Many people could look at Christopher Jackson’s career and assume that racism hasn’t held him back. His research projects have been awarded more than £10 million (US$11.1 million) in funding, and in 2015, at 38 years old, he became, at the time, the only Black geoscience professor in the United Kingdom. Jackson has endured racially charged slights, such as showing up to a meeting to deliver a keynote address and being mistaken for an audio-visual technician. They’ve made him second-guess himself, but not too much: “I’m pretty thick-skinned.”
Jackson didn’t grow up with dreams of being a scientist. He was born and raised in Derby, UK — a predominately white industrial city — to parents who had emigrated from the Caribbean. He had never heard of university until it was brought up in passing by teachers and career advisers. He got a degree in geology at the University of Manchester and, later, a PhD at the same institution.
Jackson gained prominence in 2017, when he co-presented Expedition Volcano, a BBC documentary. From there, Jackson appeared in other documentaries while he continued his research. He had also become vocal about anti-Black racism, speaking to media outlets about the structural biases that exclude and hold back Black scientists. He felt it was his responsibility. “I’ve got a lot more privilege and protection than those who are more junior to me,” he says.
A stress test
His increased exposure came with abuse and criticism, which became more charged after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. When it was announced that year that Jackson would be the first Black person to present the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lectures, he received an onslaught of e-mails and direct messages saying that the decision was made ‘because he’s Black’ and describing it as an attempt at ‘woke virtue signalling’. One letter calling him “a massive disappointment on the issue of race and identity within the UK” was sent to him, along with a book extolling the ‘benefits’ of slavery to Black people. “I’ve suffered more racism for being outspoken, but I think it’s absolutely worth it,” says Jackson. “I think it’s important to upset people for the right reasons.”
Last year, Jackson was hired by the University of Manchester as chair in sustainable geoscience. He was excited: “Manchester, as a city and an institution, meant so much to me because I’d spent so much time there,” he says. But he quickly began to feel a lack of support from many colleagues. A month into his job, Jackson was quoted in a BBC news story about the disproportionately low representation of Black people in UK science. He stated that UK-funded science is “definitely institutionally racist” and that senior white scientists do not recognize the ways in which racial biases permeate their institutions.
Four days later, he got an e-mail from the university’s vice-president, Martin Schröder, who said he did not think the university was institutionally racist and that such language was counterproductive. The e-mail included a link to an opinion article calling institutional racism an ill-defined, unhelpful concept. Schröder copied the e-mail to several high-level colleagues.
“I was very angry and upset by the e-mail,” says Jackson, who asserts that his public comments were not directed at the university. He saw the e-mail as an attempt to malign him and his views.
Hoping for support, Jackson forwarded it to his department head and close colleague, volcanologist Mike Burton — but he was disappointed by the response. During a follow-up conversation, Jackson says he got the sense that Burton viewed people at the university as too intelligent and liberal-minded to be racist.
“He seemed to think that if you’re good at doing something with volcanoes or dinosaurs, then you’ll have the intelligence also to think about the myriad and subtle ways in which racism manifests,” says Jackson.
Burton denies saying such things: “Academics have the same unconscious biases as anyone.” He says he did not initially recognize that Jackson was upset by the e-mail, because he had forwarded it with the note: “for information only, no need to reply”.
Jackson eventually filed a formal grievance to the university, which launched an investigation. “I felt it was really important to do this, for both myself and other people in the future, to stress test the university’s reporting procedures on racial issues,” says Jackson.
According to a statement from the University of Manchester, the investigation found “no evidence of any racist behaviour”. It adds that its policy is to keep all grievance investigations confidential. The statement asserted the University’s commitment to all aspects of “Equality, Diversity, Inclusion and Access (EDIA)”. As part of its strategy, it stated, “senior leaders are undergoing a full training programme on this topic with individual coaching”.
The university also responded on behalf of Schröder, saying that he has never “denied the issues of racism in higher education. He has introduced many quite radical measures in his faculty to address how we attract and support talent from diverse backgrounds”. The statement adds: “As soon as Professor Schröder realized that he had upset Professor Jackson he apologized to him for any unintentional upset that he may have caused.”
The ‘minority tax’
Jackson has since left the university, and says that the incident contributed to his decision to do so. He now works for Jacobs, an engineering consultancy in Manchester.
But, he says, he still receives e-mails from the university’s human-resources department accusing him of putting out a narrative on Twitter that is “not indicative of where we are, or were”, and that “generated some unhelpful perspectives”. In Jackson’s opinion, the university could clear up any disagreements about what happened by making the findings of their investigation public.
“Instead of using energy to engage with the problem and the people in their own institution, they’re spending more time trying to minimize public discussion around the incident,” Jackson says. “I think that still speaks of a desire to control the narrative — to burnish their image as a progressive institute.”
The University of Manchester representative refuted any claims of an attempt to discredit Jackson: “There was no attempt or intention to malign Professor Jackson or his views but rather to engage with him and secure his advice and help on EDIA which is extremely important to us. Disappointingly, Professor Jackson did not wish to do this.”
Materials scientist Ben Britton, a former colleague of Jackson at Imperial College London and a close friend, says that the episode has shattered Jackson’s faith in academia being a supportive environment.
He adds that for an external observer, “this is a clear example of the ‘minority tax’, whereby members of marginalized groups are brought in and asked to fix the problems that majority groups have created”.
Jackson says there’s a much better way for institutions to engage with racism. “It’s to say, ‘This happens in our own shop. We’re not going to stand for it, and we’ve disciplined the people involved.’ It builds confidence in the staff who are there, as well as people in the future who might want to go there.”