WHITES ONLY? Events in football and in the film industry shake our complacency

Q: What have the Paris Métro and the Oscar nomination list in common?

A: They’re for whites only. At least, it seemed that way this week. Chelsea fans forcibly prevented a black passenger from getting on the underground train as the proudly proclaimed they were racists after last Tuesday’s game in Paris (video above). And in the altogether more civilized environs of Hollywood, the Oscar ceremonies disregarded black artists, directors and production personnel, opting for all-white nominees. This surprised many considering the strong reviews for the movie Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay (pictured below with actors David Oyelowo, right, and Common). The snub wasn’t the result of some conspiracy to exclude African Americans. 12 Years a Slave, a film by a black director about black history, won best picture last year. But the absence of black people from this year’s awards, coming so soon after a series of incidents in the US in which young black people have been hurt or killed, seems to magnify how the so-called “race issue” did not disappear with the election of President Obama and the coming of the “colour blind society.”

Common, Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo

Q: I guess, in the same way, we have been lulled into assuming the same “race issue” has gone from football. Some people can remember the late 1970s and 1980s, when black players first appeared in British football. In those days, the players were barracked and racially abused and it was commonplace to see far right political movements recruiting outside football stadiums. The kind of incident we saw in Paris could be seen on the streets of Britain all the time, some of the perpetrators being skinheads. Did it go, then come back, or has it never really been far away?

A: Racism has not been a constant presence in British football. It certainly declined in the early 1990s with the rise of the Premier League and the great black players who became stars of the game. The sport became glamorous and, for a long period, it did look like its racist history was just that — history. But, since 2011, there has been a constant stream of incidents, some on the field, some among the fans, and many in social media, that have reminded us that racism has been lurking not far beneath the surface. Now it appears it has returned to visibility.

Q: It almost defies rational explanation, doesn’t it?

A: Almost. But consider this: football and Hollywood are, in their own, different ways, cultural institutions, started by white men (not women) and intended, largely, for other whites. Even in the early days of Hollywood, there were few opportunities for black actors and audiences were typically white. Today the academy that awards the Oscars has been around 93 percent white, 76 percent male and an average of 63 years old. Football is a little older than Hollywood, emerging in the 1860s in England (at least in the way we understand the sport), while Hollywood’s film industry emerged in the early decades of the 20th century. Again, the people who played the game and those who watched were almost exclusively white. There is still what we might call a white establishment in football: it is governed mainly by white men. So we shouldn’t be misled by the number of black players we see in the modern game. The hierarchy of football is dominated by whites. You only have to remind yourself about the recent debate over the scarcity of black managers and the debate over the Rooney Rule to understand how black people in football are meant to be strictly players and not in positions of authority.

Q: So has there been no progress?

A: Oh yes, plenty. But you have to bear in mind that slavery was around in the 1600s and the kind of beliefs and attitudes we associate with racism have been forming, not just for a few decades, but for centuries. I think it’s foolish to think racism is a single mindset that has been frozen in time: compare the situation now with how it was in the UK in the 1980s, for example. The point is that racist ideas are like fingerprints: even though we sometimes can’t see them with the naked eye, their impressions or marks are still there and, under certain conditions, they become visible. Obviously, they were in evidence in Paris. Less so in Hollywood, but perhaps the absence of black people from the Oscars is just as powerful a reminder that we shouldn’t be complacent about racism: it needs to be opposed in its every manifestation.