso Nongxa in 1978. Nongxa, a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand, is now Chair of the National Research Foundation of South Africa.

Today, we are immensely proud that Black Scholars of African descent – from Africa, the Caribbean, and North America – comprise 20% of recent cohorts, and that over half of Scholars in residence are People of Colour, making our Scholar community more truly reflective of the world. Our Black Scholars, Indigenous Scholars, and Scholars of colour contribute in so many ways to Oxford and Rhodes House. Their research and writing, leadership and service, artistic and athletic talent, commitment to community and passion for a better world bring inspiration and joy to our lives.

We also celebrate the many wonderful ways our Black Rhodes alumni have fulfilled the promise of the Rhodes Scholarship.  I could name many hundreds, but here are just a few:  PEN/Faulkner Award winning writer John Edgar Wideman, Zambian lawyer and civil rights activist Lucy Banda-Sichone, Zimbabwean entrepreneur David Hatendi, former U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, social entrepreneur and author Wes Moore, U.S. Magistrate Judge (and Rhodes Trustee) Karen Stevenson, Jamaican Finance Minister Nigel Clarke, Zimbabwean opposition politician Arthur Mutambara, Zimbabwean AIDS researcher (and Rhodes Trustee) Tariro Makadzange, and U.S. presidential candidate Senator Cory Booker.

Still, there is a big difference between selection and inclusion.  For many Black Rhodes Scholars past and present, the journey to and through Oxford has been lonely and difficult.  Racism in all its forms -- structural, overt and implicit -- remains rife.  Stereotypes die hard.  We can and must do more to support Black Scholars and ensure the parity and excellence of the Rhodes experience for all our Scholars, regardless of race, national identity or privilege.

Progress since 2015

Over the past five years, the Trust has taken significant steps to become a more diverse and inclusive community and to create space in Rhodes House for Scholars to debate and engage with legacy.  Some of these changes arose out of the soul-searching prompted by the 2015 Rhodes Must Fall movement, and many were initiated and led by current Scholars.  For example, we have:

  • Launched new Rhodes Scholarships in West Africa (2018) and East Africa (2019).
  • Expanded the Scholarship to parts of Asia and the Middle East and launched two Global Scholarships for students living outside our current Rhodes constituencies.
  • Incorporated workshops on Cecil Rhodes’ legacy and on Decolonising the Mind as part of our annual orientation for new Scholars, thanks to leadership from current Scholars, including members of the 2015 Rhodes Must Fall movement.
  • Made financial support for Scholars more equitable by covering visa and other core costs and offering a housing subsidy scheme (proposed and designed by Scholars) to redress the hardships caused by wide variation in housing costs across Oxford colleges.
  • Developed a signature Character, Service and Leadership programme for all Scholars that engages deeply with questions of justice and equity.
  • Recruited more senior staff and Trustees of colour. Notably, one-third of current Trustees are People of Colour and 10 percent are Black. 
  • Developed policies and data collection practices to track and improve the diversity of selection committees and created required unconscious bias training for all Rhodes selectors.
  • Enriched the iconography of Rhodes House and made it a more welcoming place with many new oil portraits and photographs showcasing our diverse community of Rhodes Scholars, including People of Colour and women.

Commitments for the Future

We know there is much more work to do.  Specifically, we commit to the following:

  • Beginning this month, we will launch a series of virtual dialogues and “Town Hall”-style meetings on race and legacy, co-created with our current and alumni Scholars, to help the Trust shape its action plans going forward.
  • Working with historians, artists, and current and alumni Scholars, including Scholars active in the Rhodes Must Fall movement, we will design more public ways to tell the Trust’s story and critically engage with the Rhodes legacy on our website and in the fabric of Rhodes House. In this effort, we will also partner with others across the University of Oxford who are committed to finding honest and thoughtful ways to confront and respond to difficult legacies.
  • Beginning in Michaelmas Term 2020, we will host a new 2-day Welcome and Orientation event designed and led by and for African Scholars.
  • We will celebrate and encourage Scholar-led and initiated efforts to build community, offer mentorship, and enhance the experience of Black students at Oxford and beyond.
  • We will raise the funds to endow more African Rhodes Scholarships, with an initial focus on expanding the number awarded in our new West and East African constituencies, followed by expansion into North Africa. Our long-term goal is to have 32 Rhodes Scholarships awarded every year in perpetuity to students from the African continent, equal to the number Rhodes allocated to our largest constituency, the United States. 
  • We will continue to diversify our senior staff, Trustees and selection committees and expand our training resources to address multiple forms of overt and implicit bias.
  • We will work with our partners at The Mandela Rhodes Foundation to develop a new Memorandum of Understanding and build a stronger network of collaboration amongst our Scholars and alumni across the African continent.

Closing Reflections and Call to Action

Today, Cecil Rhodes’ original benefaction is a small percentage of our endowment, thanks to the many alumni, friends, and strategic partners who have contributed to the Rhodes Scholarships and enabled their expansion to new parts of the world.  

