Soccer has become the fault-line for European racist prejudices
One expects the great issues of Europe to be played out in Brussels, or perhaps Strasbourg, or the national capitals, possibly even on the streets, but certainly not in the football stadiums. Yet, that is what is happening on race. You would barely know it. Football is not accorded that kind of significance in national life: it’s just a game. Political commentators do not fulminate about it, editors think in terms of the back pages and politicians largely ignore it. But that is not a reflection of the true reality, just their myopia, and the blinkered way in which we tend to perceive politics.
The most striking incident – when racism in football became headline news – was in November at Madrid’s Bernabeu stadium when tens of thousands of Spanish supporters made monkey noises at England’s black players. This followed an extraordinary outburst by the Spanish manager, Luis Aragones, who had referred to Thierry Henry, one of the most sublime talents in the game, as “that black shit”. The under-21 match between the two countries the night before had also been scarred by racist chanting.
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As the only racial group that never suffers systemic racism, whites are in denial about its impact
I always found race difficult to understand. It was never intuitive. And the reason was simple. Like every other white person, I had never experienced it myself: the meaning of colour was something I had to learn. The turning point was falling in love with my wife, an Indian-Malaysian, and her coming to live in England. Then, over time, I came to see my own country in a completely different way, through her eyes, her background. Colour is something white people never have to think about because for them it is never a handicap, never a source of prejudice or discrimination, but rather the opposite, a source of privilege. However liberal and enlightened I tried to be, I still had a white outlook on the world. My wife was the beginning of my education.
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Five years ago Martin Jacques and his family moved to Hong Kong to start a new life which all too soon ended in tragedy. Finally, an anti-racist law that might have saved his wife’s life is to be introduced
Hong Kong has been shaken over the past few months by a series of crises: the Sars epidemic, continuing economic difficulties and huge opposition to new security legislation. No doubt Tony Blair, during his brief visit last week, will have discussed each of these, together with another, less-publicised affair: the long-running debate about the need for anti-racist legislation.
When my wife Hari and I arrived in Hong Kong on November 2, 1998, accompanied by our little boy Ravi, just nine weeks old, we were borne on a wave of optimism and expectation. We planned to spend three years in Hong Kong: Hari working for her international law firm, me to write a book and make a television series. It was familiar territory to us: our relationship had started there during a whirlwind week back in 1993.
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Not since the 1930s has the threat of racism and fascism been so great in the west
Since 1989 we have been living in a fool’s paradise. The triumphalism about the future that greeted the collapse of communism has proved to be profoundly misplaced. The reason why we should fear the rise of Le Pen is not simply that fascism and an ugly racism are alive, well and in the ascendant in one of the heartlands of Europe, but rather that the world that we now live in is in a corrosive state. Not since the 1930s has the threat of the irrational, of a turn towards barbarism, been so great in the west. It has become an arrogant truism of western life that the evils of the modern world – authoritarianism, ethnic conflict, illiberalism – are coterminous with the developing world. It was telling how some western leaders, including one of our own ministers, in the aftermath of September 11, spoke of the civilised world, and by implication of the uncivilised world, the dark-skinned savages of backward cultures. It is not clear how Le Pen or Berlusconi or Haider fit this world view.
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