The racist abuse of football players is still, sadly, the ‘real England’

As the final penalty was saved on Sunday night and Buyako Saka stood forlornly, head in hands, for what must have seemed like an eternity before his teammates arrived to console him, I, too, found myself staring at the front of my own palms. Not because of the football – I had enjoyed the tournament, watched all but one of the games, and wanted this England team to do well, but I didn’t care about the result on the same visceral level as many ‘real’ football fans. No, the source of my despair was the fact that, of the five penalties the team had taken, two were scored (by white players) and three were missed (by black players). The skin colour of the players involved shouldn’t have entered my head, of course, but from the moment Marcus Rashford’s kick bounced off the post, the uneasy knot had already started to form in my stomach.

It was obvious what was about to be unleashed. That the nasty underbelly of this country was once again about to be laid bare was inescapable, inevitable, and Giorgio Chiellini had barely finished raising the trophy aloft before the n-word began to trend on Twitter.

What followed in the hours after the game was an unedifying mix of the most horrific racist abuse imaginable, bigoted dog-whistling from some Tory MPs and crocodile tears from others, attempts from some of those on the ‘right’ side of the argument to excuse, rationalise or minimise what we were seeing, and, somewhat unbelievably, The Sun trying to paint itself as an unshakable pillar of anti-racism. A mural of Marcus Rashford in Manchester was daubed with racist graffiti. Far-right shitheads, desperate for a few hundred likes, snidely tweeted about how he should have been practising penalties instead of sticking his nose into politics. Know your place, Marcus. Know your place.

What this final really exposed is what black people, immigrants and other minorities have known all along: that their acceptance in this country is entirely contingent on their success. That is to say, not their own personal success, or any achievement that may benefit them in some way, but those successes that prove useful or desirable to the straight, white, cis, nominally Christian majority.

This multicultural team of caring, decent and talented young men had just made it all the way to the final of a major tournament for the first time in 55 years. They had matched a world class team – the team most had fancied to win it at the outset – for two hours, and in the end, the only way they could be separated from the early tournament favourites was by way of a penalty shootout. Had a couple more of those penalty kicks been successful, they would have been legends, icons, lions. We’d have been waking up on Monday morning to headlines lauding the courageous exploits of Sir Marcus Rashford, Sir Buyako Saka, and Sir Jadon Sancho, holding them aloft as a great symbol of national pride. Instead, we woke up to yet another stark reminder of how you only get to be black in this country on terms strictly defined by white people.

It’s so endlessly alarming how quickly the mood can shift, how little a young black man has to do to fall from our affections. This is exactly the same group of individuals who have brought us so much hope and joy and excitement and exhilaration over the past month. The same lads who delivered the 4-0 win against Ukraine and the historic victory against Germany. The same lovely, pure-hearted boys who have conducted themselves so impeccably throughout, who have given football – Englishness, even – back to those to whom it had been a stranger for so long. They’re the same young men in whose reflected glory the louts who booed them taking the knee, smashed up Leicester Square, stormed the security gates at Wembley, kicked an Asian man in the head as he lay helpless on the ground and inserted flares into their rectums would have been so happy to bathe, but for two kicks of a football. Two kicks of a football, which rendered them worthless to us, and therefore worthless. Two kicks of a football: the difference in this country between being a national hero and a, well, you know what.

Further, maybe less obvious, examples of this phenomenon could be seen the following day, as various well-meaning outlets posted images of Marcus Rashford helping out at food banks and praising his work in forcing the government u-turn on free school meals last year, alongside messages decrying the racist abuse he was suffering. But this, too, misses the point. His charitable work is utterly irrelevant in this context. If he had never lifted a finger to help anyone but himself, it still wouldn’t be ok to racially abuse him, and we shouldn’t be expecting black people to be superhuman before we’ll treat them as human. Racist abuse is always wrong, whether it’s directed at a saintly figure like Rashford or an intrinsically evil one like Priti Patel. It’s just wrong.

