17th June 2018
Racism – not just a football issue
Racism, equality and diversity have surfaced as hot topics in the worlds of sport and culture over the past week. In part this is not unexpected, with the advent of the World Cup and the notorious reputation of a cohort of Russian fans dominating certain sections of the media. The other strand of the debate has surfaced from a less predictable source, with novelist Lionel Shriver taking issue with the recently stated diversity policy of publishers Penguin Random House (PRH).
Consistent with much corporate expectation these days PRH released a statement suggesting that it aims to make the company as diverse as Britain, with respect to “ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability.”
The pledge from PRH as stated on its website is that,
“We want both our new hires and the authors we acquire to reflect UK society by 2015.”
The response of Shriver is, at best sardonic, at worst elitist and betrays a level of appreciation of issues of diversity usually associated with the Daily Mail. For Shriver PRH has abandoned its core mission.
“Drunk on virtue”, she says, “Literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual education and crap education boxes.”
“a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter…will be published.”
All of which says more about Shriver than the stated of policy of PRH. Like the ranting ‘political correctness gone mad’ brigade, who seem to think that dragging modern society out of the nineteenth century is somehow an infringement of their freedoms, Shriver appears to think that PRH are likely to publish anything produced by any so defined ‘minority’, whatever its quality or merit.
There may be many motivations behind the PRH position. There can be little doubt that their objective to publish from a wider pool of voices than the white, middle class, Oxbridge educated elite within UK society is to be applauded. However, PRH are a private company, they may have an altruistic exterior but their core motivation as a private sector company is to make money. It will not matter how gay or ethnically diverse an author is, if they do not sell, they will be dropped.
It is very likely of course that there are many hidden talents in a wide range of communities in the UK, screaming out to be heard. If PRH remain true to their policy, we may soon be in a position to find out. As for Shriver she can rest assured that the bastions of white middle class privilege are unlikely to fall any time soon. If they do start to tumble, she can always take comfort in having gender on her side.
Racism in sport has surfaced this week as the World Cup gets underway, with calls from some for black players to walk off the field if they are subject to racist abuse during any of the games. Such a response could see entire teams heading for the sidelines, the whole tournament disrupted and a victory for the racists.
John Barnes, former England and Liverpool star, who suffered racist abuse in the 1980s and 90s, has a different take on the issue, believing that racism in football cannot be separated from society as a whole, stating,
“Since I’ve been involved in professional football, it’s as if the rest of society is okay but football has a long way to go. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I’ve been saying for decades, as long as racism exists in society, it will exist in all facets of society. Until we eradicate it from society, football will be like any other industry.
Before we are footballers or fans we are ordinary members of society. We are doctors, lawyers, milkmen, postmen, unemployed people, students…so why are they called racist football fans? Are they just racist for the 90 minutes, when the other six days a week they’re not?”
Barnes has a clear understanding of the roots of racial discrimination in a society which has been pushing a “narrative that has been spun to us for the last 500 years about the worthiness, morality, and intellect of a certain group of people in relation to other groups, particularly black people.”
Others disagree with Barnes and feel that the walking off tactic would be justified, in order to make an impact and give the issue of racism more prominence on an international stage.
However the issue is handled over the course of the tournament, racism will continue to be an issue in football, publishing and society long after the World Cup is over and long after the comments of Lionel Shriver are yesterday’s news. The stand taken by Barnes and others in the sporting world helps address the issue, the stand taken by PRH may give a voice to many others not being heard.
It will require concerted effort in every workplace and every industry to get to the roots of the problem and eradicate racism as the divisive force it is. A working class divided on grounds of race is less of a threat than one united in opposition to those who wish to hang on to their positions of privilege and power. Tackling racism is integral to tackling the inequality endemic to capitalist society and the challenge of making change permanent.