Azeem Rafiq, racism and redemption

Azeem Rafiq, shortly after bowling a ball in a cricket match. He is wearing white cricket clothes, standing on a grass pitch. Behind him is a border with Specsavers advertising and behind that a small group of spectators.
Azeem Rafiq bowling for Yorkshire in a 2017 County Championship match.

Over the past few weeks the cricketer Azeem Rafiq revealed racist treatment he had received over many years when training and then playing at Yorkshire Cricket Club, a scandal which has resulted in the resignation of a number of the club’s directors including one who only took up the job recently. Then last week, someone discovered a conversation he had had with a friend in 2011 in which he said that somebody, on the basis of some stereotype, “must be a Jew”. Then yesterday, the Yorkshire Post reported that a woman had alleged that Azeem had sent creepy text messages to her after meeting on a plane six years ago, when she was 16 (though she told him she was 17) and he was 25. The Yorkshire Post article alleges that there are screenshots, but they are not included in the article.

To take the racism aspect first, there is no equivalence between what Azeem Rafiq said in a Facebook conversation on his personal profile with a friend and the racist bullying he (and presumably other Asian cricketers) were subjected to at YCC. It’s wrong, yes, but no harm was done as no Jew was involved in the conversation and no Jew was aware until somebody searched his profile in bad faith years later and sent it to a magazine (the Spectator) currently best known for its “anti-woke” posturing. The revelation was calculated to cause people to lose interest in the issue of racism in cricket (or, indeed, in British society and institutions generally) by promoting the idea that the victims were just as racist as the perpetrators. I saw one tweet linking to the story that just said ‘Oh’. This is the time-honoured way of avoiding dealing with bullying: find some way to conclude that the victim is just as bad, maybe that he insulted the bully or hit back, then say “two wrongs don’t make a right”. Only a perfect victim counts.

When I made the point on Twitter that racist words were not equivalent to racist deeds, someone I didn’t know tweeted back, “There is no hierarchy of racism. Jews do count”. Well, yes, if Jews are being physically attacked or bullied. But this does not seem to be the case here (a lot of accusations of antisemitism are about things that would not even meet any normal definition of racism anyway). If we look at any of the usual metrics of racism, such as how difficult it is to find employment, how many are stopped and searched by police while going about normal business, how many die in police custody, negative outcomes in healthcare (sometimes the result of health worker prejudice or stereotyping, and sometimes of equipment designed for white patients), we can only conclude that Jews are not major victims of racism in British society in the here and now. When we say this, they often remind us of “centuries of persecution”, all of which took place in places that are not here and times that are not now and mostly under regimes that are no longer in power. The major victims of racism are Black and Asian people, because they are visibly different and are assumed to be foreign.

This demonstrates that racism must be regarded as not merely prejudice alone, but prejudice reinforced with power. When the people who are the majority in society, at least a simple majority in every town and city and an outright majority in both, who dominate every public institution, every major industry, as well as parliament and the legal profession, use their power to oppress a minority, the harm done is that much greater than when individuals from a minority express prejudice or impatience or dislike of the majority (which may be rooted in a long experience of racism), and this includes when it is against a group within the majority which has previously experienced persecution. There is a long history of “reverse racism” being punished more harshly than aggressive majority racism; one thinks of the group of young women who fought to be admitted to a hitherto all-white school in Alabama in the 1950s, one of whom was later expelled for calling some of the racist bullies “white trash”.

As for the accusation that surfaced yesterday, it was a single incident of non-criminal (16 is the age of consent in the UK, other than where the older party is a teacher or in some other position of responsibility) but inappropriate behaviour six years ago. If a lot of similar reports appear which are credible, we might reconsider our views but we must ask why the Yorkshire Post saw fit to make a story of this bit of tittle-tattle other than to discredit someone who had exposed racism at a Yorkshire institution. It’s disappointing but not surprising that some Muslims on social media chose to believe the woman without knowing anything about her except for her name and what it suggests about her background. Even if the claims are true, so what? It was five years ago and since then, as well as campaigning against racism in a major county cricket team, he also supplied free meals to health workers during the first lockdown last year when they were risking their lives to treat Covid patients without adequate PPE. People’s characters change and if someone improves and does good things or does the community a great service, we should not judge them by minor misdeeds allegedly committed years ago.

There is no reason to publish this trivial tittle-tattle other than to derail the story, to preserve an unjust status quo, to give people licence to be racist or at least to pretend it isn’t a problem. I would have no problem with these things being reported against a background of other misbehaviour or criminality on Azeem Rafiq’s part, but it’s not; he had been talking about the culture of racism at a major British cricket club which he experienced over a period of years, including while training as a teenager, all of which happened since the mid-2000s (he only moved to the UK in 2001, aged 10). It opened up debate on the Black and Asian experience in British sport and other British institutions, and then thanks to two accusations of trivial misdeeds from years back, the whole issue dropped out of the news. All of a sudden, there is a ‘but’; what he’s saying may be true, but he’s not the best person to talk about these things, but who is? People should not have to be perfect not to suffer racism, nor to be believed when they talk about it.

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