Rashford and RacismNot Just A Political Football
Daniel Harris explains why the star footballer’s fight to right injustices provides an example for us all of how to delve into pain and confront the truth
In these fractious times, there is perhaps at least one thing on which we can all agree: Marcus Rashford is a hero.
Since the start of his footballing career, it has been clear that there is something unusual about him – flair, equanimity and drive suffused with compelling, contagious joy. But his heroism transcends sport.
At Christmas, he launched a campaign to help Manchester’s homeless. When a deaf child asked him to judge a World Book Day poetry competition, he not only agreed to it but learnt some sign language too. And during lockdown he has helped provide more than three million meals to children who need them, before shaming the Prime Minister into doing the right thing and extending the free school meal scheme to cover the summer holidays.
This came about by way of a perfect strategy that skilfully distilled political chatter into a single simple question: are we happy to accept kids going hungry? Gently corralled into responding, Boris Johnson said that he was, so Rashford upped the tempo. Like most top footballers, he has the profile to maintain pressure. But, unlike most top footballers, he is universally liked – a truth illustrated when candidly recollected his own family’s struggles, after which the Government had no choice but to cave. Manchester United’s number 10 took Downing Street’s number 10 to the absolute cleaners.
The message ahead of the U-turn had been clear: you do not matter.
Rashford knew this already. While discussing poverty – referred to by some as ‘structural classism’ – he noted that children from minority communities are disproportionately affected by it. Following the murder of George Floyd in the US, the footballer tweeted that “Black lives matter. Black culture matters. Black communities matter. We matter”.
That this needed affirming is as mortifying as it is terrifying and it is likely that Rashford would have preferred not to do this. I say this not because I am familiar with his internal monologue, but because it is not necessary for me to be to recognise how hurtful it is to be othered, to be considered less than, to vocalise trauma. Black people have rarely been afforded the privilege of defining themselves as individuals – of representing themselves as individuals, of simply being – so it is unsurprising that Rashford felt the need to speak out.
He is not alone. Raheem Sterling – previously a target for concerted newspaper racism, and whose club and country welcomed the offending organs even so – has also had his say, reflecting that, although a third of Premier League players are black, “we have no representation of us in the hierarchy, no representation of us in the coaching staffs”.
Only four Premier League captains are black or biracial – of whom Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was appointed because Granit Xhaka was sacked, while Leicester’s Wes Morgan is rarely selected – and there are no black or biracial referees in the entirety of the English professional game.
But the jig is now up – and those presiding over it are rattled.
While ostensibly praising Rashford’s work, Richard Masters, the Premier League chief executive, was keen to assert that a Rooney rule – which operates in the American NFL and dictates that franchises must interview ethnic minority coaches for senior positions – is not “on the agenda”. Masters also warned that players’ activism may set “uncomfortable precedents”.
Well, hard luck. Across the world, workers are fearful that if they speak out against racism they will soon be looking for a new job. But, in football, money and scrutiny have created a meritocracy that gives elite players the power to criticise not just the game but society as well.
As for the bias – conscious and unconscious – preventing leadership roles being given to people of colour, this is where the rest of us come in. We can either see a problem for someone else to fix – to be filed alongside the similar problems which define our boardrooms, newsrooms and the Cabinet – or we can encourage action by responsibly deploying our wallets, eyeballs, emails and votes.
We must do likewise with our brains. Just as we can assume that Rashford would prefer not to discuss race, we can assume that, had he stayed silent, he would have been inundated with requests for comment nevertheless.
Over the past few weeks, people of colour – perhaps the only people of colour in their work or social group – have been quizzed about hurt beyond the comprehension of those requesting details. Their participation is sometimes couched as a favour and other times as a duty by inquisitors so used to being centred by the system that they centre themselves as a matter of habit. Yet, if we knew that someone was anguished by, say, a car crash, the very last thing we would do is press them for more details about car crashes, particularly when the report into car crashes has spent decades on the desks of those in positions of power, gathering dust. The internet is an excellent source of information; most of us have access to it.
For people of colour, structural racism is not suddenly the burning issue of the day nor a thrilling conversational gambit – it is a fact of life. The daily grind of discrimination pervades every aspect of society and is demoralising and exhausting, undermining physical health, mental health, bank balances and relationships.
Though Rashford’s talent earns him money and adulation, it does not insulate him from this pain – chances are that he or people he knows have spent much of this month grieving and angry, sleeping badly and finding it difficult to work. Should he ever have children, he will at some point sit them down for ‘the conversation’, during which he will destroy the innocence that he has lovingly protected by warning them that, at various times in their lives, trusted authorities will burden or brutalise them for their blackness.
As the husband of a British Ghanaian, I know the impact such realities have already had on those closest to me. I know that, in the very near future, my brother-in-law and sister-in-law will be sitting down with my niece and nephew. I know that my wife and I will be forced to do likewise with our daughter. I mention this not out of self-indulgence, but to illustrate why those who experience a particular kind of discrimination – directly, and not by proximity, as I do – are entitled to identify it, brand it, and advise what to do about it, whenever they choose.
As for the rest of us, however well-placed we think we are, we have no idea how much racism goes on. However well-informed we think we are, we always have more to learn. And however not racist we think we are, we can still make mistakes.
We are also not entitled to leave those targeted by racism to fight a fight they did not start. Resolving this injustice is incumbent upon all who have materially benefitted from it and, just as Marcus Rashford is a hero for reasons that transcend sport, the rest of us have no excuse not to step out of our everyday lives to bring about change. We have work to do, and lots of it.