A load of old balls

Racism persists in society - but, as recent scandals show, serious analysis has been replaced by moral hysteria, argues James Turley

It may be the summer that is traditionally called ‘the silly season’. However, bourgeois society is quite capable of serving up stupidities all through the calendar year.

This winter, silliness has had a distinctly racial flavour. The ground was prepared by the eruption of a series of race rows in football. That is a common enough phenomenon, of course; but now, after the guilty verdict against two of Stephen Lawrence’s murderers, none other than hapless Labour soft left Diane Abbott has found herself at the centre of her own race row for somewhat innocuous Twitter comments.

The two scandals are characterised by no little stupidity gushing forth from all sides; in spite - or rather because - of this, they provide a dispiriting glimpse of the schizophrenic attitude to race in contemporary British society: torn between creeping state authoritarianism and ‘official’ multiculturalism and anti-racism.

Beautiful game

The football farrago began last autumn. Chelsea captain John Terry, no stranger to media outrage, was accused in October of directing racist abuse at Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand; more or less the same time, mercurial Liverpool striker Luis Suárez was accused of the same crime, this time against Manchester United’s Patrice Evra.

At this point, the consequences are becoming clear. Suárez has been handed an eight-match ban (by comparison, a potentially career-ending horror tackle will get you banned for four); compared to John Terry, however, who faces prosecution for a “racially aggravated public order offence”, he got off pretty lightly.

All elements of the British establishment, of course, like to make a big display over how very seriously they take racism nowadays; thus, what were - at worst - verbal taunts with a dubious undercurrent are treated as though Terry had led a motley band of Blackshirts through the East End, baying for the Jews’ blood (a public order offence, remember).

An extra incentive was provided to the Football Association in the person of - who else? - the bumbling Sepp Blatter, head honcho of international football federation Fifa. Blatter once again managed to put his foot in his mouth, by claiming that incidents of racial abuse on the pitch could be settled with a handshake after the game. English football, never an institution to miss out on a bout of facile Blatter-bashing, immediately pounced on this.

The heavy-handed response to Suárez’s behaviour has been widely interpreted as an attempt by the FA to put its money where its mouth is - it will not be happy to have England captain Terry as a second scapegoat, of course, but, as the English national squad disappears ever further into its own backside, the FA is keen to blame every force on earth apart from itself for its persistent failure to rise above mediocrity in major international competitions.

A corrupt oaf like Blatter is, for the equally corrupt and oafish FA, a priceless resource for its periodic bouts of blame-dodging. We have to ask, however: how bad was Blatter’s statement, really? Sustained victimisation of one player by another is perhaps, in extreme cases, a disciplinary issue for the referee; but the exchange of insults between rival players is a common feature of almost all team sports, even supposedly ‘civilised’ ones like cricket, where ‘sledging’ is a major part of the mental battle between batsman and bowler.

On such occasions where things go too far, why would it be such a bad thing for players to resolve it between themselves, like adults? Is the only effective way to resolve off-the-cuff racial epithets this absurd theatrical display of ritual punishment?

The Suárez case is probably a good example. Suárez is found guilty of calling Evra a ‘negro’ several times during a Liverpool-Manchester United match (always a fixture where tensions run high). Suárez, a Uruguayan, seems genuinely bewildered at the response. As well he might be. Uruguayan football has a relatively honourable record as far as relations between the Hispanic majority and black minority are concerned, fielding black players in the first Copa America in 1916, when that was still a controversial move in Latin America. The high watermark of Uruguayan football came under the captaincy of Obdulio Varela, an Afro-Uruguayan and nationally revered figure.

Not coincidentally, Uruguayan culture is less brittle on the matter of racial epithets. Varela was nicknamed el negro jefe­ - ‘the black boss’. Suárez’s teammate, Maxi Pereira, is known, to no obvious offence, as el mono - ‘the monkey’.1 Suárez’s attitude to Evra was probably not so affectionate; but his actions surely do not deserve the wrath-of-the-gods approach favoured by the FA; nor does Liverpool deserve much-mooted FA censure for daring to support their star striker against this howling tornado of artificial outrage.

The more basic issue is this: the racial politics of football have been pretty heavily policed for decades now. Yet we must still go through this ritual every couple of years. Things have certainly improved from the dark days of the 1960s, when the first few black players suffered sustained and remorseless abuse from white players and fans; and it was not until the 1980s when any real progress started to be made. Nonetheless, high profile anti-racist ‘campaigns’ (in reality, police actions) like Kick It Out were an effect of the changing ethnic composition of professional football, rather than the cause.

