Offside, 26 October

At a time when terrace racism has virtually disappeared, the campaign to kick racism out of football is everywhere. Why?

Duleep Allirajah

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Liverpool striker Emile Heskey has described as ‘astonishing’ the racist abuse that was hurled at him during the Liverpool v Boavista game in Portugal on 24 October. ‘I put it down to ignorant people’, said Heskey. ‘I try to answer them the best way I can – on the pitch.’

The racist taunts were ‘astonishing’ – precisely because racism at football matches is so rare these days. I have been going to football matches since the 1970s but only once have I witnessed a black player being jeered en masse by football fans – and that was in Spain 10 years ago.

About four years back I heard a lone fan at Selhurst Park call a black player a ‘coon’ – which shocked me, but only because, again, such comments are rare. The former Wimbledon player Robbie Earle once said that the only racist abuse he received from other players was, ironically, from foreigners – presumably because they hadn’t yet learned the anti-racist etiquette that prevails in Britain. The worst expressions of racism, such as monkey chants and bananas being thrown on to the pitch, are things of the past in British football.

Yet, paradoxically, at a time when terrace racism has virtually disappeared, football’s first anti-racism week has just taken place – and the campaign to kick racism out of football is everywhere.

At every football ground I am confronted by notices warning me that ‘racialist and indecent’ chanting is forbidden. The England members’ club was relaunched recently to exclude racists and xenophobes. Whenever new anti-hooligan measures are introduced, anti-racism is now the standard justification.

According to Jon Garland and Michael Rowe, authors of Racism and Anti-Racism in Football (1), football’s anti-racism initiatives have not gone far enough. Garland and Rowe believe that ‘commendable anti-racist work has been done in relation to the game’ but they want the ‘concept of institutional racism’, as defined in the 1999 Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, to be applied to the ‘elusive’ racism which pervades the culture of football.

Central to the Macpherson report’s definition of institutional racism is that it can be ‘unwitting’. So how is football culture unwittingly racist? An example cited by Garland and Rowe is the ridiculing of Jason Lee’s dreadlocks. You may recall that, thanks to Frank Skinner and David Baddiel’s Fantasy Football TV programme, the former Nottingham Forest striker was subjected to chants of ‘He’s got a pineapple on his head’ (to the tune of ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands’) wherever he went. Lee blames the chant for his subsequent loss of confidence and form.

Cruel? Yes. Funny? Maybe. But racist? I don’t think so. Garland and Rowe argue that the pineapple chant expressed an ignorance ‘of the cultural significance of dreadlocks to many black people’. The ‘Jason Lee incident’, as they call it, illustrates ‘the capacity of contemporary culture to articulate racialised themes in a coded manner that lacks overt racist language or references’.

In other words, we are dealing here with a strain of racism so ‘unwitting’ that it is only discernible to trained sociologists. Indeed, when defined so widely that we are all culpable, racism is effectively the new original sin.

Garland and Rowe complain that ‘the prohibitive aspect of anti-racism focuses upon the behaviour or expression of individuals, and is relatively unconcerned with belief and attitude’. But what would an anti-racism that focuses on ‘belief and attitude’ entail? At the risk of offending the rasta community, I dread to think. Perhaps, instead of arrest and conviction, offenders could be forced to undergo cultural diversity training.

Fanciful perhaps – but the desire to alter ‘belief and attitude’ logically leads to the stewarding of thoughts.

Read on:

spiked-issues: Sport

(1) J Garland and M Rowe, Racism and Anti-Racism in Football, Palgrave, September 2001

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