Football legend John Barnes is arguably the most vocal man in football when it comes to racism.
Since retiring from the game in 1999, the former Liverpool winger - capped 79 times for his country and named by Times’ readers as England’s greatest-ever left-footer – has been at the heart of the ongoing debate about the treatment of race in society and sport, appearing on screens almost as frequently as in his playing days.
And in front of a packed audience at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) he showed why.
In a 90-minute talk at The Venue@DMU, Jamaican-born Barnes pulled no punches, taking the opportunity to expand on views which have seen him in the headlines.
Speaking with his trademark speed and passion, Barnes discussed his response to actor Liam Neeson’s take on revenge, his feeling that Manchester City star Bernardo Silva’s recent Tweet of a sweet-wrapper character to team mate Benjamin Mendy was not racist and many of the other race issues he has been vocal about in recent years.
He also took a number of questions from the audience throughout the evening, the latest in this year’s season of Black History Month events at DMU.
Before the event, DMU caught up with Barnes, putting a series of questions to the Anfield legend, to hear him in his own words:
On the public attention of racism in football:
“People talk about racism in sport and society, and racism in football and society. I want to talk about racism in society and football, and racism in society and sport.
“We are not looking at highlighting or addressing the real issue of racial violence, unconscious or otherwise, which really manifests itself in a much more impactful arena, which is in the inner cities.
“People have spoken to me about how terrible racism in football is, I say yes, it is terrible, but what is much worse is what is happening in society.
“People may be uncomfortable with what I have to say but I speak my own truth in the way I see things.
“When I speak in the way I do and I talk about the black community and how important it is to understand what’s going on, there is an unconscious bias that allows the situation in inner cities to continue, because we convince ourselves it is not an issue, as the front page of the newspaper says Raheem Stirling has been racially abused in Montenegro.
“That’s the reason why racism still exists.
"We pat ourselves on the back in society and say we are trying to do something to effect change because we get behind Raheem Stirling and get behind John Barnes, because he can’t be a manager, rather than looking at ourselves and how we truly feel about different groups.
“When I talk about racism, homophobia and sexism I speak about it in a sense that it is all understandable because of what we have been wrongly told about black people, Muslims, women and homosexuals for the last 200 years and the way we subliminally talk about them every time we read a newspaper. What is the solution to that?
“Unfortunately, what we do as individuals is we convince ourselves that it is not us. It’s somebody else. It’s Peter Beardsley. It’s Bernardo Silva. It’s Harvey Weinstein. Rather than looking at ourselves and asking how we really feel and looking at the unconscious bias that we all have.
“Once we start to look at that and look at the complexity and nuances around the idea of racism or sexism or homophobia we will all move forward.
“The more we highlight the Peter Beardsley’s, and the Chelsea fans who abused Raheem Sterling, the more we deflect from the real issues.”
On the nature of racism in football:
“Our interpretation of racism is Bernardo Silva and what happened to Raheem Sterling. Because it is obvious. Our interpretation of racism isn’t when a group of black men come walking down the road and a woman clutches her handbag tighter. Because we can’t prove that. That is not as prevalent as bananas being thrown onto the football field. Two black kids go into a sweet shop to buy something and the owner is watching them because he thinks they are going to steal something.
“Black people have got, every single day of their lives, unspoken racial abuse and invisible banana skins thrown at them. Every single day. So the fact this really happens in a football match is inconsequential. We need to start having conversations about how we really feel. And they are hard conversations to have. We have to look at ourselves and talk about the unconscious bias we all have.”
On the number of black managers in top-level football:
“The lack of black managers in football is reflected in the lack of black managers in any walk of life, in any industry. Football isn’t any different. Unfortunately, with football, we absolve ourselves of any responsibility to look at ourselves.
“There aren’t many black cricket coaches, rugby coaches or captains of industry. But because football is so media attentive we like to just reflect on football and how terrible it is.
“Why is there a lack of black managers? Because of our perception of a lack of a black person’s ability to lead, much like why aren’t there many women CEOs? Because of our perception of women. Why aren’t there many homosexuals in the army? Because of our perceptions of a homosexual’s ability to fight in a war. So, all of this is down to our misconceptions of an individual and their worth.”
On accusations of him being a rent-a-quote:
“A rent-a-quote is when you toe the party line and say ‘that’s racist and that’s racist and that’s racist’. When you talk about Liam Neeson, when people are saying he’s racist and I say he’s not, and Bernardo Silva is racist and I say he’s not, I think I give a balanced view, not the party line that everything is racist. So, when you talk about a rent-a-quote you get someone to say what you want them to say. But I say what I think is right, which gets me into a lot of trouble. Then people say I am an apologist for racism. That’s why I am here today, to talk for a long time about the issues.”
On how racism in society might be addressed:
“Throughout history there has been an elite group of people, from the Magna Carta to the French Revolution – over a thousand years - who have said to the masses “you help me to get to where I want to get to and I will help you up the ladder” and that has never happened. That is what is increasingly happening now in the black community. An elite group of black people are saying “give me power to become a manager and a CEO and then I will help you up the ladder” and that has never happened in history and it won’t happen now.
“We have to create an environment much lower down to create a platform in the inner cities for people to climb up themselves rather than promising to help them up the ladder once we get into position. So as much as people say now “we’ll be different”, it’s never happened and it won’t happen now.”
Posted on Wednesday 9th October 2019