Boris Johnson’s condemnation of racism in football is hypocrisy

The UK government’s refusal to condemn the booing of players who took the knee contributed to this toxic atmosphere. What did they expect?

Messages of support cover racist graffiti on the vandalised mural of England and Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford on a wall in Withington, Manchester [Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]

Just seconds after footballer Bukayo Saka missed his penalty shot at the Euros final on Sunday, resulting in Italy’s victory, an atmospheric change swept across England. The weeks of celebration and national spirit that had seemingly brought the country together as the tournament progressed were washed away by floods of racist comments towards the three Black penalty takers: Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho.

As I scrolled through Saka’s Instagram account after the match, I felt as if I had been transported to an England of 50 years ago. Comments were littered with monkey and banana emojis, he was told to “get out of my country” and was even referred to using the n-word. As appalled as I was, none of this is shocking to me. It is merely a stark reminder of the unaddressed culture of racism prevalent in England.

During the match, Black people had joked on social media about the potential for racism should England lose. There were humorous tweets that instructed Black people to evacuate pubs and lock their doors if Italy won. We all made these comments in jest, not expecting that the next morning we would wake up to the racist reality.

The aftermath of England’s loss to Italy saw football fans post violently racist comments on the players’ social media, Conservative MP Natalie Elphicke berate Rashford for “playing politics” – a reference to his campaign to end child food poverty – rather than spending more time “perfecting his game” in a WhatsApp message to other MPs, and a mural of the player in Withington, Manchester, where he once lived, vandalised.

As expected, this racism was met with almost laughably ironic messages of outrage from Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel. Johnson spoke of how “appalling” the abuse is and told the racist fans to be “ashamed of themselves”. Similarly, Patel took to Twitter to “condemn the violent minority who assaulted” the players. Both Johnson and Patel fail to see that they are directly responsible for fostering this environment and how this racist response is reflective of their government.

It is extremely difficult for anyone to take their words seriously, considering their long record of racial antagonism and insensitivity. Johnson is the same person who has compared Muslim women to “letterboxes”, described Black Africans as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and stated that the problem with Africa is that Britain is “not in charge anymore”.

Patel – herself the daughter of Ugandan-Indian refugees – is no better. She spent last summer labelling the Black Lives Matter protests as “dreadful”, implementing some of the most draconian immigration policies and arming the police with greater legislative powers without taking a single step to address the institutional racism which pervades the force.

Looking specifically at this week’s racist episode, Patel has directly stoked the flames of racial resentment in recent weeks through her calculated comments about players taking the knee. After football fans were heard booing the England team for kneeling in protest at racism, Patel felt obliged to label the kneeling as “gesture politics” and openly defended the right of fans to boo. Now, she appears to be trying to distance herself from the same people she was coddling just days before. Frankly, it is too late.

Sadly, this racist backlash needed to take place for England to, once again, be confronted with the grim reality of the very real racism it so desperately denies. Racism in this country has been documented since time immemorial, yet our society refuses to acknowledge its existence or seriously discuss ways to combat it. This was perfectly demonstrated by the UK government’s discredited report on Race and Ethnic Disparities, published in March this year. In that controversial report, racism was massively downplayed, and the UK was heralded as a “model for other white-majority countries”. The report chairman, Tony Sewell, even went on to refute the notion that there is any evidence of actual institutional racism, stating: “We no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities.”

If that is truly the case, then how do we explain the racist attacks from this week?

In the past few years, the British government has manufactured a culture war around “true” English values, with debates about statues of slave traders and flag-waving. For Johnson’s Conservative party, this is nothing more than a campaigning tactic. However, as we are seeing with the rise of racist hate crimes, these contrived culture wars have real and dangerous consequences. Therefore, Johnson and Patel’s tepid response to the actions of racist football fans this week can only be seen as hypocrisy.

Rather than issuing performative statements against racism, those in power should instead self-reflect on their actions, or lack thereof, and be accountable. This need for action also extends to social media organisations that rake in vast profits yet fail to implement effective safeguards against the hate speech unleashed on their platforms. The issue of racism can only be dealt with once there is a full and frank recognition of its existence at the institutional level and an acceptance of complicity by those in charge.

As the old adage goes, the fish rots from the head. The racist attacks on the England team’s Black players is an issue more complex than just sporadic vitriol by a minority. Racism is endemic in our society and the result of our historic failure to address the social and political issues at its core. If this conversation just fades away from the news cycle and national dialogue after this week, we will have learned nothing.

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