openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Tyrone Mings is right about Priti Patel: she emboldened the worst of us

The England footballer’s criticism of the home secretary punctures the hypocrisy of divisive politicians who attach themselves to popular movements

Anita Mureithi
13 July 2021, 12.02pm
Don't mess with Mings, Priti
Carl Recine/PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

On Sunday night, millions tuned in to watch the Euro 2020 final. Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka all missed penalties as England lost to Italy. Like clockwork, a torrent of racial abuse engulfed the Black football players on social media.

A number of politicians have tweeted support for the trio, including the home secretary. However, England footballer Tyrone Mings has been quick to call out the hypocrisy in Priti Patel’s message. In a tweet posted on Monday evening, Mings addressed Patel directly, saying: “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ and then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens.”

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It wasn’t long ago that Patel refused to condemn football fans who booed as England players kneeled in protest against racial injustice. Taking the knee was dismissed by the Home Secretary as “gesture politics”. Now that her racist dog-whistling rhetoric and policies have emboldened the worst among us, she has taken to Twitter to criticise the very same people she has been trying to appease.

Priti Patel is not the only Tory complicit in fanning the flames of racism and division. The morning after the final, Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted: “This England team deserve to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused on social media. Those responsible for this appalling abuse should be ashamed of themselves.” However, many have been quick to highlight his hypocrisy following his own equivocation over whether spectators should boo England players taking the knee.

When asked about taking the knee in June, ahead of the team’s first Euro 2020 game, Johnson said: “I support England’s players.” However, he also suggested that their chosen method of protest was ineffective, adding: “When it comes to gestures and symbols, I’m more on the side of practical action to combat racism and make life better for everybody in this country.”

The prime minister’s breezy dismissal of this symbol of anti-racism was no surprise: he is the person who referred to Black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”. He failed to defend players as they kneeled, and he failed to condemn heckling from fans. But if the prime minister and his cabinet did more to combat racism, there wouldn’t be a need for “gestures and symbols” in the first place.

Being a minority in England means you will not be accepted unless you are visibly successful or useful in some way

Racism and belief in white supremacy start at the top. While those sending messages of hate on social media should be held accountable for their actions, we also have to look at our leaders. Those in power have consistently set the tone by giving racists the green light to unleash their hatred unto anyone who isn’t ‘British enough’. Asylum seekers, Black Lives Matter activists and now football players: our leaders continue to perpetuate the idea that acceptance in this country is conditional.

The abuse directed at Saka, Rashford and Sancho exposes a wider societal problem. Migrant, Black and brown people are often made to feel like they need to meet high thresholds in order to belong in this country. Being a minority in England means you will not be accepted unless you are visibly successful or useful in some way. To make a mistake is to open yourself to dehumanisation, where you are treated with contempt or violence. As soon as Saka missed the penalty, he was flooded with abuse including: “Go back to Nigeria.”

This situation offers another opportunity for those who so vehemently criticised taking the knee to understand why protests against anti-racism are necessary. Part of the problem is that there is a culture of denial when it comes to racism in England. Not every England fan is a racist, but it is not enough to stop there. The main issue is the culture of intolerance that exists around us. We live in a society that has emboldened people to send racial abuse on social media, to harass Black and brown people, and to gaslight us into thinking that the UK is not institutionally racist. Our government is culpable. It is not enough to blame this behaviour on a ‘few bad apples’ and move on after a short period of outrage.

Labour leader Keir Starmer said that Boris Johnson had failed the test of leadership. He also claimed that anyone racially abusing the players “is a disgrace and doesn’t represent us at all”. But these people do represent us. They represent the worst of us. To consider this an isolated incident involving a small minority of fans would be a lie. There are good, decent people who wholly condemn the actions of racist fans, but unless the wider culture of intolerance is addressed, when will we see change?

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