Politics

Will the Azeem Rafiq Case Purge Britain of Institutional Racism?

Britain is in purgatory. Its latest racial crisis is as grave, urgent and compelling as the upheaval that followed the urban riots of the 1980s and the soul-searching over the report on the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1999. But the latest scandal that has engulfed one of Britain’s favorite sports and one of its best sports clubs comes only 18 months after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, in the US, that has reverberated around the world, giving impetus to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Being caught in purgatory suggests the current crisis has the ability to cleanse or purify. The case of Azeem Rafiq has the potential to do exactly this.


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Rafiq is the former professional cricketer who recently revealed that, during his employment at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, between 2008 and 2014 (he also played for the club in 2016 and 2018), he was habitually subjected to racial abuse, was obliged to listen to offensive language, including the epithet “paki,” and experienced “bullying.” His initial complaints of institutional racism were reviewed by the club which, in October 2020, confirmed that an inquiry was underway and instructed a legal team to investigate. The findings were anodyne and, while the club apologized to Rafiq, it cited “insufficient evidence” in relation to several claims.

Rafiq escalated the matter, making an additional legal claim against the club for “direct discrimination and harassment.” He had his testimony heard by an employment tribunal and, more recently, a government select committee. Key officials at the club were embarrassed into resigning, and sponsors, including Emerald Books, Yorkshire Tea and Nike, dissociated themselves, relieving the club of a valuable source of income.

Rise of the Political Athlete

Imagine if Rafiq had voiced his concerns two years ago. An individual athlete making largely uncorroborated but momentous claims, many contested by whites, from years before would have been unlikely to be taken seriously. He would have probably been dismissed as oversensitive, thin-skinned or even paranoid.

The default escape route of “banter” — that catch-all word habitually used to dismiss offense and harassment — would probably have been used to elude culpability or deny malice or aggression. A lack of hard, unequivocal evidence or confessions would not have helped his argument, and it’s unlikely most people would ever have heard of Azeem Rafiq today.

Black Lives Matter has changed all that. Since the movement, which has existed since 2013, turned its focus on the Floyd murder, the world has taken notice. Its effects in Britain have been truly transformative. Statues of historical figures associated with slavery have been pulled down, entertainers from film and television have been reprimanded, shunned or canceled for characterizations that have racist connotations, every program or film is now accurately representative of Britain’s culturally diverse population and practically every TV show has a disclaimer about language and scenes that may offend.

Britain already has equal opportunities legislation, but employers are probably scrutinizing how obediently they follow the letter of the law nowadays. It’s doubtful whether any other country has reacted as positively to Black Lives Matter as Britain. Rafiq’s case appears at a propitious time in history and now promises to batter whatever remnants of racism are left.

There is also providence in Rafiq’s position. At no time in history have athletes been taken so seriously. The old stereotype about dimwitted or politically ignorant jocks has been destroyed by a generation of spirited and culturally aware athletes, who are determined to use their sports as platforms. Five years ago, this would have been unthinkable. In 2016, NFL player Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers, decided to fashion his own protest against police violence against African Americans by dropping to his knee while others stood proudly before the American flag as the national anthem played.

It was a near-seditious act at the time that barred him from the field ever since. Now, sports teams all over the world spend a few moments kneeling to signify a commitment to the fight against racism.

Athletes like Rafiq are now taken seriously. Their views and proposals on such human rights matters as child poverty, migrant workers and the National Health Service are not only listened to but, as in the case of Manchester United player Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free school meals, acted upon. A blunt repudiation of Rafiq’s claims from ex-colleagues impresses no one. The so-called white privilege that afforded whites credibility when denying racist behavior is fast disappearing.

Revelations that Rafiq posted anti-Semitic messages on social media several years ago do not invalidate his present claims. No one seriously believes victims of bigotry — of whatever kind — are always innocents themselves. There is also no reason to think, as Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews suggests, that Rafiq’s apology was not “heartfelt” or “completely sincere.”

Day of Reckoning for Institutional Racism?

The weakness in Rafiq’s argument may turn on institutional racism, which is denied by Yorkshire Cricket, but which is, according to many, pervasive in many aspects of British society. The term came into popular use after the 1999 Macpherson Report on the killing of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager from east London. The police service as a whole was affected, concluded the report.

Institutional racism is a property of an organization, such as a firm, an educational authority or a government department. It is notoriously hard to detect, hence why it usually goes unnoticed. Let’s say, for example, a government department awards lucrative contracts for the provision of services or commodities, such as personal protective equipment, to a number of firms, all of which are owned by whites. No company owned by ethnic minorities is awarded a contract, yet no one bothers to check, and the practice continues.

There may be no intention to discriminate, nor any individual may deliberately intend to disadvantage ethnic minorities. But the disparate impact is felt all the same. This is how institutional racism operates — surreptitiously.

There have been suggestions that Yorkshire County Cricket Club operates an analogous policy in hiring a disproportionately high number of white players. It is conceivable, though unlikely. While cricket is a popular recreational sport with British Asians, it offers a limited long-term career. The chances of securing a professional contract are negligible, anyway. So, while the glamour of a life in professional sport is attractive, maybe many young Asians are rational enough to make a cost-benefit calculation and arrive at the decision that their best interests will be served in accountancy, law, medicine or another profession. We at least need to consider this possibility before assuming the presence of racism.

Whether or not one agrees with the above, it is hard to miss the fact that there has been no comparable reckoning across the Atlantic. The nearest may be the case involving the Phoenix Suns owner, Robert Sarver, who allegedly used racist terms in a heated locker-room exchange. Interestingly, the incident has not been swept to prominence by Black Lives Matter. Britain, I venture, has embraced the movement more enthusiastically than the United States.

The root and branch introspections promised in the 1980s and in the 1990s yielded change for sure. But racism was never expunged and, every so often, research would remind us that African Caribbean children underachieve at school and are overrepresented in courts and prisons, and British Asians are subject to racial profiling by the police and often fall victim to hate crimes. The visibility of racism has diminished over the decades, and its consequences are undeniably less severe. Yet it remains. But for how much longer?

The case of Azeem Rafiq is like one of those traffic signs that warns of something ahead, such as a hazard or a fork in the road. In this case, it is the day of reckoning, a time when past misdeeds are acknowledged and put right. The cricketer has already won his case, at least in a moral sense. Over the next several years, every individual, corporation and public institution will self-investigate to ensure they are faultless in their practices and that no semblance of racist behavior exists.

What of Yorkshire County Cricket Club? It will never be restored to its hallowed position in the sports pantheon and may yet become a symbol, albeit a reluctant one, of a Britain of the past, a vestige of a time when offenses could be caused without consequence, racial slurs communicated with impunity and complainants dismissed with a shrug. No longer.  

*[Ellis Cashmore is the author of “Kardashian Kulture.”]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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