Is football the epicentre of racism? With the scandal of former England captain John Terry fresh in our minds it is tempting to think so.
Terry was aquitted of charges of racially abusing footballer Anton Ferdinand last week. Terry’s lawyers pleaded that his outburst was the kind of thing that any fan or player would consider normal Saturday afternoon fare.
It was, they said, “industrial language”, the sound of raw working class Britain that middle class do-gooders would never understand.
This paints a picture of workers in factories and warehouses all over the land calling their workmates “fucking black cunts”, and then going for a drink with them on Friday night as though nothing had happened.
The shaming of John Terry came at the end of a bad season for racism in football.
We saw Liverpool’s Luis Suarez racially abuse Patrice Evra on the pitch. And drunken fans took to Twitter to hurl insults at Bolton’s Patrice Muamba as he recovered from a sudden on-pitch heart attack.
It is clear that some people are determined to take both football, and the rest of society, back 30 years. Then throwing bananas at black players and “paki-bashing” were seen by many as “just a bit of fun”.
So the attention given to racism in football is well deserved. But for some commentators the various episodes prove a general point—prejudice is ignorance, and ignorance is the preserve of the lower orders. Racism, they say, is a “chav” disease.
What nonsense. Of course there are working class racists but the generators of hate live much more privileged lives.
Respectable commentators fill newspapers with attempts to racialise crime. They say that knives are the preserve of African-Caribbean gangs and sexual grooming is the product of “Muslim culture”.
Smart suited managers who hire and fire workers doubtless look down their noses at players who sling verbal abuse. But they have a far more destructive effect on our lives.
The stereotypes they bolster mean that black and Asian people are up to three times more likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts. Those of a Pakistani or Bangladeshi background suffer most.
And, then there’s the police. Here it seems that racism is so endemic that it brings embarrassment even to very top of the constabulary.
Stop and search figures speak for themselves. But it is the steady drip-drip of stories detailing the mundane, everyday police racism that really tell the tale.
That the middle and upper classes invest so much effort into maintaining prejudice should not surprise us. The function of racism is to create divisions that can disguise the true order of society.
In short, the rich want the poor to fight each other for the crumbs while they keep the cake. If the working class is divided it makes life for the bosses much easier. Divided workers are easier to exploit—making united resistance at work and on the streets less likely.
That means it is among the working class that the key battles over racism are won and lost. This is not because workers are more racist—they aren’t. It’s because racism is only useful to our rulers if enough of the poor majority buy into it.
Here we have reasons to be optimistic. There was an outpouring of relief and anger at the conviction last year of two of the killers of black teenager Stephen Lawrence. It showed just how deeply anti-racism is felt in Britain.
The movement for justice for Stephen was a very working class affair. Hundreds of thousands joined marches and protests and millions signed petitions. And it was the trade unions that financially underwrote the campaign.
But as anti-racists we must always be on our guard. Determined campaigning and changing patterns of life have pushed racism back on the football terraces and in working class life in general.
But there are plenty of people, including many at the top, who would welcome its return.