“This book extends and expands our knowledge of how racism occurs and how it can be challenged”

Mads Skauge
Nord University, Bodø, Norway

Daniel Burdsey
Racism and English Football: For Club and Country
131 pages, paperback
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2021 (Routledge Focus on Sport, Culture and Society)
ISBN 978-0-367-60778-4

This Routledge Focus on Sport, Culture and Society book from 2021 “analyses the contemporary manifestations, outcomes and implications of the fractious relationship between English professional football and race. Racism, we were told, had disappeared from English football. It was relegated to a distant past and displaced onto other European countries. When its appearance could not be denied, it was said to have reappeared. This book reveals that this was not true. Racism did not go away and did not return. It was there all along.”

First of all, I have to give credit to the author for ‘capturing’ the reader right from the start, making some great points of the significance of football as a social and cultural phenomenon. “English football has arguably been the foremost popular cultural sphere in which ideologies and discourses around race, racism and immigration have been both expressed and resisted (…) Indeed, football provides one of the most significant backdrops for what Stuart Hall labelled a multicultural drift” (p. 1). Football is the most significant area of popular culture in which the interplaying entities race, culture, identity and nation are articulated, resisted and played out. Burdsey is at his best when he connects examples from football to social change in its context: As underlined by the author, the contemporary socio-political climate in the UK, namely Brexit and widespread racially motivated hate crime, provide a compelling and timely, yet complex context for exploring the connections between race and this aspect of popular culture.

It is argued that racism is firmly embedded and historically rooted in the game’s structures, cultures and institutions, and operates as a form of systemic discrimination. Sport, thus football as the greatest cultural phenomenon in the world, mirrors society and vice versa. On the one hand, racism has tainted English football. On the other hand, football has influenced racial meanings and formations in wider society, for instance by facilitating forms of occupational multiculture, Black player activism and progressive fan politics. At elite level, these developments have been literally ‘played out’ on the pitch.

Burdsey’s main point of departure is to criticise the notion of racism in English football as a thing of the past. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, types of racism, such as incidents of banana-throwing, monkey gestures and insults by supporters (or more correct: ultras and ‘football firms’) toward Black players, were said to be relegated to a distant past. Thus, racist artefacts in the stands and as an undeniable part of supporter cultures and football fandom, was archived as an historical blight. An institutionalisation of the anti-racist football movement was emerging and became a powerful means of silencing allegations of racism: “A comparative decrease in supporter racism in stadia, increased representation of some minority ethnic groups in some roles and positions, and a decline in overt workplace discrimination were cited as ‘evidence’ of racial progress” (p. 2, 3).

It is fair to say, for instance, that Italy seems to face more banal obstacles in tackling racism in football than English football, as an anti-racist movement in Italian football decided to use paintings of monkeys’ heads as a symbol to front the campaign.

Racism in football was portrayed as something displaced elsewhere. The act of racism was relocated onto someone else, somewhere else and some other time. These frames reflect what have been described as ‘the three Ds of post-racial racism management”: deflection, distancing and denial’. Alongside the Ds, three conceptual Rs of contemporary dominant perspectives on racism in football are highlighted: return, rise and re-emergence. In the combination of the Ds and the Rs, Burdsey’s critical position argues that racism is instead enduring and systematic. The ‘paradox of the returning constant’ is conceptualised.

Of course, it is out there for everyone to see that the portrayal of English professional football as a post-race entity is inaccurate. Pointing at others (e.g., Russia, Poland, Hungary, Italy and the Balkan nations), is not irrelevant nor wrong, but it should not overshadow problems of English football and society. It is fair to say, for instance, that Italy seems to face more banal obstacles in tackling racism in football than English football, as an anti-racist movement in Italian football decided to use paintings of monkeys’ heads as a symbol to front the campaign. Moreover, organised neo-fascism is evident among several fan groups in Eastern and Southern Europe, to a far greater extent than has ever been seen in the UK, Burdsey explains.

