“Football, and you can put this in your article,” John Barnes says as he leans forward and points at the dictaphone on the table between us, “is the least racist industry in this country. Yes, you have people shouting racist abuse and throwing bananas on the field, and there are issues regarding the number of black coaches and managers in the game, but which other industry allows a young black boy the exact same opportunity as a young white boy? Even at League One and League Two level you’ll see five or six black players, because they are given an opportunity to maximise their potential.”
Barnes has never been afraid to speak his mind when it comes to the issues that have increasingly come to define him – race and racism, on and off the field. He is arguably the most famous black player in England and had to endure racism as a player – the picture of him back-heeling a banana off the pitch during a Merseyside derby in 1988 is iconic.
He is a pioneer and an inspiration, but for many he has also become an apologist for cases of racism in recent months and that is why we are meeting at De Montfort University in Leicester before Barnes gives a talk there – so he can defend himself and have his say. It proves to be an engrossing hour or so in the company of the former Liverpool and England winger.
For Barnes it started in February when he came out in support of Liam Neeson after the actor had revealed during an interview that he once set out to kill a random black man in revenge for a woman he knew being raped. Barnes claimed Neeson “deserved a medal” for his honesty and that the only thing he was guilty of was unconscious bias. That led to criticism before the storm passed, only to break out again last month when Barnes spoke in defence of his former teammate Peter Beardsley after he was suspended by the Football Association for making racist comments to young black players in his capacity as Newcastle’s under‑23 coach.
Then came Barnes’s backing of Bernardo Silva after the midfielder tweeted an image of his Manchester City teammate Benjamin Mendy alongside the logo for the Spanish chocolate confectionery company Conguitos and compared the two. Silva was accused of racial stereotyping by the anti-racist group Kick It Out and has been charged by the FA with misconduct. But Barnes saw nothing wrong in what Silva did, which led to more outrage, especially on social media where the 55-year-old was accused of being out of touch and, yes, an apologist.
“I’m not an apologist,” Barnes insists. “I give balanced, constructive views and what happens is that bits and pieces of what I say are used against me. For a long time John Barnes was seen as the voice of reason when it came to race. John Barnes hasn’t changed; what’s changed is the reporting of John Barnes.”
I ask Barnes what he means by that and he goes on to speak about “elite black groups” in this country that sought his involvement in helping tackle racism in football but then did not want to know after he said he would only work with them if he could also focus his efforts on what is happening to black children growing up in inner-city areas, from a social, educational and vocational point of view.
“For these groups it is only about how terrible discrimination is in Montenegro or how terrible it is when Chelsea fans abuse Raheem Sterling, but these things have no impact on the black community. They are not what I want to focus my agenda on, and it was when I made that clear that the reporting of me changed.”
It is an intriguing and characteristically strongly delivered answer from Barnes, who goes on to reference this country’s “black elite” on more than one occasion. There is clear anger there and also defiance, which is equally notable when Barnes reiterates his defence of Neeson, Beardsley and, in particular, Silva. “What is wrong with a black man with big lips and a round head?” he says in reference to the Conguitos logo. “If you had to draw, say, N’Golo Kanté as a cartoon, how would he look? Would he not have black skin, big lips and a round head? Why is that negative?”
I make the point that the issue many people have with the Conguitos logo is its historical context. Conguitos literally means “little people of Congo” and its logo, dating back to the country’s independence from Belgium in 1960, appears quite clearly to be wrapped up in racist tropes from the time.
“If you go back to the cartoons the logo originates from then yes, that is unacceptable. But I’m pretty sure Bernardo Silva has not seen those cartoons, nor was he referencing them in his tweet,” Barnes replies. “All he’s come across is a picture on a Spanish sweet and a picture of Benjamin Mendy and said he thinks they look alike. Also, Sterling came out and said he saw nothing wrong with Silva’s tweet. Where is the criticism towards him?
“For a long time, images of black men with big lips and a round head were used to make us feel inferior, but it doesn’t need to be like that, we don’t need to self‑loathe. We can change the narrative. Many members of the black elite agree with me on that but, off the record, they claim we can’t say that publicly because that’s a very intellectual way to look at things and the black community isn’t ready for that. So are the black elite saying the black community is too thick to understand that? I want no part of that.”
Barnes is talking at De Montfort as part of the campus’s Black History Season. He is dressed in a dark jacket, blue shirt and dark trousers and is clearly energised by the prospect of sharing his thoughts on race and racism with an audience, something he has regularly been doing at colleges and universities since retiring as a player two decades ago. The same principles are brought up: scapegoating achieves nothing and that each case needs to be judged on its own merit, with the understanding that unconscious bias – something everyone is guilty of – could be at play. In regards to football specifically, Barnes also believes that racism cannot be eradicated from stadiums until it is eradicated from society.
It is in this context that Barnes disagrees with the idea of players walking off the pitch in protest against racist abuse, something members of England’s current squad, among them Sterling and Tammy Abraham, have said they are willing to do, starting, potentially, with Monday’s Euro 2020 qualifier in Bulgaria.
“It depends on what we consider to be racist abuse,” says Barnes. “Because while we know monkey chants are illegal, if the whole stadium wants to boo a black player every time he gets the ball, while we know why they’re doing it from a racial perspective, booing is not illegal. So we ban booing, but then they’ll clap instead. But again, clapping is not illegal. So what do we do then – ban clapping?
“The simple fact is there are no laws you can pass to stop people racially abusing black footballers. So the solution is to come up with something that doesn’t make people want to abuse black footballers in the first place.”
Barnes then homes in on his insistence that racism in football is directly linked to racism in society and, in doing so, calls on those involved in the sport, Sterling included, to play a more active role. “Raheem gave 550 FA Cup semi-final tickets to schoolchildren in Wembley, where he’s from. Instead of that why doesn’t he take those 550 children in to a press conference and tell the world’s media that these young people are being disenfranchised, that they haven’t got a good education, a good level of housing, that’s there’s crime in their area? Wouldn’t that be better?
“The black elite in this country should be using their platform to improve the lives of the black people they are meant to represent. By improving the lives of black people they’ll change the perception of black people, which in turn will see the entire black community prosper. That is the real fight against racism and what I have been championing for years.”
By now Barnes is full flow. The power and eloquence of his words are striking, and while his views are controversial they are also thought-provoking and unique among his peers. When I ask Barnes where that comes from he immediately references his late father, Ken. “My dad was a colonel, second in command of the Jamaican army, and when I meet soldiers who knew him they always say how much they loved him. While other elite members of the army stood back and strategised, my dad got involved with the troops and always made sure he had their backs. On an almost subliminal level that has influenced me – I do things in my life and realise afterwards ‘my dad would have done that’.”
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