Race and multiculturalism

If this narrative sounds familiar, it is because it is broadly the narrative of post-war British race relations. Football does not exist in a vacuum; its culture is wholly interpenetrated with the culture surrounding it - and, as we have gone from a situation where racism is basically common sense (nobody except the left thought, for instance, Winston Churchill’s repulsive views on race a matter for comment until after his death) to another where racism is almost the worst accusation one can make against anyone in the public eye, so have football and innumerable other cultural formations evolved as well.

The British establishment’s official anti-racism is a combination of different elements. First and foremost there is a notionally ‘inclusive’ national chauvinism - tolerance and democracy are timeless ‘British values’, rather than (basically) a peculiar, accidental side-effect of World War II. On top of that is built a twin-track system of state policy - on the one hand, the official endorsement of ethnic minority ‘leaders’ that represents the core of so-called multiculturalism and, on the other, the accumulation of powers to police public discourse.

Taken together, this amounts to an ingenious, but unstable regime. Dissent from the popular classes - of which ethnic minorities comprise a disproportionate fraction - is partially undermined by material support to religious and other reactionary-patriarchal institutions with real roots in their communities. More radically reactionary tendencies arising from the increased power of the church, mosque and so forth can be tamed with recourse to police action against ‘extremism’. Finally, the national-chauvinist ideology behind it all is quite as serviceable for intimidation as previous racist policy - are you with Britain, freedom and tolerance, the state has asked (in particular) Muslim communities of late, or are you a dangerous foreign element?

This set-up does a reasonably good job of maintaining orderly relations between ethnic communities (although race riots are not entirely a thing of the past). It is, however, reactionary to its core - it relies on coordinated efforts by a reactionary state, its reactionary police force and reactionary ‘community leaders’. As such, it is not any kind of threat to reactionary ideology. Thus, for all the fulminations and admonitions of our betters, racism persists as a real phenomenon.

Diane Abbott

What better example of how this works than the Diane Abbott race row? Abbott took issue with a Twitter post by writer Bim Adewunmi, who had objected to the lumping together of all black people into an undifferentiated ‘black community’. For Abbott, that is succumbing to the classic divide-and-rule tactics of our masters. Abbott, however, made the mistake of identifying those masters as ‘white’. Thus was Twitter - now the medium of choice for artificial outrage - sent into yet another tiresome frenzy. Was not Abbott being racist against whites?

The notion, to put it mildly, is hard to credit. Yet Abbott is a tempting target for the right - though an unashamed political opportunist, she is leftwing enough to constitute a nice sharp stick with which to beat Ed Miliband. Though the Crown Prosecution Service somewhat soberly concluded there was no criminal case to answer, Abbott was a victim of an internal establishment police action, which succeeded in extorting a humbling apology and a promise of ‘good behaviour’ in the future.

The real irony in the case, however, is that Adewunmi was right to begin with. There is not an undifferentiated black community, and - as she argues in a piece on the whole scandal - representatives thereof are selected according to institutional biases of the establishment.2 The straightforward identity politics promulgated by Abbott in fact constitute an important support for the multiculturalist doxa that reinforces bourgeois power over the working class. It was not Adewunmi who was playing the ‘whites’ game’, but Abbott (the architects of modern multiculturalism were Thatcher’s ministers, and you cannot get whiter than that) - the extended spanking she received as a result of her unfortunate tweet was visibly enjoyed by all who joined in.

The link between the football scandals and the public humiliation of Diane Abbott is the key role assigned in official anti-racism to hysterical outrage. It becomes so terribly important to be seen to take racism seriously that nobody really does take it seriously - in place of sober analysis of the contradictory social tendencies there is only posturing and related silliness.

The organised left has come to reproduce this attitude. In the post-war era, it was of paramount importance for the left in Britain and especially America to account for the links between capitalist exploitation and racist oppression; but that analysis seems to have hardened into a dogmatic assumption that capitalism is racist in its most fundamental workings. This is not true; for the abstract logic of capital, reactionary ideologies are quite interchangeable, and it is the contingent development of history that drives one or the other to pre-eminence in a given conjuncture. More than being incorrect, it leads to political opportunism - if the system is inherently racist, it is enough to support semi-official campaigns against racism to challenge the system itself (the de facto policy of the Socialist Workers Party).

A serious analysis of the place of race and racism in today’s society is necessary; one that is neither a whitewash nor a hysterical moralism, and one based on the one thing Abbott’s ‘whites’ really fear - working class politics.



1. http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/16262537.stm.

2. www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/jan/05/diane-abbott-twitter-row-racism.