In this regard, Burdsey makes the obvious (but important) point of stating that such facts must not stand in the way of global anti-racist solidarity and support. “The perpetrators of racism anywhere in football should be condemned and confronted persistently in the strongest possible way, without apology or recourse to cultural relativism” (p. 4), or what tends to be a concept in the sportswashing-discourse nowadays: whataboutism.

Accordingly, Burdsey’s fundamental point is that the necessary process of identifying and confronting racism ‘elsewhere’ (in the domestic game) did not prompt a sufficiently reflexive and informed consideration of the problems ‘here’ (English football). It rationalised the rhetoric of denial, resulting in a rage of systematic shortcomings around race that were ignored and/or unchallenged, and appropriate and effective anti-racist interventions and measures were not put in place. This implies not only a mis-phrasing of the football–racist problem in the UK, but even to ignore the problem.

Problematising the football–racist discourse in the UK is thus the starting point for the conceptual framing of the book. As Burdsey puts it: “Racism did not return to English football. It could not return because it never went away. It has been a constant and central presence during my 40 years of following the game and 20 years of writing about it” (p. 5).

So, how does Burdsey conceptualise racism? Having put forward the rationale and context for the book, he outlines his sociological interpretation and conceptualisation of racism in English football. In this regard, Burdsey offers some correctives, but not distinct definitions or operationalisations of racism. The correctives are based, firstly, on the fact that racism in English football is historically situated, structural and systematic: It cannot be approached as spontaneous isolated cases, as something individual and private. Second, football does not simply reproduce societal racism; it plays its own part too. The cliché of sport as a microcosm of society, must involve a duality.

Although Burdsey does not refer to the actor–structure dispute in sociology, I interpret him to advocate a perspective very much similar to the actor–structure influence on social practice: Football racism should not (and cannot) be taken as simply a reflection and an extension of the society around it (football as determined by society’s structures). This is not just inaccurate, but also fatal as it draws attention to society at large (macro), thus relieving the social field of football of its responsibility. Make no mistake, such a distinct and powerful cultural phenomenon as football, has almost unimaginable societal power and influence. Sport, at least football can (re)shape wider social structures (football as agency contributing to the production of society’s social structures). Sport is productive, not merely receptive of racial discourse, as Burdsey puts it. However, and this seems rather scarcely treated in the book, football’s potential of social change may also lead to problematic perceptions, for instance that football institutions and stakeholders tend to position themselves as the solution to racism rather than its source.

An interesting point made is the structural problems of the anti-racism campaigns potential for social change. Although there are many examples of anti-racism campaigns, for instance Show Racism the Red Card, racism can be said to fail to match anti-discrimination rhetoric with tangible action as anti-racism is “‘evidenced’ in the number of organisations that sign anti-racist charters in sport, but then proceed to do little if anything to establish the necessary conditions to foster change in their own sphere of influence” (p. 26).

The main problem, Burdsey explains, is that anti-racism organisations are unable and/or reluctant to ‘bite the hand that feeds them’: Anti-racist organisations do not have a genuine regulatory mandate in football. They are not afforded the power to hold the game’s governing bodies, clubs and players accountable for their actions, and so possess little capacity to bring about social change. The system that enables their existence at the very same time prevents them realising their purpose. They can condemn discriminatory acts but cannot formally investigate or penalise them.

So, what is to be done? Burdsey’s ambition is modest: «I have not proposed practical solutions, but I end this book by raising possibilities” (p. 98). He calls for transnational networks and institutions, being fundamental to the potential of contemporary black sports activism, not restricted to country-specific constitutions and jurisdictions. Although how this is to be done, is not much discussed, he reflects upon how racism is to be challenged and tackled in the stands through a fandom of progressive politics.

