EURO 2012: Racism Can't Be Avoided in Soccer if It's In Society
Foreign Office warned ethnic minorities to “expect racist attacks" at this year's Euro Cup
The views expressed in this Op-Ed do not reflect that of Loop 21.
The British press is all up in arms over the potential for racist violence in Poland and Ukraine during this year’s Euro Cup. The Football Association (FA) has already expressed its worries with UEFA about the possibility of racial abuse towards England soccer players and fans. The Foreign Office has warned ethnic minorities to “expect racist attacks in Poland and Ukraine.” The families of black players Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have even bowed out from traveling to watch them compete, while former England player Sol Campbell has also warned fans to avoid the tournament for fear of “coming back in a coffin.”
And what is the proposed “solution” to this imminent problem at Euro 2012? To beef up security: hire more police and give them “anti-discrimination training,” and grant the referees “more powers to deal with incidents.” It amounts to treating the symptoms with a dose of criminalization, rather than dealing with the underlying causes of the seeming explosion of racism and xenophobia across Europe over the last decade.
True, Eastern Europe has not been a particularly hospitable place for black players. Spectators have thrown bananas at them, there have been attacks in the stands, and monkey chants and racial epithets have rung throughout stadiums in Poland, Serbia, Croatia, Ukraine, and Bulgaria. Although Remi Adekoya (the son of a Nigerian father and Polish mother) agreed that Poland has a long way to go in overcoming racial discrimination, he assured Guardian readers, “I would still say fans from all ethnic backgrounds need not fear visiting Poland during the tournament.” Ukrainian footballers Andriy Shevchenko and Oleg Luzhny have made similar statements about the safety of their home country.
[ALSO READ: Racist Tweets Toward Black Athletes]
This is not to dismiss the very real fears of those minority players and fans that plan to attend Euro 2012, but rather to question why this storyline has garnered so much press in Britain in the past few weeks. After all, the English Premier League has not been an anti-racist oasis of late. Recent incidents involving John Terry and Luis Suarez (right), along with the intense backlash against black players who dare to speak out against their experiences of discrimination on the pitch suggest that England (the United Kingdom and Western Europe more generally) is far from innocent when it comes to the persistence of racism in football.
As the eminent sociologist Paul Gilroy said 20 years ago “There ain’t no black in the Union Jack.” Just last year Prime Minister David Cameron declared multiculturalism a failure (Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Angela Merkel of Germany made similar comments), while a shared sense of white English exceptionalism has yet to be eradicated. These same politicians are rushing to declare the end of racism, even amidst increasingly strident calls for the closing of national borders to people of color and religious minorities, and for the preservation and reinvigoration of white nationalist cultures.
So, all of the impassioned cries about racism at Euro 2012 seem a bit like the pot calling the kettle black. (Of course, the United States has also joined in this sport of finger pointing. ESPN and other U.S. outlets could barely contain their glee over the Terry and Suarez fiascos, despite the persistence of anti-immigrant taunts at NCAA basketball games and the network’s own Jeremy Lin “Chink in the Armor” story (below)).
[ALSO READ: Female Soccer Player Assaults Opponent]
Rather than getting into a pissing match over our relative levels of racial enlightenment, I think that the larger lesson to be learned from all this kafuffle is that we can’t eradicate racism in football, or any other sport for that matter, until it’s actually addressed in society at large. Whether the field, the court, the track, or the ring, sport has never been a separate or hallowed space of “fair play” somehow disconnected from the wider national, regional, and even global context of racial inequality and discrimination. As long as we collectively look the other way when it comes to anti-immigrant/refugee policy and prejudice, racial disparities in policing and prisons, religious intolerance, and the damaging impact of neoliberal economics and crony capitalism on the poor and people of color the world over, we can’t expect racism in sport to magically come to an end.
Black activist and intellectual C. L. R. James recognized this in his 1963 memoir Beyond a Boundary. Cricket had already introduced him to the realities of race, class, and colonialism in Trinidad long before he became overtly “political”:
I haven't the slightest doubt that the clash of race, caste and class did not retard but stimulated West Indian cricket. I am equally certain that in those years social and political passions, denied normal outlets, expressed themselves so fiercely in cricket (and other games) precisely because they were games. . . . The British tradition soaked deep into me was that when you entered the sporting arena you left behind you the sordid compromises of everyday existence. Yet for us to do that we would have had to divest ourselves of our skins. (66).
Going back even further, the first black heavyweight champion of the world Jack Johnson – born in Texas in 1878, the son of former slaves – discovered this depressing fact when he visited London in June 1911 to attend the coronation of King George V. He thought that in leaving the United States he could find a respite from racism. Johnson, like many African Americans of his day, believed that Britain was a bastion of civilization where the color of his skin wouldn’t matter as much as his merit in the ring. He spoke publicly about the possibility of changing his citizenship from American to British.
What a rude awakening when Johnson’s scheduled match against British champion and former soldier in the British Indian Army “Bombardier” Billy Wells inspired a countermovement in September 1911. Numerous white clergymen, social reformers, and newspaper editors, from London to Johannesburg, came together in their calls for the prohibition of the fight slated for October 2. They feared that if Johnson defeated Wells in the imperial capital (and there was a strong possibility that he would), people of color would rise up against their British masters in the colonies. Home Secretary Winston Churchill eventually bowed to public pressure, declaring the match illegal, and not in the best interests of the nation and empire.
1911 seems like such a long time ago, but Johnson’s trials and tribulations are still instructive today. We simply can’t divorce what goes on in the ring or on the pitch from what’s happening in society at large. As much as we would like to believe in the vaunted myth of “fair play,” history is just not on our side. Neither is the present.
Theresa Runstedtler is Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University at Buffalo. She is the author of Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line, the first book to take an in-depth look at the first black world heavyweight champion’s international legacy. Visit her blog at www.theresarunstedtler.com and follow her on twitter @klecticAcademik.