The days since England’s defeat showed us that the right of racism is well defended.
This article was originally written on 25 July 2021.
Racism in English football is a widely documented but often dismissed problem. Contrary to any progress made in society more generally, the same ugly displays of hate seen in the ’80s pop up in the ‘beautiful game’ today.
Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a banana skin thrown in his direction after scoring a goal against Tottenham in December 2018. This incident reminded many older football fans of Liverpool’s John Barnes receiving similar treatment in 1988. To this day Barnes is admired for his reaction: dismissively back-heeling the peel off the pitch after it landed near him.
The Wikipedia article ‘Racism in Association Football’, which documents accounts of racism involving those in the sport in different countries, lists over 50 different incidents under the heading ‘England’ at the time of writing – more than Germany, France, Italy and neighbouring Scotland put together.
From an outside perspective, the frequency of racist incidents in English football might seem strange. The country is a melting pot in most parts, and the existence of black players in English professional football is far from new – participation goes back as far as 1889. However, as most non-white people in England including myself recognise, racism is tenacious, and can remain hidden for as long as it needs to.
Finding and explaining actual reasons for the pervasive racism in English football would require a separate deep-dive, without a doubt. For now, we can at least take a lay of the land, and observe where exactly things stand after the recent Euro 2020 final.
Minutes after Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho missed the penalties that secured England’s defeat to Italy on 11 July, fans took to social media to unleash what police called “a torrent of racist comments aimed at some of the team’s black players”.
We now know that not all of this online abuse was domestic – much of it came from supporters of the Italy team – and this might have served as consolation for black football fans and players, had this abuse not spilled over into ‘real life’ in England; a mural which had been painted to honour Rashford, Saka and Sancho was defaced with the words “We do not stand with the 3 Black Lions”, almost a week after the match.
Ask people in England about racism in the country, and many will tell you it is “subtle”. It lies under the surface, finding its way into many business decisions and political strategies, but less commonly into words said out loud. England’s black penalty takers were at least partly responsible for England’s defeat. This did not in any way create latent racism, nor does it excuse it, but we now know on that day it provided excuses for it to step out of the light.
In the build-up to the first match, much was made of the news that England’s players would be taking the knee before kick-off, as a show of protest against racism. This was nothing new – many other Premiership teams had chosen to do this before games since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 – but in recent months, supporters had started to boo the players as they took the knee.
Those of us who have the displeasure of studying political tactics recognise that moments like this provide an opportunity for public figures to turn public opinion in one direction or another. When presented with the opportunity to stand with the England players against racism, the Conservative government collectively gave several firm rejections.
The home secretary Priti Patel dismissed the team’s actions as “gesture politics”, adding: “I just don’t support people participating in that type of gesture”. Tory MP Brendan Clarke-Smith wrote on Facebook that taking the knee “now comes across as little more than habitual tokenism and has lost its effect”. When Boris Johnson was questioned on the issue on LBC radio, the prime minister stated: “I do not believe in gestures, I believe in substance.”
Once the tournament began, many political commentators started to apply different schools of logic to the booing of the players by supporters. Some argued that fans were sick of politics in their football stadiums. Others argued that fans were protesting the perceived support of Black Lives Matter, an organisation which many today associate with taking the knee; many, sadly, also disagree with the organisation’s core ideas. This association between taking the knee and Black Lives Matter pervades despite the organisation being part of a wider decentralized movement, and despite the ‘gesture’ going as far back as 1965, where Martin Luther King Jr. took a knee during a march in Selma, Alabama, and despite team manager Gareth Southgate stating that the protest was a statement against racism, not in support of any political group.
We can never know how true the arguments of those explaining away the actions of fans booing the players as a ‘protest against political protests’ are. One thing we can be sure of, however, is that even after decades of documented racist abuse suffered by black football players in England, the loudest voices in the country fought to deny the existence of racism, while scrambling to find any other possible reason for this behaviour.
These same voices were piping up to show their apparent shock at the overly racist behaviour in the aftermath of England’s defeat in the Euros final. Patel tweeted: “I am disgusted that England players who have given so much for our country this summer have been subject to vile racist abuse on social media.”
The prime minister, who had already been roundly criticised for his lack of support for the players’ protest, tweeted: “This England team deserve to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused on social media”.
The damage had already been done. Thankfully, some public figures found the strength to call out the government’s hypocrisy. Responding to Patel’s statement on Twitter, the England player Tyrone Mings said: “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens.”
Labour party leader Keir Starmer claimed Boris Johnson had “failed the test of leadership, because whatever he says today about racism, he had a simple choice at the beginning of this tournament in relation to the booing of those who were taking the knee”, adding that “the actions and inactions of leaders have consequences, so I’m afraid the prime minister’s words today ring hollow.” Starmer had previously supported the ‘gesture’, taking the knee in a social media post.
In the days since the final, steps have been taken to try and extinguish the fire of racism that has engulfed popular discourse, and arguably been stoked by the government. Talks are taking place between the FA and Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and lifetime bans can be used against those caught being racist towards players in the stadium and online.
But elsewhere, pundits have stepped in to deny the racist nature of the abuse suffered by the players. In a video titled ‘Woke elites’ trying to talk the country down’, newly minted GB News presenter Dan Wootton celebrated the news that the graffiti painted over a mural of Marcus Rashford in Manchester – a separate incident than the one mentioned earlier – was “not believed to be of a racial nature” according to Greater Manchester Police.
This ‘news’ is clearly designed to cast eyes away from other evidence. Later in the segment, Spiked Editor Brendan O’Neill joins Wootoon to add that “all that screeching and wailing over this racist assault… all turns out to have been for nothing, so we really need to get a grip in the discussion about racism.”
Boris Johnson has fallen quickly back into old habits, adding to the voices playing down the problem, rather than condemning what can be seen with one’s own eyes. When accused of “dog-whistling” over racism by SNP leader Ian Blackford, the prime minister simply pointed to the diversity in his own parliamentary cabinet, and the fact his party had elected two women leaders – many will know this as the “some of my best friends…” defence.
While explicit racism may be called out by the FA, the dismissal of the very existence of racism by fans around the country is complete, backed up by our own government. Those wishing to continue their abuse of black players using an anonymous social media presence can rest assured: they’ve got a friend in Westminster.