What may this look like? According to the author, the 2013 World Championships in Russia made a difference, representing a shift in English football. Football was partly ‘coming home’ as the nation fell in love with the “Three Lions” again, players were proud to represent England, and the connection between players, media and fans was underpinned by a feeling of common identity and social location. However, something much more important, sociologically, gripped the nation’s attention, namely discussions of race and multiculture. Over half of the squad were Black or mixed-race, a composition hardly seen in the national team hitherto. “This was a team that was seen to stand for a progressive, multicultural England, and one that embodied the presumed commonplace acceptance of racialized difference in a modern, post-racial society” (p. 65). Over the summer of 2018, public displays of xenophobia and racism in the streets of England sat, once again, alongside carnivalesque fan gatherings. This is the double standard of white football fandom, something probably reinforced by the news and social media discourse narrating white and Black players differently.

Anyhow, positions in the FA are positions of power and influence, and it seems worrisome that only 5% of the personnel in leadership roles have ethnic minority backgrounds and that there are no women of colour in England senior coaching roles.

Furthermore, anti-racism in the stands must not be reduced to an individual act of courage to speak up against inappropriate chants, banners, etc., Burdsey concludes. If the fight against racism in the stands is to be won, fans must be positioned at the forefront of this work, as they have the numbers and voices to be heard, and to make a difference. Fan power has been shown to facilitate forms of progressive politics in the stadium and beyond, as for instance (not mentioned in the book, probably because it was in print while it happened) the spontaneous organising of supporters in the streets making the European Super League, an initiative taken by some of the most powerful individuals in the world, collapse in hours.

My main reservation for the celebration of the book, is this: I do not get a grasp on the concept of structural racism, although it is exemplified and discussed in several places in the book. First, what distinctions can be made between institutional racism and discrimination? Second, I would like some critical reflection on whether underrepresentation of ethnic majorities in clubs and boards actually are valid variables of racism, and, especially, what may cause it. These numbers are just starting points for more nuanced insights. Practices of discrimination, exclusion and/or racism are precisely practices, and cannot be seen (only indicated) in numbers. Anyhow, positions in the FA are positions of power and influence, and it seems worrisome that only 5% of the personnel in leadership roles have ethnic minority backgrounds and that there are no women of colour in England senior coaching roles.

In some racism literature, one can get the impression that if you do not find widespread racism in a given social field, it is because you have not looked hard enough. That said, I fully follow Burdsey’s critique of the FA’s take on racial inequality, understood as being underpinned by absence. According to this logic, it will be solved by representation, not by power structures. “The work of diversity becomes, then, essentially about impression management rather than social change” (p. 38). However, as a football fanatic and sociologist unfamiliar with the sociology of racism, I would have liked a glimpse into what these power structures look like.

Third, an overarching question for the research on racism in football is whether the social sphere of football has some characteristics making social change more or less accessible. One distinguishing feature of football in this regard may be the cultivation of rivalry and ‘good-hearted hate’. Football fandom and chants often balance on a very thin line when it comes to what the receiver (often players) perceive as acceptable and not-acceptable attitude. Football seems to bring out the best and worst in people, and the logic of rivalry probably contributes to some people ‘stepping out of character’ and doing abusive and racial acts. Thus, a latent function of the football culture may be the unfolding of discrimination, and more so than in less rivalry-oriented social settings (football is probably the most rivalry-oriented social field there is, at least the most widespread).

Nevertheless, the book extends and expands our knowledge of how racism occurs and how it can be challenged. This is an essential read for those interested in the social and organisational dynamics of (English, especially) football. At least for readers who are not familiar with the field of racism in sociological research, the book seems useful as an example of racism’s manifestations, outcomes and implications in one relevant field (English football) but offers scant understanding of racism as a social phenomenon (its power structures and dynamics in society at large, which is key to tackle the problem in football). Thus, I look forward to following Burdsey’s further research in this field.

I would like to end with Burdsey’s timely call upon the sociology of sport: “With their transnational and transhistorical outlook, footballers of colour have established a path for popular cultural anti-discriminatory politics. This is a route that sociologists of sport would do well to follow.”

Copyright © Mads Skauge 2022 

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