These gifts demonstrate that over the past 117 years, the Rhodes Scholarship has developed a meaning and reputation that far transcends its founder.  It is defined by the lives and stories of all the Scholars who have gone before, including those who overcame extraordinary obstacles to win the world’s preeminent graduate scholarship. 

We honour all our trailblazers, including Black Scholars, Indigenous Scholars and Scholars of colour, women and LGBTIQ Scholars, Scholars with disabilities, and Scholars from underrepresented regions and backgrounds for their courage, fortitude and excellence. By claiming the mantle of the Scholarship, they challenge and reinvent its meaning. 

As one Black Scholar from our Class of 2020 put it:  “It is important for me to affirm openly, as many other Rhodes Scholars have also done, that this scholarship does not buy my silence.  On the contrary, it was paid for in my ancestors’ blood.  I pledge to continue to honour them, God, my community and those who have supported me in making use of whatever tools and benefits may come from it. … All I can ask is that I be judged not by what opportunities I am given, but how I use them instead.”

Difficult legacies of racism and oppression shape all our lives, institutions, and societies.  At the Rhodes Trust, our name and our history are a daily reminder of the moral obligation to engage with these issues and to affirm our human interconnectedness in its pain and its hope.  I know our Scholars will continually challenge and teach us to do more and better.

So, to our Scholars and alumni around the world:  we invite you to share your stories and ideas, to engage with these plans and make them better, and to partner with us to make our community a positive force in the struggle against systemic racism.  There’s never been a more important time to fight the world’s fight.

Elizabeth Kiss, Warden of Rhodes House and CEO of the Rhodes Trust
(Virginia & Balliol 1983)

Key Facts about the Rhodes Trust and the Rhodes Scholarships

The Rhodes Trust, based at the University of Oxford, builds a better world through global fellowship programmes that develop and connect compassionate, innovative, and public-spirited people committed to solving humanity’s challenges.

The Rhodes Scholarships

  • The Rhodes Scholarships are postgraduate awards providing transformative educational opportunities. Established in 1903, they are the oldest international graduate scholarship programme in the world. 
  • We award 100 Scholarships a year for post-graduate study at the University of Oxford.  The Scholarship covers all fees and a stipend for two to three years, with nearly 300 Scholars in residence in Oxford at one time.
  • Students from anywhere in the world can apply.
  • 20 percent of our Scholars in residence are Black, and over half are People of Colour.  The Trust makes an important contribution to Oxford’s aim to increase the diversity of its postgraduate population, particularly in relation to Black students, and we are committed to continuing to partner with the University to pursue this goal.
  • Eighteen Scholarships are currently awarded annually to students in Africa through six constituencies: East Africa, Kenya, Southern Africa (including South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia and eSwatini), West Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. 
  • African students outside of these constituencies are eligible through our new Global Scholarship, established in 2018.  An Ethiopian Scholar was selected in the first cohort.
  • Rhodes Scholars may study any full-time subject at Oxford and are distributed across 35 of Oxford’s 38 colleges.
  • Nearly 8,000 Rhodes Scholars have gone on to serve at the forefront of government, education, the arts, NGOs, commerce, research and other sectors. They include well known advocates for social justice and individuals who have advanced the frontiers of science and medicine. 
  • Our goal is to expand the number of fully funded Scholarships across the African continent from 18 to 32, with an initial focus on raising endowment to support more Scholarships in West and East Africa, funded in perpetuity. We are also working to raise the funds to launch more Scholarships in Asia and Latin America.

The Trust’s Core Partnerships

In its second century the Rhodes Trust has also partnered with several other remarkable individuals and organisations to create:

  • The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, an independent South African-based charity launched through a partnership between Nelson Mandela and the Rhodes Trust on the occasion of the Trust’s centenary in 2003. The Foundation, which is one of President Mandela’s three official legacy organisations, was established through an initial £10m gift from the Rhodes Trust.  It is dedicated to developing exceptional leaders for Africa through a focus on education, leadership, entrepreneurship and reconciliation.  Since its founding 17 years ago, it has provided scholarships to over 500 Mandela Rhodes Scholars from 28 African countries.  Eighteen Mandela Rhodes Scholars have also gone on to win Rhodes Scholarships.
  • In 2016, the Trust partnered with The Atlantic Philanthropies to establish the Atlantic Institute, which works with seven fellowship programmes around the world, including the Atlantic Fellows Program for Racial Equity. The Institute’s mission is to eradicate inequities and to promote fairer, healthier and more just societies.   It is committed to the radical inclusion of global leaders who are agents of change in communities most impacted by injustice and inequities.   More than 50% of Atlantic Fellows are from the Global South.   

  • In 2017, the Trust partnered with Schmidt Futures to launch the Schmidt Science Fellows, which is developing the next generation of science leaders to transcend disciplines, advance discovery, and solve the world’s most pressing problems.

  • In 2019, we announced Rise, a new partnership with Schmidt Futures and the Rhodes Trust.  This new talent program is designed to create a global network of exceptional young people, starting from the ages of 15-17, who have the potential for significant positive impact.