On Saturday a section of the Millwall support booed the players as they knelt to show their opposition to racial discrimination. Some commentators, including Derby manager Wayne Rooney, seemed surprised by the reaction, but anyone paying attention will know this was about as surprising as a corruption scandal in FIFA. The incident afforded commentators the opportunity to wag their disapproving finger at the bogeymen of English football and others to rush to social media to hysterically proclaim that taking the knee was a “Marxist” plot to bring down capitalism.
Over recent months players have chosen to kneel before games to show their support for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and to highlight racial discrimination in the game and wider society. Some of those players have been on the receiving end of racial abuse themselves while others may have had negative experiences with the law where they felt they were targeted because of the colour of their skin. Current and ex-players from Chris Hughton, Les Ferdinand, Gabby Agbonlahor, Raheem Sterling to Coby Rowe have all come forward and shared their experiences of racism. The publicity that the Black Lives Matter movement has received has given impetus to conversations about structural racism, police brutality and our history.
While the Black Lives Matter movement has pushed the discussion about racial prejudice to the fore, especially in football, it’s also been channelled by some down the cul-de-sac of performance politics and endless self-reflection. Taking the knee should not be a substitute for real structural change and without wider action in the community it starts to look like a tick box exercise for football clubs who want to be seen to be doing their bit. Like the diversity industry, which has become a PR exercise for companies who want to polish their image while paying staff a poverty wage, the taking of the knee by the likes of the chief exec of JP Morgan Chase and Keir Starmer shows how meaningless a symbol can become if it’s detached from the material world. The demands of Black Lives Matter UK are largely basic, non-political and easily accommodated, simply asking that black people are given equality with white people. Which makes the claims about them being “Marxist” all the more laughable.
There are criticisms to be made about anti-racism in football and the Black Lives Matter movement, but let’s be absolutely clear here, those booing at Millwall were not offering a critique of the effectiveness of tokenistic anti-racism. While the animosity on display at Millwall on Saturday isn’t representative of football as a whole, or even Millwall, neither is racism the preserve of a handful of gobshites at The Den, nor did it simply disappear from football in the 1980s. While racist chanting at games became less common and had largely fizzled out by the end of the 90s that wasn’t because racists stopped going to football, it was because they felt less confident being racist. The racists became marginalised because their behaviour became less acceptable and fans were less likely to stand for it. You still hear occasional comments but they’re invariably challenged. Fans calling out racists in their support, is always going to be a million times more effective at dealing with racism than any directives from a board or outside organisation.
It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of identity politics where it can sometimes feel like a competition to see who’s the most oppressed. Splitting and subdividing sections of society into uniquely oppressed groups might be good for a sociology essay but less so when finding common ground to unite people. If you hear someone say they think their life is expendable or they’ve suffered at the hands of the police and you feel the same that should be something that brings you together. While the kind of prejudices we deal with may vary, the experiences of working class people of all backgrounds with the authorities share many similarities. From deaths caused by Covid-19 to police brutality, job insecurity to a general feeling of political abandonment, the experiences of minorities and the working class they’re largely a part of are shared. When we lose sight of this we run the risk of falling prey to the more divisive aspects of identity politics, and make no mistake, tourists like Farage feed on these cultural anxieties as much as any “woke” commentator.
Taking the knee is not enough, but it’s clearly something that many players believe helps to highlight racial discrimination, which they feel very passionate about. If seeing them do this offends you then you’re part of the problem.