Sol Campbell, the Imperial Gaze and the Myth of White Victimhood

Sol Campbell has come out – steady on – in the press decrying the level of racism in English football. In his interview with the Guardian he claims that former black players like him will have to look abroad for managerial opportunities because of the game’s “archaic attitudes”. His remarks have naturally attracted a lot of commentary, some of which help to illustrate his wider point in a way he way he struggles to – albeit unwittingly so.

As for his accusation that it is racism that has stopped him, in particular, being awarded a top managerial position he is quite mistaken. There are far too many factors going against him to isolate racism as the prime cause. Principal among them is the fact that he is has not yet achieved his UEFA A coaching badge. While it is not unheard of for a manager to be hired without the appropriate qualifications, it is increasingly becoming expected, the last example being Alan Shearer in 2009. His picking the example of Gary Neville as someone parachuted into a coaching role in the England set up because he was a more politically convenient candidate than more qualified black personages – of which he, naturally includes himself – is particularly baffling. Aside from being by general consensus one of the most perceptive pundits and interpreters of the game of the last 20 years, he also possesses the elusive – for Sol as of yet anyway – UEFA A badge. In other words, he is an eminently suitable appointment. The idea that he is a kid of yes man is similarly ridiculous. Far from towing the FA’s line, Agent Gary once tried to lead England on strike over the suspension of Rio Ferdinand in 2004.

We should not be too surprised when we take into account Sol’s form for hubris. This is a man after all who after his omission from England’s 2010 World Cup squad as a portly and perambulatory 35 year old centre took to writing a piece in the Guardian bemoaning the injustice of it all.

We make a mistake, however, if we allow all this to discredit his wider point. Racism certainly does exist in the national game. As it does elsewhere in English society. It would frankly be odd to expect it to be at the vanguard of positive social attitudes. Just look at the Premier League’s distancing itself from Stonewall’s new anti-homophobia campaign. Of the 20 clubs asked to include rainbow coloured laces in their kit last month, just Everton obliged. Here was a perfect chance to move against the issue of casual homophobia in the game.

The form racism takes in the game is just as insidious as it is in society more widely. This may appear counter intuitive for some. After all, as people point out, black players are legion in the game – overrepresented if we look at the proportion in society. But this makes the lack of representation at managerial level all the more glaring. As most managers are drawn from among the ranks of former players – your AVBs and Rafa Benitezs being the exception rather than the rule – we should expect more than four managers out of 92 league clubs to be black. Granted that the proportion of black former players will be somewhat smaller than current players so that we can’t compare like with like, it is still significant enough to be expected to translate into more managerial positions. After all, approximately one third of the players that have made their debut for England since 1978 have been black.

Indeed, however substantial the contribution of black players in the country they are still eroticised and bothered. They are qualitatively of a different order to other players. How they are viewed is determined by their ethnicity and the narrow range of archetypes that emanate from this. They are strong, they are fast – but seldom much else. While a white player like Wayne Rooney is seen as posseting both physical and technical gifts, it is hard to find a black player descried in such terms. Elite players like Yaya Toure, Abou Diaby and Didier Drogba have very little attention drawn to their formidable levels of skill. Where a black player seems to discredit this narrative they are described in terms different to a white player. A white players such as Juan Mata, Jack Wilshire or Jesus Navas is often described as an “orchestrator”, a “schemer” or a “conductor”. Black players, no matter how imaginative and perceptive their play, are very unlikely to be described in these terms. Theo Walcott is one of the most frequent assisters in the league and has a deft appreciation of space off the ball as evinced through his runs. Indeed, Arsene Wenger states that one of the main reasons for his starting is because of the space he creates for team mates by sucking in opposing defenders. Despite his evident appreciation for the subtleties of the game he is plagued by the reputation that he has no “footballing brain”. He certainly has deficiencies on a technical level and these are certainly apparent when applying alongside his gifted teammates, but the fact is I have yet to hear a white player described in these terms and there are clearly plenty out there just as deserving. It seems that the most an intelligent, talented black player can aspire to be in the eyes of the punditocracy is that they are “tricky” in a way not too dissimilar to how an Imperial Pro Consul may have deigned to admire the perceived “low cunning” of a subaltern thief who had done away with his morning marmalade. The more cerebral side of the game is one seemingly thought beyond the reach of black players – and so by extension managers.

You might well say how many black playmakers – a position synonymous with the qualities thought lacking in black players – can you think of? This is true; there are not many. But this only goes to prove how entrenched these archetypes are at youth level – that is to say, that they are so powerful that they seem to condition a black player’s development before they have even begun to play. This is by no means an English problem. When former France manager Lauren Blanc decided he wanted his country to develop more technically sound players, he set upon directing youth academies to stop recruiting black players. That a technically astute style of play is not germane to black players is almost axiomatic in European football.

