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The Antonio Rüdiger incident is yet another battle lost in the war against racism

Racism on the rise, and not just in football

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Tottenham Hotspur v Chelsea FC - Premier League
You won’t shut us down
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Many were shocked by yesterday’s internationally televised moment of Antonio Rüdiger calling attention to the racial abuse he was receiving, which led to stadium announcements at a Premier League ground for the first time ever, and the subsequent reports of the racial abuse of Son Heung-min, which led to a criminal arrest.

The majority of the response since has been appropriate. Tottenham Hotspur were quick to acknowledge the incident and launch an investigation. Tottenham fans apologized in great numbers to Rüdiger on social media. Chelsea fans reported one of our own, showing intention to work together and help stamp out this scourge. Managers, players, media analysts were, to a large degree, saying all the appropriate things.

But just the fact that there are “expected” and “appropriate” responses shows that we’re stuck in a middle of a war against racism. And we might be losing.

This is not a problem limited to just one team, just one sport like football, to just one country or region, or even one segment of society. Football is just one of the many battlegrounds, one that often hits just as close to home (“us”) and as it does in far off lands (“them”).

We can look back to what took place in Bulgaria in October, in the match against England, a national team where minority players are no longer a rare presence — as used to be the case not all that long ago. It’s easy to deride and denounce the locals, who, to their credit, took subsequent action in purging their ranks. The Bulgarian FA toppled their president and ousted national team manager Krasimir Balakov, who dismissed the clear racist chants directed at the black English players.

It’s easy to take a certain level of comfort in such incidents happening in Bulgaria, or Italy (where, for example, Romelu Lukaku didn’t have to wait too long to receive abuse after arriving this summer, including from his own fans), or France, or Russia, or some other country. But surely there’s limits to such cognitive dissonance, when we only have to look in our own backyards to find a practically never-ending list of incidents. (The Wikipedia article on Racism in Football, especially the section on the UK, should be a sobering, revolting, infuriating read.)

And yet, despite the persistent and seemingly correct coverage, racist incidents in England don’t seem to cause the same degree of national outrage as those happening outside of it. Then again, there’s no moral high ground to cling to when banana skins are being thrown at players, a team’s own fans racially abuse a player for an own goal or for missing a penalty, a former national team manager uses racist language in a repeat offence, or a team actually walk off the pitch in an FA Cup game. And those incidents involving Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Kurt Zouma, Tammy Abraham, Mark Sampson, and the Haringey Borough vs. Yeovil Town match are just a few of the many high profile incidents in the last twelve months alone.

During and after Sunday’s game, Sky Sports analyst Gary Neville, referencing the most recent political campaigns in the UK, correctly pointed out that racism is not isolated to the sport itself — and was shut down by a Sky Sports presenter who was seemingly more interested in covering for his network (“Stick to sports” is the phrase that comes to mind from the recent Deadspin fiasco) or maintaining some misguided sense of “balance” in what is not at all a two-sided issue in need of balanced coverage.

To say the problem is limited to football is to be, at the very least, hypocritical. There is an overarching problem not just in England, but in the world at large, where racism exists not just in the shadows, but in broad daylight, and is used to put down and marginalize those who are not seem as one of “our own”. As much as many would like to think or proclaim, this was not “solved” during the US Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, or when FIFA President Blatter claimed in 2011 that there was “no racism in football”. And even if we manage to eventually do it, stamping out racist behaviour in stadiums will not be enough either to deal with what has been a structural, multi-shaped, and multi-faceted problem for centuries.

There are least two key factors in play. First is the part where people of colour might be “accepted” by racists (in football and everywhere else) as part of “our own”, which in their minds is then a sign that they are not racist themselves. (i.e. “But I have black friends!”) And yet, when a black player does something harmful to their team — be it a goal, a red card, or just a simple play — they are quick to turn to racial abuse. As the above-mentioned examples show (or the treatment of players like Paul Canoville by Chelsea fans in the 1980s), it doesn’t even have to be an opponent.

The other thing is the structure. While the history of the world is littered with setbacks, there is a clear tendency of improvement. But that does not mean sitting idly by and waiting for progress to come. It is almost always reached by several struggles and clashes that last decades, if not centuries, to ensure that any progress that takes place in the societal structure is not just a new mask used to disguise a persistent problem.

Until we deal with these issues, the war against racism will see us lose more and more disheartening battles, with every advance looking meagre by comparison in the big picture. Momentum seems to be going in the opposite direction. The risk of us simply getting used to this is ever greater. And if we do, we will have lost.

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