When the footage of Chelsea fans boasting of their racist entitlement whilst jostling a black man on the Paris Metro emerged last Tuesday, I admittedly fell into the trap set by my own deeply entrenched prejudices. After all, this is the club that continues to be captained by a self-styled ‘leader’ and ‘legend’ who was undeniably caught on camera spitting out equally abhorrent racial slurs towards a fellow professional. This is the fanbase of a club who have evoked the horrors of the Nazi gas chambers by insidiously hissing at my own club’s supporters over the years. This is the club who cannot observe the poignancy required by a minute’s quiet reflection on the anniversary of ninety-six deaths during a cup semi-final.
But that’s the problem with prejudice. It is an emotion bereft of reason and when one realises it has taken hold, one must immediately banish it to some dark recess of the brain, sub-categorised ‘The Seventies’. Of course not all Chelsea fans are knuckle-dragging, unevolved goons, posturing and chest-beating themselves into xenophobic frenzy on French public transport. To resort to the standard defence made by the casual racist, I know a lot of Chelsea fans and have counted many of them as my best friends. Kind of. After all, if it’s good enough for the backtracking squirming of the likes of Dave Whelan and Ron Atkinson, it’s good enough for me. If the skull cap fits… #satire #bantz.
My initial reactions were as knee-jerk and reactionary as some of the opinion pieces and statements made by those who really do have the power and influence to sway public opinion. Condemnation and punishment is rightly expected when incidents such as this occur but if we really want to have a serious conversation about why this still goes on, then we should be looking at what we are as a society and not treat this as some kind of isolated incident or as something that is merely “extremely disturbing and worrying’’ as David Cameron put it.
Racism is still a problem in football because it is still a problem out there in the real world. With the General Election looming over us, the most emotive topic of debate will undoubtedly be the one screaming IMMIGRATION now that UKIP have managed to shift the mainstream agenda into something approximating a George Romero exploitation flick. But instead of shuffling zombies, we’ve substituted them with hordes of folk wot aren’t us, storming our borders and lasciviously showering themselves in the benefits and free drugs our benevolent state rolls out for them in their gratefully received houses they got off of the council.
It seems as though not a day passes when some kind of crisis highlighting the otherness of the Other isn’t dominating the news ticker tape. To illustrate this, I asked my media studies class to keep a tally over the course of one week of the headlines and articles spinning Muslims as some kind of imminent threat to our enjoyment of consumerist tie-ins to Fifty Shades Of Halal Pizza. They logged twenty-three such terror fables. This coming from a bunch of indolent teenagers who probably completed their assignment the night before between fist-clenching or rubber-necking or whatever the beautifully inane youth do in order to keep themselves entertained these days. And if it’s not imams mugging you mams, it’s those damn Poles with their skleps and their engineering degrees in much the same way that before them it was the subjects of the Empire who ‘benefitted’ (damned benefits again!) from the subjugation of colonialism. I could go on but this would inevitably end up turning into a pastiche of a Stewart Lee sketch and I’m not blessed with his sardonic chutzpah, so I’ll leave it there.
When politicians and media outlets tacitly approve of de-humanising human beings, is it any surprise that those views filter down into the mindsets of average people who go to work each day in mind-numbing jobs to merely keep afloat, worrying about mortgage repayments and seeing their communities boarded up and ripped apart by the closure of small business after small business? Who do they take their frustrations out on when these things happen? It’s hardly ever those people and institutions that have contributed to their sense of dislocation and helplessness. Their ire is usually centred towards those who feel just as lost and are trying to make ends meet in much the same way as they are.
I’ve had to present this argument repeatedly to my aging grandmother who fails to appreciate the irony of complaining about immigrants when she in fact is one herself. I can’t say for certain that this once staunchly proud socialist woman won’t be striking a cross for UKIP in May and however much I try and reason with her, she won’t budge and that for me is the thing that I find “extremely worrying and disturbing”. And it makes me sad because she didn’t become a racist overnight. It’s a worldview that has been allowed to flourish because of a sustained attack on immigrants when in actual fact she’s been let down by the malpractice of economic and political mismanagers. And she’s fallen for the myth contrived by a man who claims to speak up for the common man and woman but was privately educated and made his money in the same way that all those in the private club of elitist politics have. When she can’t get a bed at the local hospital because she can’t afford the insurance bill and that lovely Mauritian nurse has been sent packing, maybe my grandmother and others who feel equally disenfranchised might just realise all Farage’s bluster was merely hokum designed to grab votes.
Those Chelsea supporters are not inherently evil as some have been quick to point out. They are morons. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that the attitudes they foster within themselves are bubbling away beneath the surface of many people throughout this country and however much we like to congratulate ourselves on the work we’ve done to kick these things out in our workplaces, football stadiums, etc, we can’t be so delusional to believe that racism’s insidiousness has been eradicated from all aspects of public life.
Some may say that football supporters should take it upon themselves to shout down the imbeciles when such incidents occur. That can work but it needs to go much further than that. During a debate on policing football fans I attended in October, one of the speakers suggested that a football stadium is a place where obscenities should be tolerated as if it’s a place privy to the same kind of confidentiality ascribed to the church confessional or the doctor’s surgery. Why should it be? Football is not the sole preserve of the mindless however much they seek to cloak themselves with the cape of banter. If such chants are tolerated at football matches, it’s inevitable that they’ll spill over into other areas of public congregation as we saw last Tuesday. So what do we do? Get the police involved when we hear such offending words? Yes, the police, those paragons of virtue who have never done anything that can be seen as inflammatory or prejudicial towards people from ethnic minorities.
If racism is consciously or unconsciously approved of by the institutions that find themselves at the very core of public life, then how can anybody genuinely be surprised when they see a young black man on his way home from work being assaulted? How can anybody be truly horrified when they see a Chelsea fan on the news denying the racism he saw with his very eyes? And in the week that EastEnders celebrated its thirtieth year, let’s not forget that this most unrepresentative of British institutions received almost 250 complaints when it had the temerity to air an episode of solely black characters in 2009. Racism is alive and sickeningly well, and it’s probably living somewhere near you. Put the genie back in his bottle. Or the pudgy, red-faced white man back in his white van. There I go again. Falling for that trap. Engage brain, engage brain, engage brain.
Further reading: Playing The Race Card: Suarez, Solidarity and 1973
Follow Dispatches on Twitter: @Sofalife