Priti Patel Priti Patel. Photo: Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street / Flickr, license linked at bottom of article

The racist abuse of black England football players has been fuelled by the Tory culture war, but the popular backlash against it marks a turning point, argues Yonas Makoni 

After England’s defeat at the Euro finals, the social media pages of three black players Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka were flooded with racist abuse and a Marcus Rashford mural in Manchester was vandalised – before being covered with messages of support.

There has been widespread debate about the nationalism, racism and antisocial behaviour that often rears its head during these football tournaments. It’s fair to say, at least, that these events expose the latent racism and nationalism that still hides in British society.

On the other hand, the widespread backlash and condemnation of these actions show just how far the anti-racist movement has succeeded in shifting the general consensus.

During the tournament, much of the debate focused around the players’ bending of the knee in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and as a gesture of anti-racism. Priti Patel came under fire for not condemning fans who were booing this gesture – insinuating that visible expressions of anti-racism are an attack on the white majority. This, of course, is part of the government’s long-standing strategy of mobilising the ‘silent majority’ against ‘wokeism’.

The course of events, however, has called the effectiveness of this strategy into doubt. While relatively little attention was paid to the knee debacle, the football players pushed back hard against the abuse they received and led a public outcry. Even notoriously racist and right-wing tabloid The Sun has had to jump on the bandwagon, supporting the football players against racism on its front page.

In fact, this moment might lead to a larger backlash against the government’s “anti-wokeism”. According to a recent Yougov poll, 54% of fans in England believe that racism in football ‘exists and is a serious problem’, while only 4% deny its existence altogether. This supports other polls that show that opposition to anti-racism is relatively small.

This suggests that outright racism in Britain is declining or, at least, is becoming less acceptable in the public sphere. These statistics also call into question superficial interpretations of the Brexit vote being driven primarily by bigotry.

For some time there has been an anti-racist mood in this country exemplified by the working class support for Jeremy Corbyn and sustained anti-racist campaigning. The Black Lives Matter movement has clearly played a huge role in the last year in spreading anti-racist arguments, and the government’s usual strategy of condemning ‘thuggery’ and ‘mob rule’ – such as with the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol – has not been effective in alienating the majority from the fundamental aims of the movement.

This has opened an opportunity, immediately grabbed by leading football figures, to draw the links between this abuse and the more subtle forms of racism perpetrated and endorsed by our government and media. The effect of their initiative in drawing attention to the government’s role in this should not be underestimated. Priti Patel’s hypocritical denunciations of the abuse were immediately called out by England player Tyrone Mings:

You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens.

— Tyrone Mings (@OfficialTM_3) July 12, 2021

Gary Neville also argued, correctly, that this racism is “coming from the very top”. Both see through the government’s cynical tactic of condemning outright hate crimes, while tolerating, encouraging and perpetuating the state-driven racism that paves the way for them – e.g. Priti Patel’s plans for sending refugees to offshore immigration centres in Africa.

This is a moment for the movement to really push forward these arguments. There is now a real opportunity to win over many people, who might underestimate the extent of racism in British society and the establishment’s role in perpetuating it. If we do, this could be a breakthrough moment for the anti-racist movement in Britain.

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