Southgate gives Boris a lesson in anti-racism
On Sunday, millions of England fans watched with despair as England lost to Italy on penalties in the UEFA European Football Championship final.
Stepping up for your nation at a penalty shoot-out in front of millions of people is no easy feat. But Saka, 19, Sancho, 21 and Rashford, 23 - all incredibly talented young players who helped carry England’s men’s team to its first international major tournament final in 55 years - did just that.
Unfortunately, rather than praise for helping England reach the final, the trio’s courage was overshadowed by a torrent of vile and racist abuse after they missed their penalties.
"These players are part of an England squad that highlighted the very best of Britain"
Let’s be clear: These players are part of an England squad that highlighted the very best of Britain. The team was one of only a few in the tournament to consistently take the knee, symbolizing their commitment to tackling racism both on and off the pitch.
This England team embodied the values of equality, diversity and tolerance that many of us value. But the tournament also brought into sharp focus a very ugly side to this country - the racism, hatred, and intolerance that some continue to espouse. It's indicative of a culture not just within football but across our society where the plague of racism remains commonplace.
The racist abuse directed at these young Black players didn't come out of nowhere. For years, there has been a concerted effort to downplay the issue and pin it on a small but vocal minority. But to pretend that racism is restricted to a fringe group on the far-right ignores the role that those in positions of power play in exacerbating it.
We saw this play out with the moral panic surrounding England players taking the knee. Last month, Home Secretary Priti Patel criticised the national team for kneeling against racism before their Euro 2020 games, describing it as "gesture politics".
Instead of condemning those who booed the England squad for doing so, Patel said fans had the choice to boo footballers for taking the knee if they wanted to. Now Johnson and Patel muster faux outrage over racial abuse, but their previous inaction makes their condemnation seem like hollow words.
Zarah quotes the Prime Minister’s own racist words, and the Minister tells her to lower her tone and accuses her of shouting at her?— Samayya (@sigmalphabet) July 14, 2021
What a world we live in. pic.twitter.com/hcUWUkk7j7
In fact, the racism directed towards Black players is enabled by rhetoric and inaction from the top.
England national footballer Tyrone Mings highlighted this recently when he criticised Patel for fanning the flames of bigotry directed towards his teammates. "You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as 'Gesture Politics' and then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we're campaigning against happens," tweeted Mings.
The racist attitudes that pervade the media and politics demonstrate that racism is indeed a systemic issue. It's simply an insult to our intelligence that politicians and tabloid papers can express faux concern over the same bigotry that they themselves have spent years whipping up.
The fact that Boris Johnson can compare Muslim women to letterboxes and use racial slurs to refer to Black people and then go on to occupy the highest office in the land is indicative of a culture where racist attitudes go unchallenged and have zero consequences for those in the public sphere.
Racism at the very top goes far beyond mere rhetoric. It manifests institutionally through policies that disproportionately impact people of colour and entrench racial inequality. We like to pretend that we are a “post-racial” society but nothing could be further from the truth.
"The racist abuse directed at these young Black players didn’t come out of nowhere"
We know, for instance, that a decade of austerity has disproportionately affected ethnic minority communities, with the poorest Black and Asian women being hit hard by changes in welfare and income support as well as drastic cuts to public services.
There remains persistent racial inequality across the areas of health, criminal justice, education, employment, immigration and politics. A new report, released today by the Runnymede Trust, warned that the government was breaching human rights commitments under the UN racism treaty and highlighted how racial inequality has "escalated" over the last few years.
It's clear that we have a long way to go in eliminating the scourge of racism from our society. If we are serious about tackling it, we must be prepared to challenge both the rhetoric and the policies which enable it. We must also expect better from our leaders.
Gareth Southgate and the England squad have demonstrated much better leadership on this issue than Boris Johnson, or any of our elected leaders ever have for that matter. Through his exemplary moral leadership, he has managed to bring the country together to rally behind a diverse team and has taken a clear stance against racism and inequality.
Football commentator Gary Neville summarised perfectly the contrast between Gareth Southgate and Boris Johnson: "The standard of leaders in this country in the last couple years has been poor. He's everything a leader should be. Respectful, humble, telling the truth," said Neville after England defeated Denmark to reach the final of the Euros.
"Southgate and the England squad have proudly championed the diversity of our nation and made clear their commitment to anti-racism. They represent the very best of Britain and our elected leaders would do well to learn from them"
Southgate and the England squad have proudly championed the diversity of our nation and made clear their commitment to anti-racism. They represent the very best of Britain and our elected leaders would do well to learn from them.
Basic respect and decency for Black footballers shouldn't be conditional on their value to society. It is a moral imperative for any society which claims to be tolerant and progressive to take a firm stance against racism. Until our leaders are committed to eradicating it rather than endorsing it, everyday racism will continue to thrive.
Taj Ali is a freelance writer and political activist based in Luton. He recently graduated from the University of Warwick with a BA in History and Politics.
Follow him on Twitter: @taj_ali1
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.