Many decent people are rightly outraged by the racist abuse heaped on Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho on social media in the wake of them missing their penalty shots in the Euro 2020 final last Sunday.
England footballer Tyrone Mings has accused Home Secretary Priti Patel of pretending to be disgusted by racist abuse, after she previously described taking the knee as ‘gesture politics’. Patel had said she was “disgusted” by the online abuse directed at the England trio. However, Mings Tweeted that she had “stoked the fire” by refusing to criticise fans who booed the England team for taking the knee (BBC News).
Patel’s boss, Boris Johnson, is also being criticised for not condemning fans booing the England team taking the knee. After England’s final warm-up game, he refused 4 times, when asked by journalists, to condemn fans who had booed players taking part in the anti-racism protest. Thus, when, at last Monday’s Downing Street press conference, he said: “Shame on you [the social media abusers] – I hope you will crawl back under the rock from which you emerged” – the criticism appeared to be more a matter of political expediency than being genuinely heartfelt revulsion. Showing some rare bite, Labour leader Keir Starmer called Johnson’s failure to condemn the booing as having “failed the test of leadership…. The prime minister failed to call that out and the actions and inactions of leaders have consequences, so I’m afraid the prime minister’s words today ring hollow.”
Given Johnson’s history of racist remarks – including his most notorious 2002 description of black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” (Adam Bienkov, 2020) – any commentator could be forgiven for assuming that Johnson, if not actually racist personally, is certainly not uncomfortable to be associated with racism – especially if it suits his political purposes.
However, as The Independent’s Sean O’Grady notes, such displays of racism as the attacks on the England trio are a reflection of a much more widespread and poisonous seam of racism running through our society. “The great irony of course is that Johnson and Patel pretend that racism isn’t that much of a problem in this country, but the response to the taking of the knee and the backlash overnight against Marcus Rashford (in particular) demonstrated all too painfully why such gestures and action are still needed. Racism is endemic. All the unfunny jokes and offensive emojis prove that to far too many people black lives don’t matter. Point proven.
“It’s more than just hurtful stuff – it tells us that there is something still very wrong, for the social media racists are the tip of a considerable iceberg of quieter, unspoken, covert, unconscious racism and bias across society, something that it suits Patel and Johnson to ignore and deny. When they bang on about stilling immigration and controlling borders they really do make people wonder what immigration now is such a terrible thing for Britain, but immigration of the past (including members of the Johnson and Patel families) was enriching and beneficial. Whether it is illegal or not seems beside the point if you think the multicultural society was a mistake and is a failure. That is what is being booed when they boo at the football matches and attack Black players.
“The good thing about the wave of abuse is that it disproves the notion that Britain is some sort of land of equal racial opportunity, and the cause of racial inequality can only be down to the failings of the people from those communities, and nothing to do with prejudice in society at large. Johnson, Patel and the rest of them have been caught out once again for trying to gaslight people of colour. They’ve been getting away with it for too long.”
As O’Grady implies, the wave of racist abuse against England’s black players effectively gives the lie to the Commission on Race & Ethnic Disparities report, published only in March, concluding that the UK is not institutionally racist. Commissioned by the Government, it was trumpeted by Johnson as evidence that racism was not much of an issue in the UK anymore (Kitty Donaldson & Eileen Gbagbo, Bloomberg Equality). It also allowed Johnson and his ministers to be dismissive of claims that their words and actions had supported – if not outrightly fuelled – racism in the UK.
David Olusoga in The Guardian notes a June 2021 British Future thinktank survey which found that one in 10 people regard Englishness as a racial identity. From this, Olusoga inevitably concludes such people think black people can never truly be English.
Olusoga perceives there to be 2 Englands.
The first, old England is the one where “the national anthems of other nations are booed and fans from rival nations, some of them women and children, are abused in the stadiums and on the streets. In that nation, thugs throw bottles across Leicester Square and storm Wembley itself. In that England some ‘supporters’ believe it is acceptable to boo our own young players, for deciding to support one another in the face of racist abuse ceaselessly directed at the black members of the squad.”
This is the England pandered to by Johnson, Patel and many of the current crop of Tories.
The second, new England is “the one embodied by Southgate’s team itself…. Southgate’s England – encapsulated in his Dear England letter before this year’s tournament began – is united, youthful and instinctively forward-thinking. It is diverse, and comfortable in its diversity. It has the potential, if we were able to fully embrace it, to reclaim and decontaminate national symbols. This England team aims to write its own history – in stark contrast to the cult of bitter, backwards-looking jingoism that exists among sections of its fanbase (the ‘10 German Bombers’, “Two World Wars, One World Cup” version of English identity).”
Olusoga has it right to a considerable degree….
The old England is driven by the PURPLE vMEME’s need to find safety in belonging. This underpins tribalism and the need to discriminate between those who are in your tribe and with whom you feel safe and those who are not in your tribe and who may a threat to you. Different-coloured skin, like accents, clothing and religious practices, is an easy way to distinguish who is in your tribe and who is not. As discussed in Is Racism Natural…?, David Sloan Wilson (1975) explains that fears and suspicions of the ‘other’ tribe are adaptive in the evolutionary sense as they enable ‘our tribe’ to avoid or at least defend ourselves from attack by the .other ‘tribe. Social Identity Theory postulates that simply dividing people into categorised groups – Scots vs English, men vs women, black vs whites – creates the In-Group/Out-Group Effect, by which people identify with their in-group and its norms and values and decry the out-group and its norms and values.
