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Racism Isn’t a Problem of ‘a Few Bad Individuals’

The racist abuse directed at England players after the Euro final has been written off as the moral failing of a minority – but in reality it is embedded in the structures and institutions of our society.

Marcus Rashford reacts after missing England's third penalty in the Euro 2020 Final. Credit: John Sibley - Pool / Getty Images

In the wake of the racist abuse levelled at young black England players after Sunday’s loss against Italy, I heard the same reaction from many of my non-political, liberal friends: I can’t believe I got swept up in the fun of the football; the country is terrible and its people are uniquely awful.

Notwithstanding the notable British exceptionalism in evidence here—spoiler alert, racism isn’t a uniquely British problem—this line of thinking should concern socialists. In the first instance, racism isn’t such a defining feature of our politics because ‘people are bad’; racism is a defining feature of our politics because it’s reproduced every day by all of our social institutions.

Part of the problem with this way of looking at the world is the individualism at its heart. The idea that society can be divided up into good non-racists and bad racists is one of the founding myths of liberalism.

In this view of history, the bad old Conservatives were in charge for decades before the heroic liberals came to the rescue, ending slavery and building a post-racial society in which everyone was free to pursue their definition of the good. The apparent growth of xenophobia, nationalism, and racism therefore represents some sort of atavistic return to a darker age before good triumphed over evil.

This is a profound misreading of history. It allows liberals to avoid confronting how intimately many of their leading lights were involved with the joint projects of slavery and empire, and the extent to which modern capitalism was built on the processes of value extraction these projects engendered.

But it is also a profound misreading of humanity. Racism isn’t just a personality trait; it’s an ideology that is woven into the very fabric of our society. This ideology manifests itself in real social relations, and these material social relations reinforce the ideology.

The project of empire, for example, was built on and helped to reproduce an ideology of whiteness within which the backwards, uncivilised people of the world would benefit from a period of benign colonial rule by the more enlightened nations. ‘White’ came to signify progress, rationality, and civility, while ‘black’ came to signify atavism, backwardness and ignorance.

This ideology both justified and disguised the acts of terror that were committed in the name of colonial regimes all over the world. This is the case for, for example, Britain, which committed and then covered up appalling violence during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya; for France, which started and then forgot about a brutal conflict in Algeria; for Belgium, which turned the Congo into one giant slave labour camp before denying any knowledge of the atrocities committed there.

At the time of independence, rushed through by administrations desperate to wash their hands of the troubles formal empire was creating for them, these states had been ravaged by years of underdevelopment. Then came neo-colonialism which, whether through economic extractivism, political under-representation, or cultural marginalisation, kept many of those states in a position of dependence in the capitalist world system.

Today, institutional racism within our education system means we largely refuse to teach young people about the horrors of empire. Without any familiarity with how the Global South was ravaged by colonialism—and continues to be ravaged by neo-colonialism—many people will uncritically repeat stereotypes about how sub-Saharan Africa is inherently ‘backwards’.

Without any understanding of how the categories of ‘black’ and ‘white’ are produced politically, many will continue to believe that this ‘backwardness’ can be ascribed to some kind of inherent racial inferiority. A small minority of the people who hold these beliefs will then act on them in ways that rightly horrify us, whether through abuse in the streets or leaving monkey emojis as comments on the social media accounts of black footballers.

It’s very easy to look at these overt examples of racism and wonder, first, how anyone could do such a thing and, second, why such terrible people continue to exist in this day and age. Such thinking can even provide comfort, because it allows us to deny all the ways in which we encounter and internalise the ideologies that produce this behaviour every day.

But it also creates a profound problem for those of us who believe that racism, inequality, and injustice are not unavoidable features of human social relations. For socialists, who share a profound belief that—in the words of David Graeber—the world is something we make and could just as easily make differently, the idea that a large minority of people are just bad is a huge obstacle to any liberatory project.

Democracy is and always has been at the core of socialist thought. In a world dominated by a small minority of people, true democracy would generate a profound challenge to the status quo, which is why those on the right have always sought to constrain and limit our democratic freedoms.

But arguments for democracy only work if you genuinely believe that the world, and human subjectivity, is something we make and could just as easily make differently. The cynical and Manichean view of the world held by many liberals—that some people are just bad and need to be extricated from social life entirely—is as much of a challenge to any majoritarian project as the more overtly exclusionary and reactionary ideology of the right.

Recognising that racism isn’t just a personality trait isn’t about shielding those who do act on these views from responsibility for their actions – these disgusting acts should always be called out for what they are. But it does mean recognising that racism isn’t just a bad thing done by football hooligans, it’s a fact about the way the world works.

Calling out and punishing those who commit overt acts of racism is important because it sends a clear message that such behaviour is not acceptable. But it’s only one small part of what an exhaustive anti-racist agenda looks like in practice.

Anti-racism requires us not to externalise the problem of racism, chalking it up to a few heinous acts carried out by bad people, but to recognise all the ways in which it is reproduced internally – whether in our social institutions, or in our own patterns of thought. It also requires us to recognise and call out the ways in which the powerful continue to benefit from this institutional racism, which facilitates hyper-exploitation and divides working people among themselves.

In other words, we shouldn’t look at what’s happened over the last week and think ‘some people are just awful.’ We should look at what’s happened over the last week—both the racism itself and the strong backlash against it—and recognise both the worst of humanity and the best, not just in society at large, but within ourselves as well.

The challenge we then face isn’t the impossible task of finding and rooting out all the bad guys; it’s the exceptionally difficult, but politically conceivable, project of challenging institutional racism and the ideologies that reinforce it. It’s the challenge of encouraging everyone to believe that the world is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.