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17 November 2021

Jonathan Liew

The Yorkshire Cricket Club scandal shows that racism remains entrenched and insidious

Unless we are prepared to scrutinise racist behaviour beyond the superficial level of incidents and language, the case of Azeem Rafiq will change far too little.

Kamlesh Patel gave his first press conference as the new chairman of the scandal-plagued Yorkshire County Cricket Club (CCC) on 8 November. He spoke for more than 50 minutes and gave a full and commendably honest reckoning of the endemic racist behaviour that had brought the club to its knees. But his most telling choice of words was in describing Azeem Rafiq, the former player whose accusations have precipitated one of the biggest crises in the club’s history, as a “whistleblower” who “should be praised”. For it was perhaps the first time in his almost two decades-long Yorkshire career – first as a junior player and then as a professional – that Rafiq had ever been made to feel welcome at the club.

That it came more than three years after Rafiq left Yorkshire, and only after weeks of insalubrious headlines and the desertion of several club sponsors, is perhaps one of the bitterest ironies of the whole affair. Perhaps understandably, much of the media focus on Rafiq’s case has centred on specific incidents and individuals: Rafiq’s former teammate Gary Ballance, who admitted using the P-word to him as “banter”; and the former England captain Michael Vaughan joking there were “too many” Asian players in the Yorkshire team (a comment Vaughan denies making, but which has been corroborated by two other witnesses). This, too, was the main focus of the parliamentary select committee hearing on 16 November, at which Rafiq spoke as a witness.

But in many ways the most poignant and heartbreaking parts of Rafiq’s story are those you didn’t hear about on the evening news, or parsed and dissected on radio phone-ins, or cut into bite-sized morsels online. They were the times when he was dropped from the side without ever really knowing why. The sniggers and the whispers, the imagined subtexts, the unvoiced suspicions. “I felt isolated,” Rafiq has said of his time at Yorkshire, and it’s a reminder that structural racism isn’t simply about epithets and bad jokes; it’s an atmosphere and a mood, and its most insidious forms are impossible to prove to a legal standard or expose to the media.

There are elements of the Yorkshire scandal that are specific to Yorkshire and some that pertain to cricket more broadly, but the central lesson is one that should be relevant to us all. You can police language, force powerful people from their roles, establish diversity initiatives and set up whistleblowing hotlines without ever addressing the ways in which racism can conceal itself in a culture. Because these days, for the most part, racism doesn’t express itself on its own unambiguous terms: it hides and camouflages, misdirects and dissembles, often dresses itself up as something else entirely.

Perhaps the best illustration of this was a letter sent by a delegation of (yet unnamed) Yorkshire staff to the club’s board on 14 October: long after the story had first broken, but before it had begun to permeate the national consciousness. In the letter, according to the Daily Telegraph, the staff described Rafiq as “an under-performer on the field” and “problematic in the dressing room” and urged the board to adopt a more aggressive strategy against him, making it clear “what kind of individual he was whilst at the club”.

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This language will be instinctively familiar to anyone who has ever been in an environment where, for whatever reason, their face didn’t fit. Everything here is euphemisms and base notes and mood music: the references to underperformance and disruption, woolly accusations of bad character, an underlying and irrational dislike so artfully sublimated that it’s possible even the signatories themselves were deaf to its racist undertones. Elsewhere in the letter Rafiq is accused of not sharing the club’s “White Rose values” – values never explicitly defined and thus applied entirely according to subjective judgement.

What’s really interesting about the letter is the way in which it is so sharply attuned to modern sensibilities, even if it was never intended for public consumption. For the most part, the racist of 2021 isn’t stupid enough to expose himself in so many words. The key is maintaining deniability at all times. It’s no longer socially acceptable to dislike a person based on their race, but it’s still fine to dislike them for other reasons, as long as you can persuade enough people those reasons are valid.

And so a frequent characteristic of public racism these days is the way in which its proponents attempt to justify their dislike along non-racial lines. The vilification of Meghan Markle isn’t racist, it’s because she’s “bad-tempered” or “calculating”. The critics of Diane Abbott are motivated not by her colour, but by her apparent inability to get her figures right on live radio. Black Lives Matter is opposed not on its own terms but as an imagined vehicle for radical Marxism. Meanwhile, the claim by Yorkshire staff that Rafiq did not possess “White Rose values” has echoes of Eniola Aluko’s exclusion from the England women’s football team in 2016 amid rumours of “negative influence” and “un-Lioness behaviour”.

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It’s particularly telling that even now, with Yorkshire CCC burned to the ground and Rafiq being widely hailed as a righteous hero, there are plenty within the game still prepared to brief against him under the cover of anonymity. Rafiq may have prevailed in this particular case thanks to his tenacity and fearlessness, and at no small cost to his own mental health. But unless we as a public and we as a media are prepared to scrutinise racist behaviour beyond the superficial level of incidents and language, the next whistleblower may well decide it really isn’t worth the trouble.

[See also: How David Beckham backed Qatar 2022 – and got away with it]

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This article appears in the 17 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Democracy's last stand