I believe that British racism has changed in its manifestations and in the reaction it provokes from the establishment
“Oh Bachchoo, why not separate
The serious from the trivial?
Why do we humans overrate
The depressing and the convivial?
Oh Bachchoo, dispense your advice
And lend your fans a caution
Some things don’t need this thinking twice
All life’s about proportion.”
— From The Saitannama by Bachchoo
My late friend C.L.R. James — writer, Marxist philosopher, cricket commentator — would say that one of the factors that brought discipline to his native Caribbean was the ethos of the game. Cricket was to the West Indies what the Olympic Games were, as a unifying factor, to ancient Greece.
In the era before British colonial governance ended in Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, Grenada, Barbados, Antigua and the smaller islands, CLR made a political plea for their unity as a Federation of the West Indies. It didn’t come about. Politicians of separate islands declared their independence and were granted their fragmenting autonomy. And yet, and yet, the West Indies had a unified cricket team.
Cricket came to the colonies from Britain, though a disputed history claims that it originated in Normandy. Some accounts boast that colonials became better at the game than the colonisers. Through the decades India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and of course New Zealand, Australia and South Africa all contended with the Marylebone Cricket Club, more recently known as the English team, for supremacy.
And while the local leagues and the modifications of 20-20 cause the game to thrive and dominate the national consciousness in India, cricket lumbers on in the UK as a secondary sport, overtaken by the millions in investment and the enthusiasm of millions for the several British leagues, the European Cup and the World Cup of football.
Recently football suffered an incident of racist activity when the three black players in the English team failed to make their mark when afforded penalties in the European Cup final. But the abuse they suffered came from trolls outside of their team and outside the realms of football. Their teammates, coach and the world of professional football generally, rallied to defend them.
Last week the Yorkshire cricketer Azeem Rafiq gave a much publicised testimony to a committee of Members of Parliament about what has been instantly classified as institutional racism he has suffered within the Yorkshire county team and club. Rafiq, a superb bowler who captained national teams, told of the racist treatment he had suffered. He was moved to tears during his testimony.
Allow me to say, gentle reader, that Azeem has my complete and heartfelt sympathy. His testimony and the fact that a committee of MPs gathered to listen to it, that the Prime Minister condemned Yorkshire’s management for its tolerance of racism and that Yorkshire County has as a result become the pariah of the game, gives me something of a positive vibe. I call it a vibe because it’s not a feeling. One can’t feel anything positive about the foulness that Azeem suffered by being referred to regularly as a “Paki”, which is for Asians as derogatory as the N word is for the Afro-British — or by Azeem being told that Asian members of the team should sit on segregated benches. They were regularly referred to as “elephant-washers” and other ridiculous phrases.
So, what’s the reason for my ‘positive vibe’? In fact, how dare I detect anything positive in this catalogue of nastiness? Perhaps, gentle reader, you will dissent from my opinion on this score, but I believe that British racism has changed in its manifestations and in the reaction it provokes from the establishment during the span of my short and happy life in this sceptred isle.
In 1973 I lived in Brixton, in London above the bookshop of the Black Panther Movement, of which I was a member. On the Ides of March (I like to think of the date with a reference to the fate of Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play) at 4 in the morning, a person on a scooter threw a petrol bomb through the glass front showcase of the bookshop and set the building on fire. I leapt for my life through the second-floor window and was told by the fire engine chief, who soon attended the blaze, that it was a bomb attack. Five Asian and black properties were similarly attacked with firebombs that same night. The police didn’t question me or the other victims. No one was investigated, no one was charged.
Three years later, forgive me for using my personal experience, I was beaten by a group of three burly racists outside a night club where I had been with my fellow school-teachers for a night out. They abused me for being on the dance floor of the club with white women. The police came to the place where the assault took place and said there was nothing they needed to do as I had defended myself against three racist thugs and drawn blood from the cheek of one of them.
No enquiry by a committee of MPs, no PM statement… OK …enough about me!
Through the seventies the Bangladeshi community of East London was subjected to random assaults on individuals on the streets and in their housing estates. It was called Paki-bashing. I can’t recall a committee of parliament enquiring into it, the national media objecting or a PM offering his or her sympathy. So Azeem, a little progress?