Sadly, though, it is still, in 2021, a defining feature of English society, and it’s far from just a ‘football problem’ (though it is undoubtedly worse in football than anywhere else). There were those who were breaking their backs in the aftermath of all this horribleness to stress that it was just a ‘tiny minority’ of people who were ‘not real fans’. Not only is this patently incorrect, it feels like a very deliberate attempt to absolve ourselves – the good, decent people – of any responsibility for the fact that we live in an undeniably racist country.

In the wake of the Sarah Everard murder, I wrote a piece in which I compared misogyny to a pyramid, with the relatively few rapists and murderers of women sitting at the top, but propped up by those ever-wider layers of people underneath who carry out, actively condone or passively tolerate various lower-level acts of misogyny. The same analogy can be applied here.

Yes, it was a very small minority of the overall population who took to Twitter and Instagram to post monkey emojis and racial slurs on Sunday evening, but that is self-evidently far from the whole picture. We live in a country where the letters BLM – Black Lives Matter – are met with widespread derision and demonisation. We live in a country where the likes of Rod Liddle and Richard Littlejohn make a living as journalists, and very few in the profession ever bother to call out their consistently and nauseatingly vile content in any meaningful way. Indeed, the vast majority of the press in England is either overtly or surreptitiously racist, and huge swathes of the population gleefully purchase or click on their content, lapping up their divisive winks and nudges like so much runny dogshit. We live in a country where those seeking to escape violence, oppression and persecution are routinely vilified, criminalised and othered, and where parties who promise to deal with them harshly are more likely to achieve electoral success. We live in a country where ‘free speech warriors’ routinely take to the internet to shriek about ‘cancel culture’ because an episode of a 1980s sitcom that contains a racial slur is no longer broadcast, or because they’re not allowed to wear black face at the office party. We live in a country where people who are not white experience worse outcomes in terms of education, health, employment and criminal justice, and where a government-commissioned report dismisses any structural explanations for this, but instead uses racist tropes to shift the responsibility back onto the victims. We live in a country where the Prime Minister is a man whose pre-government career was characterised by the regular farting out of newspaper articles in which he compared Muslim women to bank robbers, referred to black children as ‘piccaninnies’ and argued that colonialism in Africa should never have ended. He now enjoys an 80-seat majority in parliament because enough of us either don’t care about his fairly obviously racist ideals, or, in many cases, enthusiastically support them.

The psychologist and author John Amaechi famously said quite recently that our culture is defined by the worst behaviour we will tolerate. Our culture is currently a thoroughly unpleasant one, in which the most appalling behaviour is not only tolerated, but blithely accepted. This is not a ‘tiny minority’. Or anything like. Racism is woven into the very fabric of our society. It is ubiquitous, allowed, excused and often celebrated. It’s who we are. If you’re genuinely sitting there and arguing that this isn’t the ‘real England’, you are a fairly significant part of the problem, and a long period of education and introspection is required.

There is some good that can come of this, though. The inclusiveness of this English team, the way they’ve used their platform to promote the message that they represent all communities, religions, sexualities and ethnicities, and how clear they’ve made it that they do not want the support of those who don’t share those values, provides a much-needed glimmer of hope. Tyrone Mings’ timely and powerful condemnation of Priti Patel’s hypocrisy was refreshing to see, and there’s a tentative sense that they are starting to galvanise those with anti-racist beliefs around their measured but stubborn advocacy.

It can’t all be left to them, however, and it’s up to us, the beneficiaries of the inherently racist society in which we live, to take the fight forward. It shouldn’t be down to black people to carry out the emotional labour necessary to bring about an end to a problem created, promoted and sustained by white people. It is not enough to be ‘not racist’. You don’t win any prizes for managing to get through the day without saying the n-word. And burying your head in the sand, hiding behind protestations like ‘not true fans’ and ‘not the real England’, is helpful only in assuaging your own conscience whilst perpetuating the white supremacist culture that brought about Sunday’s ugly scenes.