12 August 2021

Football and anti-racism: widening the pitch

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As the new Premier League season kicks off, Sunder Katwala looks back at how football – both the players and the fans –has often been at the centre of debates about racism and identity in Britain; and at challenges and opportunities to broaden anti-racism norms. This piece was first published in Hope Not Hate's 'Heroes of the terraces' magazine.

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The contested arguments about football and racism in Euro 2020 were the latest chapter in a much longer story. Our national conversations about race have often revolved around football.

That was once because football was the sphere of public culture in which overt racism was most vocal and visible. As a teenage season ticket holder at Everton in the 1980s, football introduced me to a scale of public racism that I am sure we will never witness again in our stadiums. Yet football introduced me to anti-racism too, as I saw how sustained efforts to change the culture of the club and international game made a difference.

The pioneering first generation of black England stars won a foundational public argument in the 1980s, about who could be English. It took longer to change the culture in our grounds. There are pros and cons to how football changed in the 1990s – but I felt much more confident attending England games after Euro ’96 saw a decisive shift in the fan culture.

That 1990s message of inclusion was often more aspiration than reality. If the culture felt less hostile, the process of black and Asian England fans being confidently present in numbers, and less likely to feel that we might stand out as rare exceptions, has been more gradual. It remains a work in progress for club and country alike. The #EnglandTogether campaign saw many civic voices come together this summer to celebrate the growing sense that support for the national team could become as diverse as the country it represents.  “Football is coming home – and it is a home we all share,” as Leeds Imam Qari Asim put it.

England’s young players had their own argument to make about race and inclusion. The players, with an average age of 25, reflect the majority view of their generation – that, while they inherit the progress of the past, there is still more to do. So the players’ decision to take a knee became a focal point of debate, especially once their gesture was booed in early friendlies, strengthening their resolve to continue into the tournament.

The players can claim to have won the public argument – certainly against the booers and boycotters and with most fans too. The pattern of data over time does not support the view that this was primarily the capricious result of sporting success with England’s run to the final.

The first national opinion poll about players taking a knee, in the Premier League, had seen support and opposition evenly balanced – at 37% each, with a large agnostic group. Support for the England players’ choice grew further during Euro 2020 – rising from 50% for and 37% against (+13) as the tournament began to 56% for and 33% against (+23) ahead of the final.  A larger shift in attitudes occurred before the tournament rather than during it. Indeed, support grew again after the England players lost the final – because racist messages on social media after the penalty shoot-out further strengthened the view that racism remains an issue in football today.

This was at least one “culture war” debate in which it was the right that risked talking to its own tribe – about the cultural Marxist threat of Harry Kane – in ideological terms that made little sense to most of the public. Those who booed, or defended booing, toxified their own side of the argument, leading some of those on the fence to join the applause to drown them out. That 8 out of 10 ethnic minority fans supported the players taking the knee shows how this argument will reinforce the reputation of this England team as leading the argument for an inclusive England.

Yet there were challenges for anti-racism in this contested argument too, since effective anti-racism advocacy depends on engaging a range of different audiences.

Mobilising support can be important to press governments and other decision-makers to act. Reaching and shifting the middle ground is, by definition, essential too, in order to shape and deepen social norms against racism.  The modest growth in the majority in favour shows some impact here.

But anti-racism also needs to engage tougher audiences. So we will need anti-racist messages with a broader reach than to six out of ten people if we are to isolate and contain those with toxic views, and ultimately to shrink their numbers.

So what happens next?  The majority of fans who supported the players taking a knee will want to ensure that substance now follows symbolism. That could include major investments in anti-racism reporting, both online and offline, and clear commitments to ensure that the idea of a level playing field extends beyond the pitch into the dugout, boardroom and press-box.  Moderate critics could verify their sincerity by supporting substantial measures too.

Football’s potential to bridge divides, as a powerful site of local and national identity, is a reason to aim to dissolve, rather than entrench, the dividing lines of this summer.

Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future. This piece was first published in Hope Not Hate’s ‘Heroes of the terraces’ magazine.