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Zero tolerance and the principles of anti-racism

This is a cross post by Dave Rich of The CST Blog

Events surrounding Liverpool Football Club in recent weeks provide a good example of why certain principles of anti-racism are so important, and what happens when a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to racism appears to be compromised.

Last month, the Football Association announced that Liverpool’s star striker, Luis Suarez, had been found guilty of verbally insulting the Manchester United defender Patrice Evra during a match at Anfield in October, and of making reference to Evra’s skin colour in the process.

As the FA’s lengthy and detailed report (pdf) of their investigation explains, Suarez admitted making reference to Evra’s colour during the course of their argument on the pitch, although he denied some of the more explicitly racist remarks of which he was accused by Evra. The FA Commission which heard the case decided that, on the balance of probabilities, Evra’s claims were accurate and that “Suarez used the word “negro” or “negros” seven times in the penalty area. On each occasion, the words were insulting.”

It is not my purpose here to rehearse all of the arguments in the FA report (full disclosure: I am a lay advisor to the FA’s Antisemitism & Islamophobia in Football Taskforce, but that is not the capacity in which I am writing this blog and I had no involvement in the Suarez-Evra case). My concern is more about Liverpool’s reaction to the initial FA charge and its outcome.

One of the fundamental principles of anti-racism is that, when a person makes a complaint that they have been the victim of racial abuse, you have to take that complaint seriously. Whether they are right or wrong,  whether a subsequent investigation vindicates their complaint or not, your initial response must respect their perception that they have been racially abused. This basic standard was set in stone by the MacPherson Report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, who found that black people were habitually treated with scepticism and scorn by police officers when they tried to report racial abuse.

Yet from day one, Liverpool’s attitude to Patrice Evra has been the complete opposite of this. When Liverpool Manager Kenny Dalglish was first informed of Evra’s complaint, his response was: “hasn’t he [Evra, not Suarez] done this before?” Mediareports the next day suggested that Liverpool wanted Evra himself to be banned for making what they claimed were false allegations. In the hearing itself, Liverpool argued that Evra had invented the allegation against Suarez and maliciously pursued it, knowing the damage that would do to Suarez’s reputation. Even after the FA Commission ruled against Suarez, Liverpool stuck to this line and repeatedly questioned Evra’s honesty. Neither Liverpool nor Suarez have apologised to Evra for the hurt that he says he felt.

The idea that black people invent allegations of racism for personal or professional gain is itself a racist trope and is not something to be levelled lightly.

Another principle of anti-racism is the need to create an environment that is hostile to racism and is supportive of people who suffer from it. This is in order to deter people from making racist expressions and to encourage people to report incidents of racist abuse, as racism (like all forms of hate crime) is habitually under-reported to the police and other agencies.

Again, Liverpool’s actions have undermined all their previous good work in this area. The club’s decision for their manager and players to wear t-shirts bearing Suarez’s name and image, in immediate response to his having been found guilty by the FA Commission, was the most striking expression of their determination to stand by their star man – despite his admission that he had referred to Evra’s colour during the match in October.

Years of promoting anti-racist messages were undone in an instant, and it may well take years for Liverpool’s reputation to recover. Veteran Equalities campaigner and Chair of Kick It Out Lord Ouseley was moved to accuse Liverpool of hypocrisy.

Liverpool claimed that cultural and linguistic differences between Uruguay and Britain effectively rendered Suarez innocent. Even if this were true (and the FA decided it was not), those who understand racism know that its dynamics ignore intellectual nuances. It was inevitable that at least some of Liverpool’s supporters would take the club’s stance as a green light to refer to an opponent’s skin colour in the midst of an argument.

This is why many people were not surprised when, on Friday night, another allegation of racism was made by a visiting player at Anfield – Oldham Athletic defender Tom Adeyemi, who complained that he was racially abused by a Liverpool supporter. If, as some media reports suggest, the alleged offender was wearing a Luis Suarez t-shirt at the time, the connection will be even more stark. As professional footballer Darren Byfield tweeted on the night:

Byfield is not the only black player to express his dismay at Liverpool’s unqualified support for Suarez, even after the FA Commission found against him.

A fan has been arrested for the alleged abuse of Adeyemi. Liverpool immediatelyapologised to Adeyemi and gave the police their full support, but the difference between their reactions to the two cases is inescapable.

Now Liverpool, by one of football’s more mischievous acts of fate, have been drawn to play Manchester United at Anfield in the 4th round of the FA Cup later this month. Suarez will still be banned, but presumably Patrice Evra will play. And if anything is inevitable in football, it is that Evra will be roundly booed by Liverpool fans every time he touches the ball.

Although there is a risk that Evra will be racially abused by Liverpool fans as Adeyemi was, it is more likely that the barracking he receives will not be explicitly racist; and yet, it will be hard to ignore the fact that the only reason why he, amongst all the visiting United players, might get singled out for abuse, is that he was racially abused by a Liverpool player and complained about it. For this, he will get booed by a predominantly white football crowd, many of whom will be wearing t-shirts bearing the image of the Liverpool player who racially abused him. If this occurs, then quite unwittingly (but utterly predictably), Liverpool’s actions will have constructed an environment in which race is an issue, and a black player will be booed and heckled by white fans precisely because race is an issue.

I will finish with one final thought, and it is a thought that should have influenced Liverpool’s actions right from the start. Will black footballers and fans now consider Liverpool Football Club to be a more or less welcoming place for them to play or visit than it was before all this began?