How the media and elites fuel racism in British football

The racist abuse suffered by Raheem Sterling on Saturday can not be blamed solely on Britain’s ‘white working class’.

Raheem Sterling AP Photo
Manchester City's Raheem Sterling controls the ball during the English Premier League match between Manchester City and Bournemouth in Manchester, England, Saturday, Dec 1, 2018 [Rui Vieira/AP]

Over the weekend the two biggest British newspapers, the Sun and the Daily Mail, reported on the racist abuse suffered by Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling during Saturday’s game against Chelsea. Both led with images of Sterling standing dismayed, surrounded by a dozen or so white, mainly middle-aged men, screaming and gesticulating at him.

It has been alleged that one of these men, 60-year-old Colin Wing, called the football player a “f**king black c**t”. Both newspapers decided to pixelate the faces of everyone in the photograph, except for Sterling himself.

It was a perfect illustration of how racism is (mis)represented in British society. The victims are usually pushed to the foreground, scrutinised for any sign of dishonesty, aggression or culpability, while those who perpetuate racism through individual actions and at the structural level are shielded from scrutiny, and racism as a social problem is lazily attributed to the working class.

It is also how Brexit has been explained: It was the prejudiced “white working class” that voted for it because they are xenophobic and anti-immigration. The problem is that racism (like Brexit) is not a white working-class “sin”. It is a major societal malaise which has infected all structures and institutions of the British state and which has been propagated by the educated middle class and the self-serving elite.

The white men seen screaming at the player in Saturday’s viral video offer a more accurate picture of racism in British society today. As one Twitter user pointed out, the bespectacled, grey-haired Colin Wing wearing a smart blue jacket “looks like he could be part of the government”.

That’s not too far from the truth. Successive UK governments filled with Colin Wings have been blurting out racial slurs at the general population in the form of racist legislation for years now. Earlier this year, the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism Tendayi Achiume criticised a host of government policies, including the “hostile environment” measures for migrants, the putative anti-terror initiative Prevent, racism in policing and criminal justice, and the especially pronounced harms of economic austerity on communities of colour and black women in particular. 

Like Brexit, such policies attract considerable support from wealthy whites, who nonetheless like to pretend that racism is a problem of the working class.

In propagating their racist beliefs, Britain’s rich have support from large sections of the British media. While reporting on Saturday’s attack on Sterling, the Daily Mail and the Sun also failed to mention that their own coverage of Sterling has been nothing short of hostile and racist. On Sunday, Sterling personally criticised the Daily Mail for their discriminatory reporting, which he said “fueled” the kinds of abuse he had been subjected to.

In 2016, both newspapers attacked him for buying a home for his mother, who raised him as a single parent. “Obscene Raheem” was the headline in The Sun. “England flop Raheem shows off blinging house,” was the Daily Mail’s. The same day, The Sun used a picture of Sterling to accompany a report with which he had no connection whatsoever, on a semi-professional footballer who they claimed was a drug dealer.

Sneering and sensationalised reporting has demonised Sterling for every aspect of his life: for being “greedy” in negotiating professional contracts, for not washing his car, for having breakfast, for proposing to his “long-suffering girlfriend”, for having the wrong tattoo, for shopping at a discount store, etc.

Sterling has been targeted by a toxic and contradictory combination of white masculine anxieties about race, class, and gender.

He is too rich in the eyes of those for whom black prosperity can only ever be an aberration. Stories of his erratic spending are meant to show that a young black man is unworthy of wealth.

He is too happy with his loving family, so the press has been obsessed about scrutinising his romantic life for signs of unfaithfulness or promiscuity. There have been multiple “reports” that he had allegedly fathered large numbers of illegitimate children as a teenager.

One possibility is that the fury directed at Sterling is a toxic response to his obvious failure to conform to the racist stereotypes concerning black men that are embedded in white British culture. While some in the crowd on Saturday racially abused him, a much larger number were heard taunting him with a chant: “Raheem Sterling, he runs like a girl.” Sterling runs in a distinctive, poised manner that enables the elegant and elusive dribbling. He attributes this unusual running style to his mother, who was a talented youth athlete in Jamaica. He is also visibly emotional while on the pitch, often appearing vulnerable, even fragile, during games. His “feminine” style simply doesn’t fit the bigoted trope of the hyper-physical, aggressive black athlete.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of the journalists, editors and media owners who have directly or indirectly supported this sustained campaign of abuse against Sterling are members of the British middle class and elite.

In the aftermath of Saturday’s incident, the response from some quarters of the liberal elite was to feign innocence and surprise. Complacent commentators such as the prominent football writer Henry Winter described Colin Wing’s verbal abuse of Sterling as a “wake-up call” for the media.

The problem with calling for media professionals to “wake up” now is that the blatantly racist reporting on Sterling has been going on for years and its harmful effects have also been obvious for a while now.

A year ago, 29-year-old Karl Anderson was jailed for committing a racially aggravated assault against Sterling in the street. He had kicked Sterling four times, calling him a “black scouse c**t” and telling him “I hope your mother and child wake up dead in the morning you n****r”. In court, Anderson’s lawyer said his client could not explain his actions against Sterling.

Why wasn’t that incident a wake-up call for British media? Because it very much seems like part of the British media and some British people suffer from persistent amnesia about the structural and overt racism in our society.

Like Karl Anderson after his assault on Sterling, many of us white British people seem unable and unwilling to explain why such verbal and physical violence keeps being directed at this young and wonderfully gifted black man. Our collective display of incomprehension is perpetuated by a national curriculum and a popular culture which teach us next to nothing about the long history of British colonialism and Transatlantic slavery that laid the foundations of structural racism in our country.

Raheem Sterling described his personal reaction to Saturday’s incident, writing: “I just had to laugh, because I don’t expect no better.” White British people need to listen to Sterling when he tells us (like many other people of colour across the country in recent days) that he wasn’t in the least bit surprised by what happened to him. We need to accept that racism permeates our social and political order, take responsibility, and do everything we can to dismantle the power racism continues to hold in our society.” 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.