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Is British football less racist now, or does it just hide its racism better?

Racism in Britain hasn't gone away, it's just been hidden better. And sometimes, it bubbles over...

Timothy Smith
2 October 2014

There is generally an assumption in British society that racism isn’t really an issue anymore. Few people are crass enough to openly use racist language in public given the social ostracization that would follow. One only has to look as far as the ‘racist tram lady’ and the subsequent outrage that followed to see this, whilst the Olympics celebrated the great ethnic diversity of British society.

This is also true of football where racism is generally associated with our European neighbours in Spain or Italy. In Spain for example, we regularly hear of players having bananas hurled at them during games, prompting the #weareallmonkeys campaign, spearheaded by Dani Alves and Neymar last season. Such overt racism is rarely evident at British football grounds.

The narrative is that British football has come a long way since the days in which racism and hooliganism went hand in hand back in the 80s and 90s. But, every now and then racism rears its ugly head. The two most high profile cases involving former England captain John Terry and former Liverpool player Luis Suarez.

Recent Premier League games resulted in another incident involving Liverpool striker Mario Balotelli who tweeted ‘Man Utd... LOL’ during Manchester United’s poor show at Leicester City, a game which they went on to lose 5-3. This relatively meaningless tweet resulted in a tirade of racist abuse with @CraigSainsbury tweeting ‘’Fuck you Mario you fucking n**ger. Got eat some bananas and get ebola you dirty monkey.’’

This cannot just be put down to football tribalism. It is instead the result of deeply entrenched racist attitudes that exist beneath the surface within our society. So much so that one meaningless, mildly provocative jibe at Manchester United’s shocking performance versus Leicester warrants Balotelli being abused in this way. A debate on BBC Five Live shockingly questioned whether players should be ‘getting involved with other teams like this’ rather than condemning or focusing on the racist element of what happened.

Racism of this nature doesn’t always present itself in a public forum, but this isn’t to say it’s rare or non-existent. People have just got better at hiding their racism to the point where they can keep mixed race company and even censor their own language when in public. But, when frustrated some people resort to type and turn to racist language to voice their annoyance at an ethnic minority person. It is in these cases when people will let their guard slip and demonstrate their racist attitudes that usually would be confined to behind closed doors. Prince Harry for example privately called a fellow cadet a ‘paki’ during his time in the army, yet after apologized, suggesting that he obviously isn’t racist. His only mistake was being caught on camera. Most people are simply too savvy to be openly heard racially abusing someone. This is how racism now presents itself in the UK, it’s simply gotten far more sophisticated than simple banana throwing.

The rise of twitter however has led to these attitudes being exposed. Whenever anything vaguely controversial happens with a BAME (Black, Asian, minority ethnic) celebrity/athlete/personality they will undoubtedly receive racist abuse from tweeters. These kneejerk racist tweets are often promptly deleted by the user, who realises that they will likely be vilified for their overt racism.

Balotelli_wears_the_2014_Italy_Home_Kit_02_(cropped).jpg

Mario Balotelli - Wikimedia

People are racist in the UK they are just more scared to openly voice racist opinions in an overt manner such as this. The recent results of the British Social Attitudes survey show that 1 in 3 people identify as holding racially prejudiced views, a rise from 2001. This explains the rise of UKIP who are more covertly racist than say the BNP or the EDL, who are much more overtly racist and have now been struggling to garner widespread support. Those too scared to align with more extreme political parties can find safe haven in UKIP, claiming to be more anti-immigration and pro-British values, rather than simply being racist.

It is worrying and also telling how a seemingly innocuous tweet can lead to out-right racist abuse. Balotelli’s only crime was being black and not a Manchester United player. Those racially abusing him would probably usually be happy to cheer along black Manchester United players such as Tyler Blackett (pre-red card) or Chris Smalling when they are playing well, for which they might argue shows that they are not racist. But, the speed in which people can resort to racist language when they are angry confirms that people are still racist in our society, they are just not voicing it as openly as they once were. Until people can get angry and not racially abuse BAME members of our society (or anyone who is not white, straight and male), we still have a huge problem with racism and intolerance in this country. Forums such as twitter merely expose the trend.

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Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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