Azeem Rafiq, photo via SkySports

This essay, on the lessons of the Azeem Rafiq case, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 14 November 2021, under the headline “If tackling racism is just a box-ticking exercise, the urgent imperative to change our ways is lost”.

For some, it was a gotcha moment. For others, an occasion to parade their own prejudices. Yet others celebrated the end of the “attempt to destroy English cricket”. On Tuesday, Azeem Rafiq gave devastating testimony to a parliamentary committee about the racism he had faced as a Yorkshire cricketer. On Thursday came revelations of antisemitic texts he had exchanged with a fellow cricketer a decade ago.

Rafiq apologised immediately, an apology acknowledged by leading Jewish figures. Critics, however, saw in the affair only Rafiq’s “double standards” and the tawdriness of his original allegations. In fact, the exposure of Rafiq’s previous antisemitism, ironically, strengthened one of the core arguments in his story: the way people can be blind to bigotry in one context while alert to it in another.

What stood out in Rafiq’s testimony was not just his account of racist bullying, harrowing though they were, but also his comments about the current England Test captain, Joe Root, a fellow Yorkshireman. Root, Rafiq confirmed, was a “good guy”, who “never engaged in racist language”. What “hurt”, though, was Root’s insistence, after the scandal broke, that he could not recall any racism at Yorkshire despite, according to Rafiq, being present when the abuse occurred. “It shows how normal it was that even a good man like him doesn’t see it for what it was”, Rafiq suggested. That could be said of Rafiq’s antisemitism, too.

One reason Rafiq’s allegations feel so shocking is the degree to which Britain has changed. Had he spoken out 40 years ago, few would have cared. Then, “Paki-bashing” was a national sport and racism viscerally woven into the fabric of society. Today, racism remains embedded – witness everything from discrimination in employment to the Windrush scandal – but it is of a different character and threat from that of the 1970s and 80s. Most people today abhor what Rafiq had to endure.

There is a long history of passing off racism as “banter”. That it should still be happening is particularly dispiriting given the broader decline of racism. If someone had abused Rafiq as a “Paki” on the streets, most of his teammates would probably have recognised it as racist and sprung to his defence. In the dressing room or in a social setting, however, what they may elsewhere have acknowledged as racism becomes invisible, transformed into banter.

Dressing-room culture, designed to enhance team bonding, is necessarily insular and often forbidding to outsiders. In the past, such insularity frequently took a racist form. That it still does in so in many dressing rooms and that players and management – even the “good guys” – seemingly cannot distinguish between racist bullying and dressing-room joshing is troubling.

The drive to root out racism has in recent years become as much managerial or administrative as moral or political. A determination to tick the right boxes, a desire to appear diverse, a resolve to undertake training – it’s an exercise in looking right more than in being right. And in this process, the moral imperative on individuals to challenge real racism where they see it has diminished.

Many sports people, from Colin Kaepernick to Marcus Rashford, have taken a public stance against iniquities both inside and outside sport. But, too often, as the Rafiq case and others reveal, the voices that should restrain unacceptable behaviour are silent, even complicit.

If the dismissal of racism as “banter” is one form of blindness, the refusal of many, including many anti-racists, to recognise antisemitism, even when it smacks them in the face, is another. The week before Rafiq gave his parliamentary evidence, London’s Royal Court theatre had to apologise for naming a money-grabbing billionaire, modelled allegedly on Elon Musk, in Al Smith’s play Rare Earth Mettle, “Hershel Fink”. The character was hastily renamed (to Henry Finn) and the theatre blamed the gaffe on “unconscious bias”.

It is difficult to know how anyone could fail to see that “Hershel Fink” was an archly Jewish name or that giving such a name to an unscrupulous capitalist would be to play on deep-rooted racist stereotypes. Yet, as writer Jo Glanville pointed out, it is plausible in the sense that “the association of Jews with power and money is so deeply entrenched in our culture that it isn’t even questioned”.

Antisemitism is not an issue simply on the left. It is a core ideology of the reactionary right. There has, however, emerged in recent decades a particular form of leftwing antisemitism. As racism has come to be seen as a problem of whiteness and of white privilege, and Jews viewed as both white and privileged, so not only has bigotry towards Jews been frequently ignored, but Jews often portrayed as the villains.

