Drown out the boos when England takes the knee

Racism in football: Drown out the boos when England takes the knee
6 min read

Sam Hamad

11 June, 2021
Opinion: Those fans who are booing as the English national football team takes the knee are on the wrong side of history, writes Sam Hamad.
England's Declan Rice (L) and Jack Grealish (R) take a knee ahead of the football match against Romania at the Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough, England on 6 June, 2021.

When England takes the field on Sunday to play their opening match of Euro 2020 (delayed due to Covid-19) against Croatia, what ought to be a festival of football might very well be preceded by a chorus and spectacle of shame.

Last Sunday, before a warm-up friendly against Romania at Middlesbrough's Riverside Stadium, a significant section of the 7,000 English fans in attendance loudly booed as players took the now-customary knee prior to kick-off, while others applauded.

Inspired by Colin Kaepernick's 2016 national anthem protest against police brutality and racial inequality, taking the knee went global after the racist murder of George Floyd by a police officer in 2020 and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests. So too, did the rising awareness of racial inequality, not just in sports but society in general.

Taking the knee, which has now become integrated into the pre-match routine of football in the UK and Europe, is seen as an active gesture by sporting superstars of their awareness of and deference to the anti-racist struggle. When Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) football superstars take the knee they demonstrate that they are not immune to racism, despite their fame, riches, and sporting prowess. When white players kneel, they show powerful solidarity with their BAME teammates and fans.

However, it seems this new anti-racist ritual has birthed its very own counter-ritual, namely the booing demonstrated by a section of England fans. 

Football serves as a microcosm for the contradictory nature not just of English society, but of the mechanics of racism in modern England. The Beautiful Game simultaneously provides brilliant role models (both on and off the pitch) such as the young Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford, as well as a gathering ground for bigots, such as the so-called football fans who went on social media to racially abuse Rashford after he missed a penalty.

Like football, the multicultural nature of English society is constantly tested and contested by bursts of racism and, more generally, anti-egalitarian populism. In this 'culture war,' push-back to challenges to white supremacy increasingly takes the not-so-subtle form of 'anti-woke' attitudes and agendas.

White fear seems to be at the heart of the ideology of those opposed to taking the knee. At the beginning of last season, Burnley fans went to the lengths of hiring a plane carrying a banner reading 'WHITE LIVES MATTER' to coincide with players taking the knee before their opening match.

In general, the view among the boo-ers seems to be that taking the knee is a symbol of subservience to 'woke culture' and 'political correctness' - or that it is being 'milked' (by BAME people) for some deeper political agenda against the (white) majority.

This view is perfectly encapsulated by the Tory MP Lee Anderson, who vowed to personally boycott England games if players continued to take the knee, saying the gesture represented a "political movement whose core principles aim to undermine our very way of life" and that it risked alienating "traditional supporters."

We know what Anderson means by 'our very way of life' and 'traditional supporters' - he means white people and his chauvinist definition of what it means to be English. 

White supremacy is the reason why taking the knee is necessary - the backlash not only confirms this but also affirms the necessity to continue to partake in the ritual.

The epicentre of this illiberalism is the regressive earthquake of Brexit and the transparent racism and xenophobia that stoked it, compounded by the continued triumph of the right-wing, increasingly populist government of Boris Johnson.

It is no surprise then that, following the Romania match, Johnson effectively supported the booing, with his spokesperson confirming that he "fully respects the right of those who… peacefully protest and make their feelings known."

The prime minister chose to describe a visceral white supremacist reaction to an anti-racist demonstration as 'peaceful protest.' This is not due to ignorance or misplaced libertarianism - Johnson knows that every boo-er is a potential voter and, given the political dynamic in England, almost certainly one who votes for his party.

Johnson's statement intended to reaffirm what side he is on in England's 'culture war.' This is the side that produced an astonishing government report on racism that whitewashed daily realities of racial inequalities and bowed to racist narratives of victim-blaming and gaslighting.

One can see how the government's own views on race merge with the racist narratives of the boo-ers on the terraces of English football stadiums. 

However, thankfully for England and for anti-racism, England's players and management are doing the opposite of Boris Johnson. Rather than passively supporting racist backlash, they are actively condemning it.

After the Romania game, England manager Gareth Southgate penned an open letter to England fans. Reflecting on his multiracial and multicultural squad and the society from which it emerged, Southgate challenges those who oppose taking the knee, writing: "You are on the losing side… it is clear to me that we are moving towards a much more tolerant and understanding society, and I know our lads will be a big part of that."

While Johnson and his Tory chums seek to exploit and exacerbate the racist chasm from where the boos emanate, Southgate has done what the prime minister should have done.

It is important to note that there are arguments with merit against 'taking the knee.' For example, the gesture risks becoming tokenistic, with football authorities having no real agenda for tackling racism. With this in mind, after an incident of racism involving Rangers player Glen Kamara, Scotland will use a new gesture, standing with linked arms, to call for more meaningful action from UEFA.

On Sunday, in a stark reminder that this backlash is global, England's opponent Croatia will not bother taking the knee, which makes England's decision to continue the gesture even more important. Let's hope that any boos will be drowned out by those who share Southgate's sentiments.  

Sam Hamad is a writer and History PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.