It is the response to Campbell’s comments that really underlines just how big racial issues are in the game. Dare to venture below the line of websites carrying the story and you are met with some truly astounding ignorance. Even on as liberal a message board as the Guardian’s, a substantial portion of messages seek to deny the reality of racism in Britain today. But what is more worrying than this is the risible perception that discrimination faced by white people is comparable to that confronting black people. One states in a bizarre flourish that they “have seen people excluded because of being fat or ugly or not from Derby etc etc. Exclusion and prejudice do happen, they happen to everyone”. The same commenter helpfully reminds us that English expatriates in Germany have to put up with a constant “sneering”, as if this is anything like being assumed to be – consciously or not – innately and biologically inferior or only suitable for certain roles.

More worrying still is that fact that this is not an isolated example at all. There is a growing desire within the last 10 years to frame white people as victims of decimation that defies all good sense. Take, for instance, the Steadfast Trust set up in 2004 “to help… needy members of the English community who believe they have been discriminated against or otherwise disadvantaged due to their Englishness.” Needless to say this “English community” is one that is taken as being synonymous with “English ethnicity” as the two terms are used interchangeably on their website. Pictures of blue eyed children adorn the website so as to leave us in little doubt. One doesn’t know whether to be offended by the racism or the audacity. But let’s stick with audacity for now.

This is – thankfully – the only such charity of its kind. But there is enough of this toxicity in the post-millennial zeitgeist that a senior mainstream politician – though admittedly Iain Duncan Smith – can say (as he did in 2007) that “the issues that affect white working-class boys are the same as those that affect Afro-Caribbean.”

Such facile assertions trivialise the nature of discrimination faced by students from an Afro-Caribbean background. White pupils, for instance, do not have to contend with a statistically significant tendency to underestimate their abilities in line with still prevalent stereotypes. One can see this in the very “evidence” cited by the Steadfast Trust – which is, incidentally, a collection of summaries of academic studies produced in the right wing press and not an analysis of the studies at all, as haphazard and second hand approach to “evidence” as one could hope to adopt. If they had bothered to read it they would know that the study they reference by the University of Warwick’s Dr. Steve Strand to show that white pupils’ rate of improvement after the age of 14 is slowing down, also details how black pupils are far more likely to be entered into lower tier papers in the national 14 SATs than white pupils of similar attainment. As the maximum grade achievable in the lower paper is far lower that of the higher paper, Afro-Caribbean are deprived of the grades they deserve through no fault of their own. By the time of GCSEs, the gap brought about in attainment between Afro-Caribbean and white pupils by this widespread bias is narrowed but still there. This recovery of minority pupils from the initial set back of discrimination should be something to cheer on. But there is no appreciation here of the discrimination faced on the part of the Afro-Caribbean pupils or the advantage ingrained in our education system that white pupils enjoy. Instead the report of the study referenced by the Steadfast Trust bemoans how the “progress of white pupils is slowing nationwide”, or what it actually means: that they are unable to maintain their unfair advantage at quite the same level as before as black students learn to overcome it. After such artificial suppression, of course the Afro-Caribbean rate of improvement will increase. It has nothing to do with white underachievement.

One of the central planks of the narrative of “white pupils being left behind” is that resources desperately needed by the white community are being diverted to ethnic minorities. In its “evidence” section the Steadfast Trust lists one report in the media titled, “white working-class boys are under-performing badly but they do not get the grants immigrant groups receive”. Yet the evidence tells us otherwise. The author of a Bristol University study on the subject, Dr. Wilson, is quoted in one cited report as saying that lacklustre performance on the part of white pupils has little to do with in school factors. A widely reported Social Justice Policy Group study of around the same time by – predictably – Ian Duncan Smith also notes that resources ear marked for white pupils will do little to help them along. What we have then is an ugly picture of a very jealous group of white racialists crying out for resources for no demonstrable purpose other than just to deprive other groups who do benefit from it, as the improving performance of minority pupils shows. Talk about a race to the bottom, if you pardon the pun.

By prompting this sort of reaction, Sol has done far more to highlight the pervasiveness and substance of racism not only in the game but in the country at large than his comments ever did. His hubris and lack of self-awareness should not discredit the wider points of his argument. The growth of denial and victimhood is a particularly worrying trend in public life. With such opinions slipping into mainstream discussion, how can racism be properly combatted? The way the media and Conservatives like Ian Duncan Smith have baited this feeling is cynical and irresponsible. The divisiveness and lack of empathy exhibited in political discussion today is at already noxious levels, we could do without out more.