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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

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.