This kind of PURPLE thinking is highly vulnerable to exploitation by RED-driven demagogues like Boris Johnson who exploit those fears of the ‘other’, creating moral panics about the ‘folk devils’. In the past – as Bienkov chronicles – Muslims, black Africans, Libyans, European Union leaders and even female Malaysian students have all fulfilled the role of folk devils for Johnson to incite people against. By creating moral panics and then offering ‘magical solutions’ – such as leaving the EU – Johnson is able to manipulate people into supporting him. (This explains how Donald Trump was able to manipulate so many fearful working class whites into voting for him – Mexicans were the folk devils and the magical solution was his infamous wall. It even goes a considerable way to explaining how Adolph Hitler was able to win power in Germany.)
All too often such RED-driven leaders drape themselves in the PURPLE/BLUE flag of nationalism. So the expression of tribal antagonism towards the out-group is given a sheen of patriotism. Hence, the Tory Government’s recent emphasis on flying the Union Jack from public buildings and Johnson’s faux endorsement of the England team in the days leading up to the Euro 2020 final.
In contrast Olusoga’s new England is driven primarily by a vMEME harmonic of ORANGE and GREEN. It is fuelled by ambition and a sense of purpose (ORANGE) and all too willing acceptance of diversity and equality (GREEN) – especially if it helps progress that purpose (ORANGE/GREEN). The black Rashford, Saka and Sancho would be accepted by GREEN anyway. The fact they are such talented contributors to the England team further strengthens the ORANGE/GREEN harmonic.
Success particularly can create a binding effect in that success can bring safety in belonging – thus satisfying PURPLE’s needs in the formation of a new, successful collective identity. Make no mistake, despite the fluffed penalties, getting to the Euro final was by far and away the England team’s greatest success since 1966 and, furthermore, they look to have the potential to do very well in next year’s World Cup. Certainly many hundreds of thousand – arguably millions – are buying into this developing new English identity. This is exemplified by the thousands who turned up attach messages of love and support to the Manchester mural of Rashford which had been defaced by racists after Sunday’s penalty defeat.
If the British Future survey is accurate and 90% of English people do not see being English as dependent on ethnicity, then the diversity, ambition and progressive values promulgated by Gareth Southgate and his squad may indeed form a template for Olugosa’s new England. In which case Johnson, Patel and the neo-racists in the Tory Government may well find themselves on the wrong side of history. It is perhaps telling that it is now being reported – eg: Art Singh & Chloe Chaplain in The i – that Downing Street’s cancellation of a reception for the England team was not, in fact, due to Johnson having business that needed urgent attention but was due to the team refusing to meet him.
Nurturing a new England
In ‘Britishness’ at the Regent’s College Summit I recalled Rachel Castagne talking about folk legend June Tabor telling her audience: “If you love this land, then you’re English”.
While that might seem a little whimsical, it makes a good starting point to start discussing what is the best of Englishness. Southgate’s team are widely perceived, as The Atlantic’s Yasmeen Serhan puts it, to have “modelled a compassionate, progressive and inclusive patriotism”. The kind of new England Olusoga enthuses about. And, at least for the moment, the new England seems to be more desirable to the vast majority of our citizens than the old England.
However, the new England needs defending from the old England and it needs nurturing. Although Southgate’s team may provide a template, the new England needs to be built to be far more than that. Its norms and values need to be embedded, cherished and even idolised. The memes of the new England need to be spread far and wide in every way so that they became the schemas of the vast majority of our citizenry. In other words people take on and internalise those values that Southgate’s team so epitomise.
Below is the so-called ‘Spiral balloon’ – from the Spiral Dynamics ‘build’ on the work of Clare W Graves. It illustrates clearly how lower, less complex needs and motivations don’t disappear. They simply recede into the background while higher vMEMES address more complex issues.
So the safety-in-belonging need of PURPLE is always there and will inevitably slip into tribalism with the In-Group/Out-Group Effect if it becomes threatened. Graves forerunner Abraham Maslow demonstrated with his Hierarchy of Needs (1943; 1970; 1971) that, if a lower level gets into trouble, attention and energy are diverted from the higher levels to resolve issues at that lower level. If made to feel unsafe – and especially if its fears are exploited by RED-driven Trump/Johnson-type demagogues – then PURPLE will become destabilised and will default to those-of-our-tribe and those-not-of-our-tribe.
So, in developing our new England of “compassionate, progressive and inclusive patriotism”, there needs to be management of the processes so that PURPLE and RED thinkers don’t get left behind or feel disenfranchised. From the 80s through to the 00s, globalisation swept away the jobs of the working classes – and with them their livelihoods and their pride. That made them extremely vulnerable to manipulation and promises of magical solutions. A key consequence of that in the UK was the vote to leave the EU – a gross act of national self-harm.
Maybe – just maybe – the euphoria surrounding England’s performance and the collective sense of progressive Englishness that has produced, gives us an opportunity to start rebuilding. This time progress must be much more inclusive and the welfare of all needs to be included – as per a MeshWORK.