Being an avid football fan, I am well aware of the ‘No Room for Racism’ campaign that was launched in March 2019. It is one of many campaigns that aim to improve the treatment of people seen as vulnerable to discrimination. There are many players in the English football leagues who are not white and, therefore, many who may encounter racism during their careers, which is probably why football authorities are keen to be seen as tackling the problem.
Racism is a form of discrimination, but in the larger society race is only one of the nine recognised protected characteristics that appear in British equality law. The full list includes age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation. All of these characteristics can and do form a basis for prejudice and discrimination, so why is there no campaign aimed at tackling all forms of such behaviour?
The history of social rights movements is very much one of single interest campaigns, which have included women’s right to vote, the American Civil Rights movement to improve the treatment and lives of black people, LGBT campaigns, the improvement of employment terms and conditions for pregnant women, equal pay for different genders, against ageism, and the end of religious sectarianism. Some campaigns have been more successful than others, none have fought on a united front. Personally, I am not aware of one group benefiting from the actions of another. This is an important consideration for me because in recent conversations my objections to focusing on one particular social rights campaign over others has been met with the ‘crumbs from the table’ argument, that is, if this campaign succeeds then maybe you disabled people might benefit too!
Disabled people have been waiting a very long time for those crumbs to fall. Western civilisation traces its roots back to ancient Rome, a society whose treatment of the disabled was not that much different to today. Disabilities were ranked with blindness being considered acceptable, deafness was accommodated to some degree in the law, but mutes suffered due to the high value placed on speech. Those suffering physical impairment were treated according to how the condition arose, wounded soldiers received money in the form of a stipend. People born with conditions or who developed them later in life were subjected to verbal scorn and humiliation as a social norm. They were frequently included in public spectacles for the entertainment of others. Emperor Augustus was known to have slaves deformed or disabled for his own enjoyment. This predilection even led to disabled slaves becoming a desirable possession. Plutarch refers to the separate part of the slave market were unfortunates were displayed, much like later freak shows. The value of a disabled slave rose to such an extent that in some instances people were deliberately disfigured or maimed to fetch a higher price.
Throughout human history the disabled have always suffered, and they still do so today. I do not see the logic of claiming that a success for any one social rights campaign fought for another protected characteristic will benefit the disabled. Besides, why should we accept crumbs anyway? Why can’t we have a seat at the feast like everyone else?
I would like to see a campaign that aimed itself squarely at prejudice, the unfair and unreasonable opinion formed without sufficient knowledge. It is the prejudicial opinion that justifies every act of discrimination in society. Tackle prejudice not by type, racist, ageist, sexist, ableist, etc., but as a single unacceptable characteristic of the society in which we live. Prejudice is a hydra, a beast of many heads. Concentrating on one or two of them will never defeat it, all have to be removed simultaneously. The fact that there are many different campaigns being waged for social rights for diverse groups even today underlines the fact that prejudice is still strong and still undefeated.