Chelsea fans’ actions in Paris received media and political condemnation. James Rhodes considers why a report revealing racialised inequalities in UK universities did not.
On 17 February, a group of Chelsea football fans travelling on the Paris Metro to a Champions League match against Paris Saint-Germain were filmed chanting “we’re racist, we’re racist, and that’s the way we like it”, blocking a black commuter, Souleymane, from boarding the train.
The response in England was immediate. The Metropolitan Police appealed for the men’s identification, which quickly led to action against those suspected of involvement. Jose Mourinho, Chelsea’s manager, was appalled by the ‘fans’, while the club and football governing bodies castigated them. David Cameron described the events as “extremely disturbing and very worrying”. The story featured prominently in print, television, radio and digital news for days.
The moral outrage expressed is to be welcomed and said much about the way in which contemporary society now regards such explicitly racist actions.
However, it also raises questions about how we interrogate – or fail to interrogate – racialised exclusions and inequalities. Writing in the Telegraph, former Labour Party and GMB official Dan Hodges, suggested that the widespread opposition to the Chelsea fans’ actions relates to how they fit into dominant conceptions of racism as overt, isolated, individualised expressions of naked hostility.
For Hodges, the incident represented, “the sort of racism we like. Pure. Clean. Uncomplicated. Prejudice neat.” What seems more difficult to acknowledge, appearing to offend popular sensibilities less, are the forms of racialised inequality and marginalisation that manifest in more obtuse, insidious ways.
At its heart, the incident in Paris was about inequality and exclusion. It was a group of white men drawing upon their situated privilege and power – as passengers already incumbent on the train and in a position to bar others from entry – to exclude another.
Yet – while not diminishing in Souleymane’s words, his “humiliation” – exclusions of a less overt kind are disproportionately and routinely visited upon black and minority ethnic groups. While not always exhibiting violence, the results can be similar – the denial of, or restriction of access to, resources and positions of power and privilege.
Police stop and search practices, accentuated exposure to socio-economic inequalities, poor health outcomes, lower rates of senior politicians and corporate executives, continuing and sometimes worsening inequalities in employment and housing, are persistent features of contemporary Britain for many minority ethnic groups. But where is the moral outrage here?
Two weeks before the Paris events, the Runnymede Trust published Aiming Higher: Race, Inequality and Diversity in the Academy. While acknowledging the advances made – black and minority students are entering universities at rates higher than their proportion in the population – the report highlighted pervasive and multiple inequalities.
Labour MP David Lammy stated in the foreword how, “Whether in terms of admissions, attainment, employment, the student experience or indeed staffing, universities still have some way to go to ensure equality for ethnic minorities in Britain.”
The report found black and minority students are disproportionately likely to receive lower degree classifications. They are also likely to enter less favourable forms of employment in comparison to their white British classmates following graduation, limiting their social mobility. Black and minority ethnic students are less likely to gain access to prestigious Russell Group universities – including Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester – and are more often entrants to post-1992, ‘new’ universities that have lower academic status.
Report co-author Vikki Boliver, from Durham University, found that Black Caribbeans, while comprising 1.1% of the 15-29 year olds in England and Wales, accounted for just 0.5% of students attending Russell Group universities in 2011. “Black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi applicants to Russell Group universities and other highly selective universities are substantially less likely to be offered places even when they have the same A-level grades as their white peers,” she explained. After controlling for A-level attainment, Black Caribbeans had an offer rate to study at these institutions, seven percentage points lower than did equally qualified white British applicants.
Co-author Diane Reay observed that the success rate of white students applying to Oxford University in 2013 was 25.4%, compared with 6.7% for Bangladeshi, 6.5% for Pakistani, and 14% for Black Caribbean students. This reveals clear patterns of racialised exclusion from elite institutions.
The situation is similar for black and minority academics. Co-author Robbie Shilliam found that while black people represent 3.3% of the population, they make up just 1.54% of academics. White academics are over-represented within the university system. Just 15 black academics hold senior positions in the UK. Only 17 black female academics hold professorships.
These figures illuminate, according to Shilliam, wider experiences of ‘isolation, exclusion, marginalisation and discrimination’, creating an environment where black academics leave the profession at higher rates than white academics and subsequently fall into unemployment more frequently.
The Paris Metro incident and the Aiming Higher report present different stories about racialised inequality, and the ability of individuals, institutions and society to include or exclude (either absolutely or relatively). Despite these parallels, they received very different levels of political attention. The Runnymede Trust report was published with little comment or condemnation.
Why is this? Perhaps it suggests contemporary sensibilities are offended less by exclusion or inequality than by the means by which they are achieved. Clearly, the aggressive treatment of Souleymane is more visceral than the adjudications of admissions boards, employment panels and promotion committees. Yet the outcomes are not dissimilar: both involve practices that directly or indirectly disadvantage minority groups.
Whilst the willingness of British society to confront overt racism is important, opposing such acts and their perpetrators is not the same as a commitment to equality.
Until the institutional processes and social, economic and political conditions that produce and sustain racialised inequities are met with consistent moral outrage and political action they will continue. There should be outrage against all forms of exclusion and unequal treatment that adversely impact upon the life chances of people in our society.
The views presented here are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of other members of the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE).