History Club remains on break while I work on my book manuscript. Stay tuned for an updated schedule.
The 2020 UEFA European Football Championship concluded this past weekend with Italy defeating England in a thrilling penalty shoot-out. As an athletic competition, Euro 2020 was a remarkable month-long tournament, replete with thrilling finishes (Switzerland stunning France), stellar displays of skill (the effervescent Ronaldo and the emerging Gianluigi Donnarumma), and compelling storylines such as the run to the semi-finals by Denmark after midfielder Christian Eriksen collapsed on the field. But an incredible tournament was marred at its conclusion by racist attacks on social media towards three of England’s Black players—all of whom missed crucial penalty kicks in the championship game: Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka.
Anti-Black racism rearing its ugly head amid a cornucopia of British nationalism should not come as a surprise. One need not look further than Brexit, a campaign that had both overt and subtle racism embedded deeply within it, for unsettling strands of discrimination that persist within British society. But racism is not confined to England; in Germany, Austria, France, Poland and Hungary, racist, xenophobic and antisemitic movements became emboldened during the 2010s, continuing into the 2020s.
Scholarly analysis has suggested one acute factor: the mass influx of migrants into Europe in the mid-2010s. Whereas between 2004 and 2011 the number of asylum seekers in Europe hovered between 200,000 and 300,00, in both the years 2015 and 2016 the numbers exceeded 1 million. Governments responded by welcoming refugees and offering aid. That was met by fierce backlash among some EU citizens demanding restrictive border controls and mass deportations. Much like in the United States during the same period, the racial composition of the nation-state—who is allowed in and who is kept out, who gets to claim citizenship and who is denied—were fiercely contested societal issues that boiled over into heated confrontations and seismic political events.
These short-term phenomena stand in contrast to a longer-term historical one, namely that the European continent has grown increasingly diverse over the past 30 years. According to scholar Fabian Georgi, the share of people of color and persons whose families have complex migration histories has increased in almost all European countries, especially in cities. Immigrants and their descendants are now highly visible across Europe in business, media, politics and sports. Indeed, this was on rich display during Euro 2020: Denmark’s starting forward Martin Braithwaite is of Guyanese heritage; Swiss forward Breel Embolo was born in Cameroon; German mid-fielder Leroy Sané has a Senegalese father; French superstar Kylian Mbappé’s mother is Algerian; and England’s young superstars Saka was born in England to Nigerian parents. The diversity on the European national teams was stunning, especially when compared to the national teams of yesteryear.
The success of a small number of immigrants and their children on the pitch (a.k.a., the soccer field) should not elide the challenges facing immigrants within broader European society. In addition to racist incidents, immigrants of color contend with unstable housing, unemployment, workplace discrimination, drugs, violence, xenophobia, economic insecurity, food insecurity, poverty and mental health issues. Many of these hardships are not confined to minorities, however; since the financial crisis of 2008-09, white communities across Europe have also faced increased unemployment and underemployment, poverty, job competition, labor stress, mental illness, anxiety and depression. As is often the case, conflicts over race, class, identity and economics are deeply linked in complex ways. Frustrations at broader global dynamics become expressed through hateful ideologies aimed at minority communities. Those anxieties and emotions are exacerbated by demagogues intent on breeding social division.
These phenomena are part of the Brexit story, a recent history that is still unfolding. Yet, they are not new to British society. A thorough history of British immigration policy and its intersections with racist, xenophobic and antisemitic sentiments would be a much longer article (as well as a worthy topic for History Club). Numerous scholars have written on these subjects. Suffice to say, British immigration policy has an unflattering past, at times overtly racist and antisemitic. The 1919 Aliens Restriction Act, which emerged out of the nationalism and antisemitism of World War I, required foreigners entering Britain to register with the police, enabled immigrants to be deported, and barred migrants from certain jobs. The Act was renewed annually until 1971. Throughout the 20th century, British politicians on the right and the left have argued for racialized immigration policies. During the 1964 election, one Labour candidate warned ominously that, “immigrants of all colours and races continue to arrive here.” One Labour MP argued in 1965 for a national test that would analyze which immigrants were “most likely to assimilate in our national life.”
When British lawmakers have accepted new entrants of color, they have done so largely under the neoliberal belief that these immigrants must advance the glory of the nation-state. In other words, when faced with labor shortages or stagnant economic growth, British political and business leadership have been willing to admit migrants from the West Indies, the Caribbean, the Indian sub-continent, and Africa to fill the need for semi-skilled and unskilled workers. Those immigrants are welcome if their labor stimulates the economy and advances England’s position of power on the world stage. Human rights and upward mobility are after-thoughts to the perpetuation of national power.
This makes for a fitting segue back to the England football team. A source of frenetic national pride, this year’s squad was attempting to win the nation’s first major international tournament since 1966, to bring the trophy “home” as it was sung. National glory was on the line, the likes of which had not been felt on the pitch since the days of the British Empire. The immigrants on the team played a similar role to their brethren in the working classes; enrich the nation-state and elevate English prestige. Had they converted their penalty kicks, they would have been celebrated. In defeat, they were slandered as a burden on England’s greatness, just like so many generations of immigrants before them. Immigrants are welcome when they sacrifice for the greater good of the crown. If they become a burden on society, or sully the nation’s perceived glorious character, they are demeaned, debased and harassed.
Even after great toil and sacrifice, immigrants of color on football teams and in countries across the continent are still not considered, by some, to be equal parts of the cultural and linguistic fabric of the nation. They remain outsiders who can never truly belong. Thankfully, for much of Euro 2020, glimpses of a very different Europe shone brightly on the playing field—albeit not always in the aftermath.
Have a good week.
History Club meets Thursdays at 10 pm ET exclusively on Clubhouse. Want to participate? Suggest a topic for a future conversation.
Haven’t supported the History Club? Please consider it. Your support allows me to publish posts like this.