Reginald D Hunter. Photograph: Getty Images
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Kick the racism out of football, don't kick out the discussion of racism

Reginald D Hunter's set at the Professional Footballers' Association awards dinner, and the response to it, shines a light on one of the great linguistic arm-wrestles of our time.

So this has actually happened. The Professional Footballers' Association, or PFA, booked Reginald D Hunter, the comedian, as the main entertainment for their annual awards dinner; and now, after Hunter has duly delivered a typically forthright show, the PFA want their money back. This, for all kinds of reasons, is not a good look.

The first reason is one of plain and common courtesy. It is rude, if not unpleasant, to hire a performer to adorn your ceremony and then publicly criticise him or her for being too offensive. It is particularly unpleasant when the most cursory inspection of his material would have made him a contentious choice for the event at hand.

The event in question was no ordinary dinner: it was a dinner at the end of two seasons where the issue of racism in football had been discussed at length and yet to unsatisfactory effect. Both Luis Suarez, of Liverpool, and John Terry, of Chelsea, had been censured by the Football Association for their use of racially offensive language. And now, at the end of all this, the PFA booked Hunter to perform: a man who has largely made a career from intelligently exploring the discomfort that exists around racism in contemporary Western society. 

Now, we don't know for sure what Hunter said during his routine. What we do know is that his set was liberally sprinkled with uses of "the N-word", which is to say, the word "nigger". This is a word which gives me extreme disquiet to type, since it conjures images of burning crosses on lawns, men riding the streets in white hoods, and black men hanging from trees. (See, for example, Claude Neal.)   

I hate this word because it reminds me of a prejudice that I wish were long gone. But that’s the whole point of Hunter’s act. He is shining a light where many of us no longer wish to look. Much as we might try to move on from or ignore it, racism is with us still.  Black and Asian police officers, for example, have only recently stated their beliefs that the Metropolitan Police Force is still institutionally racist. As Jimmy Gator comments in the film Magnolia: "We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us."

I suppose what I am trying to say is that Hunter is not to be primarily faulted for bringing up issues, however uncomfortably, which are the most pressing in our current social discourse. The PFA could have chosen any number of bland, uncontroversial comedians to fill this berth. Hunter was a subversive choice, and having booked him the PFA should have stood by him. Most concerning of all, though, is the suggestion in several quarters that Mr. Hunter's use of the word "nigger" is somehow just as offensive as if a member of a lynch mob had used it. This is a false equivalency, and a dangerous one. 

Hunter uses this word to expose the discrimination that exists in a society that often complacently considers itself post-racial. He uses this word rather as a surgeon might use a scalpel without anaesthetic: it is surely painful, but its deep incision ruthlessly exposes the tumour. On the other hand, a lynch mob uses this word as the accompaniment to, well, a lynching.

“Nigger”, meanwhile, is a word that many black people now use as a term of affection, of solidarity, of sorority or fraternity.  Hence Jay-Z and Kanye's "Niggas in Paris". It is a word that black people are still trying to reclaim from the people who wished to break them with it: it is one of the great lingustic arm-wrestles of our time.

But here’s the thing. I think that the PFA knows this. I think that it made a terrible mistake and is retreating on the basis of anxiety over backlash rather than on the point of principle: a stance which ultimately serves the issue of racism in football no good at all. It seems that rather than kicking racism out of football, the aim is instead to kick the discussion of racism, as Mr. Hunter would propose it, out of football.  And that, all in all, is an appalling shame. 

Musa Okwonga is a Berlin-based poet, journalist and musician.

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition