Racism in Sport

Brian Phillips compares soccer hooliganism to American fans’ troubled relationship with black NBA players. A taste:

Unlike American racism, which can be seen as an internal social problem transformed by changing attitudes within one overarching culture, the history of European nationalism was decided by relatively recent battles between armies whose sources of legitimacy were external to one another. Thus, to forestall the unanswerable shame that attaches itself to overt expressions of prejudice in American sports (Rush Limbaugh on Donovan McNabb, even Shaq when Yao first came into the league), prejudice in soccer can fall back on the dim memory of concrete populist ideologies. That’s not to say that the shirtless gentleman holding the corner of the “Filthy Gypsy” banner is a learned proponent of any identifiable right-wing philosophy, but there’s at least a vaporous sense that attitudes like his loathing for Ibrahimović were not long ago articulated by governments and embraced by respectable people. Which is enough to give them a perverse air of community justification, even when all the institutional forces in the sport are consciously trying (again, much more emphatically than the NBA) to eradicate racism and sectarianism from the game.

Read the whole thing. The standard response to this sort of unpleasantness is something along the lines of “nationalist hooligans, Nazi skinheads, signs that read “Filthy Gypsy” – these are the last gasps of Europe’s ancient history.” But I’ve always sensed that something beyond aging racists is at work here, and it’s striking that many of Europe’s youngest, most dynamic politicians – Jorg Haider, Geert Wilders, the late Pim Fortyun – all hail from the reactionary fringe.

Is Europe’s liberal gentility a carefully-constructed facade that cracks as soon as foreign footballers take the pitch? Or are sports hooligans a relic of the past, refugees from Europe’s impending “End of History?” A few weeks ago, Will Wilkinson suggested that liberal habits are mutually-reinforcing, pointing to Europe’s ability to sustain a liberal democratic order despite rapidly expending its reserves of cultural capital. I worry that liberal habits are too shallow to keep the peace, and that football riots and race-baiting banners tell us more about the fundamentals of Europe’s political culture than placid economic conferences in Brussels.

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Filed under Culture, Liberalism, Sports

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