In defence of a 'racist'

A Swansea student's racist comments abusing footballer Fabrice Muamba have landed him a hefty prison sentence. But to what end? A past victim of racism argues that Liam Stacey's punishment will only worsen British race relations.

A Swansea student's racist comments abusing footballer Fabrice Muamba have landed him a hefty prison sentence. But to what end? A past victim of racism argues that Liam Stacey's punishment will only worsen British race relations.

Sentencing Liam Stacey, a twenty-one year-old student, to 56 days of imprisonment over mocking Fabrice Muamba in a racist manner, is not good news for the future of race relations in Britain. There can be no excuse for Liam’s vulgar, shocking and obscene comments, but demonising a young man in the public arena and destroying his future hopes and prospects is only going to widen the wounds in this society. How can such harsh disciplinary measures help to resolve racism and xenophobia? Such policies will only pave the way for a more destructive kind of racism than that which is implicitly sustained by the culture of ‘political correctness’.

Being a victim of racism in the past, I believe any civilised society should have a rigorous legal mechanism to protect minorities. Having lived in Britain as a visible minority, I have always had peace of mind that I live in a country where my rights are protected and a set of anti-discrimination laws are in place to minimise any prejudicial treatment against me. Although it is a given for many people, I am relieved that I live in a society in which I cannot be legally penalised because of my racial background. 

However, there is a limit to what the penal system can achieve for race relations. There is a limit to how far the law can go to create a cohesive society. Although the legal system can prevent structural racism, it can never change attitudes. We cannot imprison the viewpoints which are prevalent in some corners of our society. The law can never go as far as addressing the fear of the “other” which is embedded in some communities across the social spectrum. The legal mechanism alone cannot heal wounds and promote mutual respect. 

It was hard to resist following the unfolding news about Liam Stacey, whose case generated a lot of interest in the mainstream media and across social networking websites. Like many people, I was shocked by his offensive language when I read his remarks online. When the authorities questioned him, I hoped that he might realise the hurtful nature of his comments. I thought that this could be a constructive opportunity for him to broaden his perspectives and develop some genuine sensitivity towards a vital social issue. I hoped that the experience could convey many messages, the need to be mindful of the ways in which he expresses himself in public, rather than harshly teaching him to be only ‘politically correct’. 

In fact he was treated harshly and was given 56 days of imprisonment. To make things even worse a negative campaign started, purely to demonise him. Suddenly his world changed and everything in it shattered. I was shocked when I heard that even some people from his university started a campaign to expel him from the his course. Isn't university the place best suited to intellectual and personal transitions? If so, Liam more than anyone needs that institutional support for his transition. 

But instead of being accommodated, with all his shortcomings, he is portrayed as a “wicked” and “threatening” man who does not deserve a second chance. Although his university has not confirmed any decision yet, it is likely that he will face some disciplinary actions. This would be highly counter-productive. Instead of exposing him to the prison to make him even more resentful or expelling him from the university, we should find ways to encourage him to genuinely reflect on his words. 

The main causes of racism are fear and ignorance, and demonising a young man for his comments on Twitter will only exacerbate such problems. Creating a context where people have to refrain from using certain expressions to avoid legal consequences will not create a more cohesive society. Some people would only perceive this as a form of social censorship imposed by the law and sustained by disciplinary measures. Indeed, the culture of political correctness would only redirect tensions from explicit to implicit platforms. Deep fears and resentments would flourish in such climate overshadowing the ways in which communities perceive each other. The culture of political correctness would only push racism behind fake smiles: lipstick on a pig. 

We no longer need “compensation”, we need resolution. Measures have to be taken to effectively translate anti-discrimination laws into the prevailing discourse. The laws have to correspond with the collective consciousness. Although the laws are in place to protect the “other”, there are sharp social binaries that reenforce a culture of “us” versus “them”. These binaries are implicitly reinforced by the media and the mainstream political rhetoric. According to research conducted by Cardiff University between  2000-8  four of the five most common discourses used about Muslims in the British press related Islam/Muslims with “threats”. Furthermore, black people are still 30 times more likely to be stopped by the police than white people. The new study - which is based on government statistics - highlights the worst international record of discrimination involving stop and search in Britain. Our problems clearly rest on institutional structures as well as individual agencies. 

Those who are convicted of racism are explicitly articulating these deeply imbedded social binaries. Instead of demonising Liam Stacey as a “racist”, we should recognize the extent to which individuals like him are conditioned by these structures and give more attention to their substantial role in fostering racism. 

About the author

Afshin Shahi is a lecturer in Middle East Politics and International Relations at the University of Bradford. He tweets @AfshinShahi