Stuart Waiton: Anti-racism is now just official etiquette Published on Monday 16 July 2012 13:56
FOR all the talk about racism in football, the main prejudice is against those who play and watch the game: the white working class, writes Stuart Waiton
Much of the reaction to the John Terry verdict has been one of surprise and even shock. For some, the acquittal is a setback for anti-racism, a few commentators have even raised the spectre of the banana-throwing, monkey-chanting days of the 1980s, as if the result of the trial could lead to a serious rise in racism among football fans.
None of this tells us much about the problems of racism in Britain. What it does illustrate is the worrying, and at times, hysterical power of official anti-racism in British society.
On this week’s Sunday Morning Live on BBC1, Simon Woolley from Operation Black Vote explained the importance of policing racist language. “Gross racial insults,” he explained, “are often followed by acts of violence.” The concern expressed here is that offensive language and violence often accompany one another. In the context of football chants, what Woolley is suggesting is that, what football fan hear, football fan do.
Ironically, when it comes to football, this is hard to prove – as there is nothing to hear. For those who worry about the potential racist pogrom about to erupt in stadiums across the land, it might be worth noting that despite the intense political and police interest in policing racism at football, there were only 44 arrests for race-related offences in the English Premier League in the 2010-11 season.
This is a similar number to race-related offences found in the Premier League for the past 15 years. That’s 44 arrests out of a total number of 37 million people who watched these matches. Or to put it another way, 0.0001 per cent of football fans were held over racist offences in this year. At a time when football fans are more heavily regulated, stewarded, surveilled by mobile CCTV cameras and also now listened to with hi-tech sound equipment, this incredibly small figure is telling.
Despite this reality, the concern with tackling racism in football continues unabated. Indeed, one of the fascinating things about official anti-racism in Britain (very similar to anti-sectarianism in Scotland) is that as the problem has declined in society, the hyperbole, campaigns and even laws to tackle it have increased. As the football writer Duleep Allirajah has observed: “At a time when terrace racism has virtually disappeared, the campaign to kick racism out of football is everywhere.”
Most recently, the focus on racism in football has been on players, but there is a continuous and unrelenting link made between incidents on the pitch and with the concern about “tackling racism in football” more generally. The recent summit set up by David Cameron on this very issue is a case in point, where he jumped from a concern about the Patrice Evra-Luis Saurez affair, to talk about the need for anti-racist campaigns throughout football to ensure we didn’t return to the “bad old days” of the 1980s.
A recent high (or should that be low) point in the anti-racism hysteria in the UK came a few weeks ago in the Panorama programme Stadiums of Hate, which depicted the Polish and Ukrainian football fans as a mob of seething bigots. Why are we having the European Championships here, the Panorama journalist asked, can you not see what is going to happen? The prediction of mass racist crowds did not materialise, nor did the prediction made by ex-England defender Sol Campbell on the programme that our own supporters (especially black supporters) could end up coming “back in a coffin”.
If any other group in British society, especially a “minority” group, faced the remarkably intense level of political, police and media attention in this way, it would be seen, rightly, as authoritarian, and the problem society was addressing would be understood to be a moral panic. But when it comes to the issue of racism, and the behaviour of fans and players in football, anything goes.
In all the talk about prejudice and hatred surrounding the John Terry case, it is surprising that so few have pointed out the reality that the dominant prejudice illustrated time and again is against those “types” of people who play and watch football – the white working class.
In the “bad old days” of the 1980s, leading British newspapers could be found describing football as a “slum sport, played in slum stadiums, watched by slum people”. This traditional conservative contempt for football players and fans can still be witnessed in the shock-horror discussion about the “foul-mouthed” nature of football “exposed” by the John Terry affair. One “liberal” daily argued that, “after this, few would still describe the national game as beautiful” – as if the idea that football players hurling abuse at each other is some kind of revelation.
Today, however, the old elitist contempt for football fans has been hardened by the prejudices of the cosmopolitan elite who laugh raucously at jokes about shellsuits but throw their hands up in horror and call for bans when “non-alternative” words, jokes or chants are muttered.
And here, in the concern about “foul-mouths” and abusive words, we find the true essence of anti-racism today: the concern about being offensive. Today official anti-racism is nothing more than a form of etiquette, a form of sensitivity and linguistic correctness – practised by “right-thinking people” (like us). It is little more than a politically loaded form of politeness.
In the process, anti-racism has tragically become an authoritarian form of micro-management of the white working class, who, it is assumed, are constantly on the edge of bigoted abuse and violence. That is why an off-duty police officer filed a public order complaint against John Terry, why Terry lost the England captaincy, why England lost their manager Fabio Capello and why eventually we have had to watch a ridiculous trial of two men who called each other names on a football pitch.
• Stuart Waiton is author of the forthcoming book Snobs Law: Criminalising Football Fans in an Age of Intolerance