Ian Birrell: Our national sport shares our national blindness

In Britain, we pretend the problem of racism has been defeated, despite all evidence to the contrary

Related Topics

Surely even the grumpiest republican struggled to begrudge the community spirit of these past few days. There is something moving when nations find a sense of togetherness, whatever the trigger. Yet one thing has been abundantly clear from the scenes we witnessed: this country has changed irrevocably in 60 years. Look at the faces beneath the bunting. From the first street party on Friday, held in Brixton by refugees who fled persecution over the past six decades, to Monday night's pop concert, it is glaringly obvious we live in a multi-racial society. Indeed, polling found immigrants more likely to admire the Queen and support the institution of monarchy than those born in Britain.

Perhaps this is why amid the festivities, self-congratulatory clichés about tolerance poured down harder than the rain. Yet rumbling away on the back pages of newspapers has been a story demonstrating the lack of room for such complacency, showing how far this nation must go before living up to such claims.

For those that don't follow football, let me explain. John Terry, a supremely talented centre back but singularly unpleasant character, faces trial next month over claims he racially abused another player. The alleged victim is the brother of Rio Ferdinand, another supremely talented centre back. Now injury-struck England, on the eve of Euro 2012, is short of defenders – yet instead of picking one of our greatest players for a decade, it called up a reserve full-back from a mid-table team. Why does this matter? Simple. It sends out the message that if you dare raise the issue of racism, even your family can suffer the consequences. The suggestion that Ferdinand has not been picked for "footballing reasons" insults our intelligence; he will not be playing because it was impossible to have this pair playing together given the bad blood, and the national team sided with a man accused of racism rather than the alleged victim's brother.

I should here declare an interest. I spent a couple of afternoons recently with Rio after he offered to pitch in with a music project I help run that brings together African and Western musicians. He turned up without an entourage, played table-tennis and asked what he could do to help; I found him a decent, down-to-earth and likeable person.

Football has, alongside the monarchy, become a key part of Britain's global brand. It has, however, struggled with racism. And not just on the terraces. Talk to black players, and they tell you privately that prejudice remains a problem behind the scenes. Now, on the eve of a contest being held in a country with such endemic bigotry that black fans are warned not to attend and players' families are scared to visit, the Football Association indicates it sees racism as little more than a minor misdemeanour. It is a body with a well-deserved reputation for incompetence, of course, but this is crass even for them.

Jason Roberts, the forthright Reading striker, said yesterday that this was just one more incident in a season that has set the game back years. He added that he was shocked by the abuse he received after promoting the idea of positive discrimination for black candidates for manager jobs. "You can have campaigns with glossy banners and slogans, but have we actually changed people's views?" he asked pertinently. Once again,sport serves as a mirror for society. In the Ukraine, the abusive chants, brutal assaults and open hostility to ethnic minorities reflect its abject failure to tackle racism. In Britain, we pretend the problem has been defeated, sweeping it under the table, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Witness the problems engulfing the Metropolitan Police nine years after the bungled investigation of Stephen Lawrence's murder, with the revelation of 51 complaints of racism made to the police watchdog in the past two months alone after recordings emerged of an officer assaulting a black man. Last year saw the highest number of internal complaints for a decade, yet just two officers were forced to resign. Perhaps this is unsurprising given the shameful statistic that black people remain 30 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people are. It is hard to think of a more divisive policy. Although this is three times the figure of three years ago, the proportion arrested for possession of dangerous weapons has fallen fivefold in a decade.

Then there are the studies showing the glass ceiling may have cracked a little but remains firmly in place in so many jobs and professions, or the surveys finding black and ethnic minority workers less likely to be promoted than their white colleagues. Or turn to politics, where it is hard not to wonder why Tory party chairman Sayeeda Warsi is singled out for such abuse from her own side. Or, indeed, to ponder the continuing toxicity of the immigration debate.

As Britain clears away the champagne glasses, we should be wary of toasting our tolerance. The saga of the shunned footballer shows how far we still must travel. Far from kicking out racism, our highly influential national sport has set back the cause with immense insensitivity.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
The report will embarrass the Home Secretary, Theresa May  

Surprise, surprise: tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have 'dropped off' the Home Office’s radar

Nigel Farage
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas