The United Kingdom: A Racist Country?

Gemma Kentish
28 Mai 2015

A video showing a group of English football fans pushing a Frenchman off the Paris metro train because of the colour of his skin has shocked the world, and has highlighted growing racial tensions in our modern society. It has sparked outrage online and in the media, and has called into question Britain's so-called 'hooligan culture'. But is this an isolated incident, or is there a deeper rooted issue at play? This report looks into the issue of racism in the United Kingdom today

Credit Fifa
Credit Fifa
On the 17th February, French-born Souleymane S was on his way home from work when he became a victim of a racial attack. "I tried to board the train and suddenly there were two people who pushed me off. I didn’t understand. I thought, this isn’t normal. I tried to get on the train, I was pushed, and then they pushed me a second time. I still didn’t understand why they had pushed me. Then one of them, a young man, made a hand gesture … to show that it’s white skin here, black skin has no right to get on.

The men who prevented Souleymane from boarding the train turned out to be a group of Chelsea supporters, on their way to watch a match against Paris Saint-Germain. A passer-by, an English expatriate living in Paris, captured the attack on his phone, and immediately sent the footage to British newspaper The Guardian. The video has brought world-wide attention to the case, and has helped shed light on identifying the offenders.

What is disconcerting, however, is the men's openness, and even pride, of their racism. Chanting can be heard on the video, singing, "We're racist, we're racist, and that's the way we like it". In this show of open aggression towards a black man in a public place, their blatant racial hatred is obvious, and even frightening. Moreover, it uncovers the normalisation of racism within British society.

The incident has brought bad publicity to the Chelsea club and to the hooligan culture of British football in general. Chelsea was quick to condemn the attack, and insisted that those involved do not reflect the attitudes of the majority of supporters. In response, Chelsea fans have held up anti-racist banners to show that they do not share the same beliefs as those involved in the attack, one such banner proclaiming, "Black or White, we're all Blue", in reference to the team's colour. Their show of public condemnation may be heartening to see, but sadly does not take away from the seriousness of the incident.

The uncomfortable link between football and racism

This kind of behaviour is not uncommon. Hooliganism has always existed in Britain, and the association with sport, in particular with football clubs, is nothing new. Football has been plagued with numerous racist incidents, and racism has become such a contentious issue within the football world that there has been a huge need to launch anti-racism campaigns, such as UEFA's No to Racism, and the British charity Show Racism the Red Card. The large number of high profile anti-racism campaigns in football proves this point: that there is still a strong presence of racist sentiment in football.

This begs the question: why is racial prejudice so prevalent in football clubs and at matches? It may be explained by the psychological theory of mob mentality. Developed by French thinker Gustave Le Bon, mob mentality, or herd theory, describes the phenomenon of surrendering individual thought in favour of a more collective behaviour, in which the individual has little control over his own actions. Football culture emulates this phenomenon. Supporting a football club brings much more than a feeling of elation when your team wins a match. A club can evoke a sense of belonging, and shared emotions can be very powerful. A person will feel safe when they feel that they belong, safe enough to express their opinions, even antisocial or abhorrent ones. And when those opinions are shared by enough people in the group, they become a genuine danger to society. As this incident on the Paris metro demonstrates, mob mentality can seep into a person's psyche, and can bring people to express views and commit acts of aggression that they would never do on their own.

Making it Political: The Rise of the Right

Football culture can be used as a mirror to reflect underlying issues within society, and The English Defence League (EDL) embodies this dark side of British society. Set up in 2009, the far right organisation has successfully managed on a number of occasions to incite racial and religious hatred in the streets of English cities and towns. Calling for the end of 'the rise of radical Islam' in the United Kingdom, the group tends to attract white, working class males, and their street protests has often led to violence and numerous arrests. In October 2010, clashes broke out between EDL members and Asian and black youths in Leicester, in the Midlands. Members of the EDL threw fireworks, smoke bombs and bricks at the police, and attacked a news van.

However, the EDL suffered a blow when leaders Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll announced they would step down, as they considered that the organisation was becoming too extreme. Remarkably, Robinson and Carroll had been learning about Islam, and had been in talks with Quilliam, a think tank founded by former Islamists and established to counter extremism. Their astonishing story proves, better than most, that prejudiced attitudes can quite easily be broken, even with only a little multi-racial integration and interaction.

Nevertheless, this section of society still persists, and many EDL members have conveyed bitter feelings of betrayal over Robinson and Carroll's resignation. However, in recent years a new political party has emerged to respond to the social ills of today: the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

Taking a more subtle approach, leader Nigel Farage and his populist right-wing party are wreaking havoc in British politics, appealing to a large swathe of the public. Farage describes UKIP as a "libertarian, non-racist party", and has largely toned down racist fervour that was stirred up by the EDL. Nevertheless, the party exploits the same social and economic insecurities felt amongst a large portion of society, playing on the fear of immigration to engage public discontent and thereby gain popular support. British journalist Owen Jones stated, "The emergence of UKIP represents one of the greatest threats to the building of an equal, just and accepting society".

It was later revealed from online sources that one of the men involved in the Paris metro incident, Josh Parsons, had had a photo taken with leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party Nigel Farage. Of course, UKIP has been keen to distance themselves from Parsons, explicitly stating that they are not a racist party. Nevertheless, this revelation reflects a disturbing proximity between growing racist sentiment in British society and the rise of the populist Party. Moreover, it is not the first time that such a story has emerged amongst UKIP supporters and members. UKIP Councillor in Kent Rozanne Duncan was recorded in an interview last year saying that she has "a problem with negroes".

Denied the Right to take the Metro

Souleymane S has officially filed a formal complaint with the French police, who are cooperating with the British MET to charge the men involved. Speaking out against the attack, he stated, "I was a little bit hurt physically but in terms of morale I was hurt a lot. It has really affected my life. I can’t go back into the Métro, it makes me really afraid. I don’t think you should be denied the right to take the Métro because you’re black. That’s what they wanted". And in a perverse irony, it was Souleymane that was the French citizen, and yet it was he that was being abused in his own country by a group of foreigners.

What is striking is that this incident has only drawn worldwide media attention because it was caught on camera. If it had not been for the spontaneity of a passer-by, this racist attack would have gone unnoticed, like thousands of other incidents of racism, every single day. Despite the attempts of numerous charities and campaigns, what is painfully obvious from watching this video is that racism in football, and in society in general, is far from dead.