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

Share
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

Savvy Media Ltd: Media Sales executive - Crawley

£25k + commission + benefits: Savvy Media Ltd: Find a job you love and never h...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Solicitor NQ+ Oxford

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CORPORATE - Corporate Solicitor NQ+ An excelle...

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Muslim men pray at the East London Mosque  

Sadly, it needs to be said again: being a Muslim is not a crime

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible