Thursday 18 January 2018

We can't forget racism question because it keeps being asked

Sulley Muntari. Photo: Getty Images
Sulley Muntari. Photo: Getty Images newsdesk

What a week, eh? In Italy, Pescara's Ghanaian midfielder Sulley Muntari is subjected to racist abuse from Cagliari fans. He tries to reason with them at half-time and even gives one youngster his jersey. But the abuse continues in the second half and Muntari asks referee Daniele Minelli to, as has happened in the past, halt the game and take the teams off.

The ref doesn't do that. Instead he books Muntari for dissent. The player walks off and is later suspended. The Italian football authorities refuse to take any action against Cagliari on the grounds that there weren't all that many fans involved.

In Boston, supporters of the local Red Sox baseball team hurl racist abuse and throw peanuts at Adam Jones of the Baltimore Orioles. "It's unfortunate that people need to resort to these types of epithets to degrade another human being," says Jones. New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia comments that Boston is the only place he's been called 'the n-word,' and that black players expect this kind of treatment when they go there.

Now to Switzerland where in the Tour de Romandie cycle race Italian cyclist Gianni Moscon directs racial abuse at black French cyclist Kevin Reza at the end of the third stage. Moscon's employers Team Sky say they'll suspend him for six weeks and make him go on a 'diversity awareness course' before adding, in typical Team Sky style: "It was nice that the two guys could shake hands and there was an apology. We moved on." What a week, eh? 3-0 to the Boys in White. Maybe it's time for some ads with the Italian FA, some Boston fans and Moscon saying, 'Yes to racism', in various languages.

There is a tendency to regard racism in sport as a problem which was much, much worse in the past and is being gradually and inevitably solved by the march of progress. We sometimes talk about doping in the same way and in both cases invoke the 1970s, an era of steroid-laden East German female athletes and monkey-chanting football terraces where every man was armed with a banana. Isn't it great we've moved past those dark days?

It's a very complacent way of looking at things. Doping continues apace, probably to an extent which won't become clear till years from now. And racism? It's having a pretty good season at the moment. The advent of the likes of Trump and Le Pen has seen sentiments which were once the preserve of the extreme right enter the political mainstream. And the right wing doesn't have a monopoly on this kind of thing either. The British Labour Party and the far left generally is riddled with the type of virulent anti-semitism personified by Ken Livingstone, a man with plenty of supporters among the Palestinian flag-flyers in our own capital city. We live in hateful times.

One thing that's obvious from the treatment of Muntari, Jones and Moscon is that certain white players and fans reserve the right to use racial abuse if they feel the moment is right. It's the Mother Of All Slurs, the one you whip out when absolutely nothing else will do. Signore Minelli's refusal to take Muntari's complaints seriously expresses an attitude which sadly remains common, namely that black players should learn to put up with racial abuse and perhaps regard it as an inevitable annoyance, like injuries or bad luck in front of goal.

The logical conclusion to draw from this argument is that black footballers or baseball players or cyclists are there on sufferance and should show a bit of gratitude. It's a bit like all those people who see even the smallest attempt to curb the most offensive and obvious forms of racism as 'political correctness gone mad.' By their reckoning, being white is the normal way to be and anyone different will just have to put up with a certain amount of verbals. The idea that it might be simple good manners not to use language calculated to offend other people doesn't seem to occur to these comment section crusaders.

They also don't seem to twig that the majority of us refrain from the kind of behaviour exhibited in Cagliari and Boston not because we want to be 'right on' but because we are simply trying to be decent human beings. What happened to Sulley Muntari and Adam Jones and Kevin Reza diminishes all of us no matter what colour we are.

There are of course zealots on the 'anti-racism' side, the kind of lads who insist on finding racism everywhere and embrace a witch hunter's mentality. Yet while these can be irritating their opposite numbers are downright disgusting. They were all over the internet in the aftermath of the incidents last week, making excuses, invoking 'free speech', suggesting the players might have provoked the crowd or their opponents.

I was reminded of James Baldwin, perhaps the most perceptive of all writers on racial matters, observing that in America a black man doesn't actually have to do anything to attract trouble, his walking down the street is viewed as an act of aggression in itself. There are no excuses for what happened to the footballer, the baseball player and the cyclist. None at all.

One of the most dispiriting aspects of the week was that revelation by Sky that they were sending their cyclist to a 'diversity awareness course'. How nonsensical is the idea that you need to go on a course to learn that it's wrong to use racial epithets in an argument with a person of another colour? You can just imagine Moscon sitting there at a desk and a light bulb suddenly appearing over his head as the truth dawns and 'Man In The Mirror' plays in the background, can't you?

There is something very 21st century and very Team Sky about this particular hypocrisy. The reality is that we all know using racist insults is wrong. Even racists know it's wrong but do it all the same because they think the blacks have it coming. Suggesting that Moscon didn't actually know what he was doing is wrong smacks of the Catholic Church's defence of the clerical abuse cover-up; How were we supposed to know? The deployment of the 'diversity awareness course' seems analogous to that old Irish favourite of visiting AA, a hospital or a counsellor so your solicitor can mention it in court.

The fact that Boston has such a terrible racist reputation may come as a surprise to some Irish people. We tend to think of racism as being concentrated in those Southern states traditionally policed by sweaty sheriffs who wear dark glasses and have a KKK membership card in their back pocket. Yet I can remember being transfixed, while watching the great documentary on the Civil Rights movement Eyes On The Prize, by footage from the '70s of Irish-American parents chanting 'n*****s eat shit' as they prepared to stone a bus containing black schoolchildren.

That Boston is the heartland of the US Democratic Party and barren territory for Donald Trump shows again that racism is not confined to one end of the political spectrum. Maybe that's why it's proved to be such an intractable problem. Every side likes to tar their opponents with the racism brush while ignoring evidence of it in their own ranks.

You hear it said sometimes that the Irish, with our history of oppression, should have a particular sympathy for victims of racism elsewhere. I'd be more inclined to agree with the great English novelist Christopher Isherwood who wrote that an oppressed minority, "Hates the other minorities - because all minorities are in competition; each one proclaims that its sufferings are the worst and its wrongs are the blackest." Reading that, I think of Conor McGregor reacting to some atypically mild remarks from Floyd Mayweather by invoking Irish suffering in a way reminiscent of the 'Irish Slaves' myth ceaselessly peddled by American White Supremacists. McGregor has at times walked on the edge of some very dodgy ground with his pre-fight rhetoric.

We'd all like to forget about the racism question and just get on with enjoying sport. Most Irish people have that luxury because we're white. Sulley Muntari and Adam Jones and Kevin Reza don't.

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