Opinion

Kurt Zouma has the country facing an uncomfortable question: Do Britons think cats' lives matter more than Black lives?

The footballer's abhorrent abuse of his cat has the country united in anger. It's a shame that's not the case when it comes to racism, writes Paul Campbell.

A crowd of community members gather outside the Governor's Residence in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in the 2 a.m. hour on July 7, 2016, following the police shooting of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, by a St. Anthony Police officer.

Condemnation of Kurt Zouma appears to be more widespread than Image: Tony Webster/Flickr

On Sunday evening a TikTok video of West Ham’s Black defender, Kurt Zouma, physically abusing his pet cat went viral. The backlash from the general public, fellow footballers, club sponsors and media were swift and unequivocal. People phoned in to radio and TV shows saying they were sickened to the stomach.  

The mood was summed up by former Liverpool and England goalkeeper Chris Kirkland who told TalkSport listeners that Zouma should be sacked and that if he was a current West Ham player, he would refuse to be in the same changing room. The following day Kirkland upped the ante, this time telling viewers of the BBC’s Breakfast Show that “this is worse” than racism.

Kirkland’s clumsy comparison and the public’s reaction shows us something interesting and rather uncomfortable about the continuing status of race and racism in sport and wider social life in Britain. First, it points to a long history of people of colour as considered equal to or worth less than animals in the White Western psyche, legal systems and foreign policies.  

According to the pseudo-sciences that shaped European thought from the Enlightenment to the 20th century, White Aryan people were considered the most evolved race in terms of intellect, morality and character. Black people were considered the least evolved and as close to animals as they were humans. In 1787 the US amended its Constitution to classify Black people as only 60 per cent human. More recently, the UK government’s decision to redirect resources to rescue abandoned pets from Afghanistan came at the direct opportunity-cost of rescuing ‘Brown’ Afghan civilians. 

On Twitter, Kirkland elaborated that he meant animals were “voiceless” and couldn’t defend themselves, adding that “racism goes without saying… is an absolute disgrace”. But this too points to a limited or reduced understanding of what racism is here, and among the general population.

For many, racism is understood to be either an intentional verbal abuse, name calling or obvious forms of aggression, like those directed to England players Saka, Sancho and Rashford on social media, or the brutal murder of George Floyd, respectively. This view minimises racism by failing to include other and arguably more pervasive forms of abuse and exclusion experienced by people of colour. These include structural forms of racism that typically manifest as potent barriers which shape where people can live or the types and levels of work they are able to access. In professional football, while Black players account for nearly half of the playing workforce, they make up less than one per cent of senior coaches and managers. Likewise, there still exists a near total exclusion of British-born South and East Asian football talent.   

There are also institutional forms of racism. These are the ways in which the cultures, policies and practices within public and private organisations can result in unequal treatment of people from minority backgrounds. A 2020 Guardian report found that Black youths were three times more likely to be tasered by the police for the same crimes as their White peers. The government’s recent Nationality and Borders Bill includes the ability to deport people of colour who were born here but whose parents or grandparents were born elsewhere. The Bill means they can be deported without notice and for the same crimes that would only result in a prison sentence for White people. People of colour who experience these kinds of racism are often politically voiceless and helpless. 

Racial abuse is a partisan issue that rarely garners moral consensus. Kirkland said that if a professional footballer was found guilty of biting or racism then the game’s governing body, the FA, would impose a lengthy ban, an undoubted reference by the lifelong Liverpool supporter and ex-player to the FA’s decision to ban ex-Liverpool forward Luis Suarez for both of these crimes. 

Even after Suarez was found guilty of racially abusing Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, the Anfield club responded by wagon-circling around their man. For their owners, this was undoubtedly motivated by financial triggers and was about protecting their most prized asset. For many within the club and in the terraces, however, this was an attack on their talismanic striker. For others, it was about protecting a player who had been provoked by the ‘devious’ United fullback. To some, it was a misunderstanding, innocent words misconstrued in translation. For others, Suarez could not be a racist because Black teammates were on his side. Ultimately, to most who took to the defence of Suarez, this was not even about racism, but simply about if you were a ‘red’. We should not be too harsh on the L4 club. Professional football in England is littered with similar examples, such as similar claims levelled at Chelsea and John Terry, and the FA and England manager Mark Simpson. 

Racism is also very much a partisan issue within our current political discourse. The decision of the England men’s team to ‘take the knee’ as a symbol of their commitment to anti-racism before matches at last years’ Euro Championships, for example, was read by some Conservative front benchers and right-wing politicians as a symbol of their position on the political spectrum and not their commitment to eradicating all forms of racial inequality. 

Both examples show us that the act of disavowing racism in all forms in the UK is not morally universal, but contextual, mitigated and dependent on what side you are on. Put simply, being anti-racist is something that is up for debate. Now contrast all this with the public’s near total and uniform reaction to Zouma’s abhorrent abuse of his cat. No context required here. No mitigation. No debate. No redemption. It is wrong, plain and simple. 

As a cat lover, a person of colour and scholar of race and inclusion, I never thought I would ever write the following absurd question: In Britain, do Black lives matter as much as cat lives? But I am. And it acts as a potent reminder that Britain still has a long way to go before all forms of racial abuse and inequity are met with the same unequivocal and energised condemnation and empathy by all of Britain – including its White population – in the same way that we have mobilised in response to the treatment of Zouma’s poor cat. 

Dr Paul Ian Campbell is lecturer of sociology at Leicester University, chair of the Leicester Race Equality Action Group, and director of the University of Leicester Institute for Inclusivity in HE.

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