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Azeem Rafiq’s evidence exposes the depth of racism across the UK

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“Brit is short for Briton. Aussie is short for Australian. P*** is short for Pakistani. What’s the problem?”

“Why should we have to change our sense of humour because this lad doesn’t like our banter?”

“If people hate this country so much and think we’re all a bunch of racists, use the airport.”

Just a small selection there of some of the comments to be found beneath video footage of the cricketer Azeem Rafiq, doing his best to hold back tears at a parliamentary committee hearing, as he talks of racist abuse and carrying his son “from the hospital to the graveyard”.

Why repeat it? Why give it the time of the day? Well, because, as Rafiq has been making clear for a very long time, and never with more courage and articulation than in his jaw-dropping and horrific evidence on Tuesday morning, things have to change. There has to be an understanding, first and foremost, that racism is alive and well in Britain today. It is thriving. It is hammering out of the fingers of ever more emboldened keyboard warriors up and down the country, and it doesn’t stop there.

Rafiq is 30 years old. As he sat before the committee, recounting years of racist abuse that, he said, left him considering taking his own life, until the stillbirth of his son in 2018 finally compelled him to stop looking the other way and to do something about it, he was quite rightly praised for his courage. But it takes more than bravery to do what he’s done. It takes tenacity, intelligence, determination, and a strategic approach to a fight with Yorkshire County Cricket Club that he had no natural right to win, even though the moral case was so obviously on his side.

“The word p*** was used constantly,” he said, of his time in the Yorkshire dressing room. “‘You’ll sit over there near the toilets’, ‘elephant washers’.”

Ten years ago, as chance would have it, Tottenham Hotspur football fans used to sing a chant about Emmanual Adebayor, in which he too was called an “elephant washer”. Complaints were registered. A spokesperson for the club denied the chant was racist, and that the “Crown Prosecution Service do not consider it racist”. The Crown Prosecution Service issued a clarifying statement of its own, to make clear they had never said such a thing, and that it certainly was racist.

It seems laughable now that such a discussion could have occurred, in the public domain, in the not exactly anciently historic year of 2011, as to whether or not it was racist to refer to a man from Togo as an “elephant washer”. But that’s what happened. It really did. And a football club that likes nothing more these days than to hand out training T-shirts to their players with the appropriate slogans, to applaud them as they took the knee, really were so blatantly on the wrong side of it.

So this is the world in which Azeem Rafiq and the rest of us were living. And we are still living in it now. It’s just rare, rarer perhaps than it should be, for a man of Rafiq’s rare gifts to stand up and say, “No, I am not going to take this anymore.”

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He spoke of how hard it is to decide, for yourself, that you have to take action. “For a person of colour to accept you are being treated differently because of your race or your religion is a tough thing to take,” he said.

That before you can take action against racism, you have to accept you have been a victim of it. That people you know, and perhaps even like and admire, have discriminated against you. That is a pain that is easier to ignore than to confront, and that is why things do not change.

“When I lost my son I thought, ‘hang on a minute,’” Rafiq continued. “I’ve seen other players have family tragedies and get support beyond measure. And I have just carried my son from the hospital to the graveyard and how I’m getting treated here is not right. It became very clear to myself that I’d been looking the other way. There’s a problem here.”

The litany of outrages were long indeed. About being forced to down red wine in the back of a car at the age of 15. Rafiq is a Muslim. (That he later became, by his own account, a heavy drinker is still, for many people, considered some kind of mitigation against that outrageous incident.) About his friend, Gary Ballance, using the word “Kevin” to describe all people of colour. Another teammate, the England batsman Alex Hales, had a black dog named Kevin, which he alleged to be an extension of the joke.

But as shocking as any of it is, none of it, frankly, was any worse, any more outrageous, than the comments that have been made about Rafiq online today, right now, and will be again tomorrow, by people with public profiles, linked, in some cases, to their employers. But they don’t care.

After Rafiq came the parade of suits. The now former Yorkshire County Cricket Club chairman, who resigned, apparently in response to the management structures of the club being too arcane to allow him to take the action he would have liked. And then Tom Harrison, chairman of the England Cricket Board, who said, in all seriousness, that he would liked to have acted sooner but “Yorkshire were very clear that they wanted to run this investigation themselves”. And they are, quite farcically, allowed to do so.

You hardly need to have done a PhD in jurisprudence to understand that, in these kind of affairs, the accused party doesn’t tend to look into the matter themselves. If they did, you wouldn’t need a police force, or even a judiciary, you’d just get Fred West or whomever it might be to accept the error of his ways and decide on an appropriate sentence.

These preposterous structures are all in jeopardy now. Through the force of his character, Rafiq, we must hope, has torched them, though he shouldn’t have had to sacrifice so much of himself to do so. Like all those who become known for winning fights against outrageous prejudice, there is always a sense of what more they might have done with their talents, if that miserable fight hadn’t had to be fought. But more so, there remains the growing evidence that things are going backwards.

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