Important, too, is antisemitism within Muslim communities, an issue many liberals feel reluctant to broach. “As a community, we do have a ‘Jewish problem’,” the journalist and activist Mehdi Hasan has observed. Polls bear this out, though we should not exaggerate the problem. A 2017 report by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research warned that “broad stigmatisation of all Muslims is neither accurate nor helpful” and that most Muslims are not antisemitic. Nevertheless, a significant proportion hold bigoted views about Jews and to a greater degree than does the general population. It behoves us not to be blind to this, any more than to anti-Asian racism or anti-Muslim bigotry.

Such blindness is often aggravated by the politics of identity, by the tendency to see “good” and “bad” in terms of the group to which someone belongs and the privileges they are supposed to possess. It has led many to target Jews for being Jews and to hold all Jews responsible for the actions of the state of Israel. Judging an individual by the group to which they are imputed to belong is a trait of racism. The more tribal, identity-driven politics of today has made many blind to the growth of such traits on the left.

It was inevitable that, as soon as Rafiq made his explosive allegations, his own past would be scrutinised. There is, though, something dysfunctional about a culture in which many seem more eager to dredge the past of someone who exposes wrongdoing to find material with which to publicly shame them than seek to put that wrong right. That, too, is a form of blindness.


  1. Douglas

    Great comment – thanks for this, Kenan.

    Separate but sometimes connected, do you think our overuse of irony as a signaller of in-crowd sophistication and of supposed intelligence plays a role in replicating racial bias?

  2. Possibly another form of blindness is anti-indigenous and anti-native traits which further normalises ‘good or justified’ racism on the Left.

    Another blindness of course is the prejudism directed towards groups that are associated as Tory or Far Right because they accept ecological rationality as a legitimate basis by which to oppose ecology destroying migration led national population growth.

    However, rather than respectfully engage in a debate about ecological rationality, the tendency is to project the same sort of value judgements that drives racism and other forms of bigotry.

    In other words, all forms of derogative undignified comments based on perceived social hierarchies of worth is bigotry.

    The question then becomes, what is the difference between making derogatory undignified comments on the basis of ethnic identities and making derogatory undignified comments on the basis of regional identities and political identities, all of which seeks to reinforce group identies and maintain a competitive dynamic between them.

    As such, in order to eradicate group based bigotry, group identities would either need to be discouraged or banned or the competitive dynamics between them discouraged or banned.

    Thus, what we are really arguing about is the competitive dynamics that exists between groups and what are the permissible expressions of competition if all derogatory undignified opinions and comments about groups or individuals perceived to be within these groups are all considered forms of bigotry.

    • Andrew

      Your argument would be easier to take seriously if you could point to anti immigrant sentiment being driven by a concern of ‘ecological destruction’. Not suggesting such views don’t exist but the idea this is a significant driver of opposition to immigration isn’t born out by the facts.

      Also, yes. Many of the left are unwilling to engage in rational debate and use derogatory language to those holding differing views but are you seriously trying to suggest many on the right don’t engage in exactly the same behaviour? Your seeming attempt to pain this as merely a problem of the left would once again struggle in the face of the facts.

      As for conflict being driven by competition between groups, as Sen as pointed out this is almost always a result of under analysis. Seeing people simply in terms of ‘native’ or ‘immigrant’ as discrete categories in opposition to each other is at best grotesquely oversimplified, but a grotesque over simplification that serves particular political ends.

      • Thanks Andrew. Clearly you haven’t heard the refrain, “there is too many people”.

        This common refrain refers to the reduction of agricultural land availability which in turn creates the need for import dependencies. In this respect, coming to the UK is a vicious circle since due to our high ecological deficit, continued population growth means an increase in import dependencies which inevitably leads to land grabbing abroad, forced displacement, slum urbanisation, internecine conflicts and migration.

        This common refrain also refers to congestion, pollution and increased scarcity of public services which requires an expansion of grey infrastructure, which at heart are all ecological concerns as they all relate to population ecology.

        A nation’s biocapacity therefore leads to a simplistic dichotomy between indigenous and immigrant along with their negation, especially if a country is experiencing a high ecological deficit like the UK. This particularly applies when thinking about worst case scenarios.

        However, like much of my post, you do not engage by building into your argument various strawmen arguments in order to deflect from engaging rationally.

        For example, if you reject the dichotomy of indigenous and immigrant, then what is your alternative?

        Also, how would you manage the worst case scenario of population overshoot and the breakdown of global supply chains whose continuity is a prerequisite for the survival of population excess via imports?

        Similarly, how would you avoid competition between different groups in the event of import dependencies not being supplied?

        These are real ecological questions which your post resolutely ignores, presumably for politically motivated reasons 🤔

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