We British like nothing more than a nice inquiry. The exorbitant jail terms meted out to last year’s rioters (whether actual or merely theoretical) are commonly supposed to have been a great disappointment to us all, a sad sign of a milksop rights-obsessed “democracy” that no longer has the stomach to chasten its miscreants with anything approaching the appropriate levels of severity. But while we longed to see young people birched on the BBC last summer, or else placed in the stocks outside Foot-Locker to be scorned by paying shoe-shoppers, still we struggled to summon up the same gusto for retribution when it turned out that our political and media elites have together made a corrupt and criminal class. For the politicians, editors and media moguls, it would be a very much more clubbable sort of inquiry.

“Brave” John Terry, the rugged football player who has twice been fired as captain of the English team, is currently foraging something of a middle way between those two forms of British justice. Terry is accused of racially abusing another player, Anton Ferdinand, and faces criminal charges that carry a maximum penalty of a (for him) piddling £2,500 fine. (Sam Wallace at the Independent has the best coverage of the trial on his twitter feed.)

Rivonia, it ain’t. The case seems likely to hinge on magistrate Howard Riddle’s opinion regarding the level of sarcasm with which Terry laced the phrase “fucking black cunt”. Terry maintains that only his subsequent description of Ferdinand as a “fucking knobhead” was meant in earnest.

The slow motion replays don’t look good for Terry in terms of establishing the legal question at hand (whether or not he committed a racially aggravated public-order offence) but his lawyers have chosen to take up much of the trial probing a deeper question: not whether Terry used racist language, but whether he is in fact a bona fide racist. They have sought to answer this question in the stupidest imaginable way.

Some of his friends and team-mates are black, the court has learned, and lots of them (including Ashley Cole, Salomon Kalou and Ramires) have never heard him profess anything racist before. None of Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka, Florent Malouda or John Obi Mikel provided affidavits. But José Mourinho did. He wrote a statement for the court about his former player being a nice guy and not a racist, which opened with the words: “I am José Mário dos Santos Mourinho Félix and I am manager of Real Madrid.” And who are we to doubt José?

But there’s more. Terry’s most compelling proof against his own racism turns out to be somewhere in Africa. In the statement he gave to police when they began to investigate the incident, Terry explained that he had supported charity work in Africa by his former team-mates Marcel Desailly and Didier Drogba. Evidently, Terry saw no need to specify what this charity work was, or where it took place (both Desailly and Drogba have worked on various philanthropic projects including the MDG-oriented 1GOAL Education for All and the Didier Drogba Foundation, which is mainly focused on healthcare in Ivory Coast and regularly holds glitzy fundraisers attended by John Terry at the Dorchester Hotel in London). But Terry also pointed out that as part of the England football team’s corporate responsibility exercises he had been involved in promoting the popular British charity Help for Heroes, a grant-making organisation that aims to provide assistance to British soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Said Terry: “My commitments to the projects demonstrate that I’m not a racist.”

Terry’s chequebook non-racism might seem like the desperate cynicism of someone cornered in a very public way, but in fact it is not at all unique to him. Quite the opposite. If anything, Terry’s is a logic that’s so familiar to us in Britain that we can no longer see just how sordid it is. Our governments, our multinational corporations, and even our society collectively have been making identical gestures for a long time. If we can’t rid ourselves of our deeply embedded and carefully structured racism, we can at least convince ourselves that our giving to an undifferentiated entity described in the vaguest terms as “charity” and “Africa” somehow renders our racism absurd, at least to us, and so allows us to construct a defence, however flimsy, against internal suspicions of racism. This is combined with the scrupulous application of a public and legal definition of racism and racist practice that is exclusively concerned with delimiting and criminalising a narrow racist lexicon. This means that only a complete idiot would choose to deploy this vocabulary and thus make themselves vulnerable to accusations of racism. With some ingenuity, we Brits have managed to concoct for ourselves a notion of racism that allows us to feel more virtuous and less racist than ever.

And yes, the Marcel Desailly to whom Terry refers would be the same Marcel Desailly who in 2004 was described on-mic by British TV commentator and former Manchester United manager “Big Ron” Atkinson as “a fucking lazy thick nigger”. Atkinson subsequently defended himself by pointing to his good relationships with other black players in the game. At the time, Atkinson told Michael Eboda, editor of the New Nation: “I’m an idiot, but I’m not a racist.”

Further Reading

No more caricatures

Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.