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John Barnes on Sport, Racism and How to Really Make a Difference

Posted on 6th October 2021 by Mark Skinner

One of the most cultured footballers to ever put on an England shirt, John Barnes is also a highly articulate and thoughtful commentator on a broad range of issues. His new book The Uncomfortable Truth About Racism is a bold and unflinching account of systemic racism in British society and, in this exclusive piece, Barnes discusses the interrelationship of sport and racism (and anti-racism) and makes a compelling case for what needs to change.        

Overt racism was a feature of life in Britain when I came here in 1976, and was reflected in our most popular sport, football. It was accepted as much in society as it was in football, and the platform for debate about the evils of racism wasn’t available or thought important enough to contemplate or discuss.

Black footballers of the 70s and 80s were told to get on with it, man up, have a stiff upper lip, and not let it get to us. It never got to me at all personally when it came to football, since I saw the way opposition fans treated their own Black players if they were successful, and racially abused me as a member of the opposition; I knew that if I played for them and played well, they would cheer me, and maybe my own fans (of my present club) would abuse me as a member of the opposition, as they sometimes did.

While that didn’t affect me in any way shape or form, what did affect me was the way society treated the average Black person in the street. The way Black people were stopped, searched and harassed, not just by police but generally, always left a lasting impression on me. I understood even as an 18-year-old footballer that while the abuse we footballers received for the ninety minutes on a Saturday afternoon wasn’t particularly nice, the abuse, apathy and lack of opportunity and respect directed towards the average Black person was what we needed to address more.

I knew then that I was an elite Black person, along with the few Black actors, singers and other sports people, as well as a few politicians, out there. I knew that I had many more privileges than the general Black community. There have been many Black footballers, and I should imagine many other Black actors, singers and sports people, who were lost to their profession because they wouldn’t ‘put up with’ the abuse/banter they were subjected to.

We would get sympathy from many quarters and the discussion about the need to change started to gather pace in the early 90s. With this so-called new and improved approach to the subject, there was an excitement among not only the Black elite but also the wider Black community that there would now be tangible change, and equal opportunities would arrive for Black sports people, actors, etc. specifically, and as a consequence Black people generally.

There began a change in football’s acceptance of Black players, a reassessment of our abilities, both physical and mental. Perceptions of our so-called ‘weak character’ were altering.

Once upon a time, Black players had to be better than their white counterparts to be considered equal. I’m sure women in business will tell you something similar in terms of the general perception of them in relation to their male counterparts.

But now you had average Black players who weren’t negatively judged because they were Black; their ability alone enabled them to stand side by side with the white players. As overt racism became less and less evident in football, we were tricked into thinking that things were getting better for Black people.

Throughout that time, things never got better for the average Black working-class person in the street, but the illusion of improvement won the day: the media focussed on how football had changed and used that as representative of wider society.

Nothing could have been further from the truth: the inner-city Black youths were even more disenfranchised and neglected, knife crime increased, educational and social problems worsened. But as long as the media spun their narrative about the new improvements in football regarding acceptance and lessening abuse of Black players, we thought things were getting better.

All the while I saw Black football fans continuing to be abused before and after games, as well as during them, but as long as it wasn’t being directed at the players, it wasn’t deemed an issue.

I have always said that we must take a bottom-to-top approach when dealing with any type of discrimination (sexism and homophobia included amongst other discriminatory realities). Yet the message from the Black elite always seems to be a top-to-bottom approach: they say we need more Black people in positions of power, then things will get better for people down below.

This has never happened in history: we have just created more Black, female, gay, etc. elite while the average working-class members of those particular groups have been left behind.

We have the benefit of history to show us this: from the Magna Carta, the English Civil War, the French Revolution, the American War of Independence, the Haitian revolution, and many more. While being framed as a fight for ‘the common man’, each of these events was always about creating more for the semi-elite, to grab more power for themselves. ‘The common man’ remained right where he was, with little or no change, but we created more elite people who improved their own lot.

We are now at the stage where due to events of recent times, the Far Right seems to have gained more power and legitimacy, and people who were quiet for the past five years have become emboldened to show their true colours. While nothing has really changed for the Black, inner-city, working-class community in the last fifteen years, our Black footballers are now getting abuse that we thought was a thing of the past.

It had never gone away: those people had just kept their mouths shut, and if we use the apathy, and lack of opportunity, towards the general Black community, why would we be so foolish as to think things would be different in football?

So here we are now, since George Floyd’s death: football taking the lead in the fight against racism. Football can do absolutely nothing to stop racism. What it can do, and is doing, is highlight the problem and start the discussion in the public domain.

Football players have no influence over the way people think about other groups of people who have historically been considered intellectually and morally inferior. If a Black man like Barack Obama, and a woman like Theresa May, at one time being the most important people in two of the most powerful countries in the world, cannot change the perception of society towards Black people and towards women, then why do we think that because Raheem Sterling is a good footballer, people will listen to him and respect and believe in the average Black man?

The more we continue to focus just on Black players taking a knee, and criticising the behaviour of Romanian officials, Bulgarian and Hungarian fans, and the odd English fan, the more we neglect the real issue of racism towards  the Black community at large.

These ‘scapegoats’, who we are led to believe are the reason for Black people being discriminated against, have no power over the issues such as knife crime, education, housing, and access to social and economic services, which disproportionately affect the Black working-class community. But we are told that they are the problem, and by using the Black elite to condemn them, they are creating more enemies instead of allies in the fight against racism.

So let’s stop highlighting and focusing on people who are inconsequential to the disenfranchisement of Black people, and instead try to make a real difference towards equal opportunities for all Black people and not just the elite Black people.

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