The unofficial psychology blog from Paul Hutchings

Liverpool Football Club as a case study of aversive racism – and update

Update at foot of page 12th Feb 2012

Original post 28th Jan 2012

It isn’t very often that, as an experimental psychologist, you get to see the thing that you study played out in real life in front of you – but that is what has happened to me today, watching the FA Cup football match between Liverpool and Manchester United.
For anyone unaware of the events leading up to this match, the Liverpool footballer Luis Suarez was found guilty by the Football Association of racially abusing the Man Utd footballer Patrice Evra in a match between the teams a few months ago. He was banned for eight maches after Evra complained that Suarez had called him things such as ‘Nigrito’, which Suarez admitted to but claimed it would not be considered racist in his home country of Uruguay.

Fast forward to the match today, with Evra playing and Suarez sat in the stands serving his ban. Every time Evra touched the ball a sizeable minority of Liverpool fans booed him. Why? Evra didn’t campaign for Suarez’s ban to be increased, he didn’t make hyperbolic statements on what happened – he merely reported what had happened. So why boo a player who is the victim of the situation?

It is very easy to say that the people who were booing are racist. It is equally easy for those booing to point out that they aren’t racist, as they didn’t boo other black Man Utd players such as Danny Wellbeck. This is where it gets interesting (and slightly more complicated) for researchers into prejudice, because there is an explanation that fits this model of behaviour very well – that of aversive racism.

Pettigrew and Meertens (1995) argued that whilst overt, blatant prejudice may have become a lesser issue, this does not mean that prejudice has disappeared; instead, they suggest that it has been replaced by a subtle prejudice, a covert form of prejudice that is not as obvious as blatant prejudice. Where blatant prejudice was “hot, close and direct”, subtle prejudice is “cool, distant, and indirect”. As society has changed, so the way we view people who display overt prejudice has also changed – but there are some twists to this, and in some situations people can behave in ways will allow their prejudices to surface when their actions can be explained by non-prejudiced reasoning.

Some really interesting studies have backed this up. Gaertner (1973) had people contacted who were either registered as Democrat (liberal) or Republican (conservative) party members. They were contacted via telephone by either an obviously Black or obviously White person and asked to pass on a message to a garage mechanic that their car had broken down. As predicted, more liberal participants than conservative participants passed on the message from the Black confederate. During the analysis of this study, Gaertner (1973) found that whilst liberals had indeed helped more Blacks than conservatives did, they were significantly more likely to terminate the call before learning the complete nature of the problem than conservatives and, crucially, significantly more so for Blacks than Whites.

Kovel (1970) suggested that the term aversive racist could be applied to a person who “tries to ignore the existence of black people, tries to avoid contact with them, and at most to be polite, correct, and cold in whatever dealings are necessary between the races” (p. 54). Gaertner (1973) and Gaertner and Dovidio (2005) proposed that this early termination still left the person phoning in a state of ‘no help received’ but removed from the participant the feeling of not having helped which would have been made obvious if they had discovered the unambiguous nature of the emergency. Further research by Gaertner and Dovidio (1977) explored the nature of aversive racism by presenting participants with a dilemma in an experimental situation. White participants interacted with either a White or Black experimenter who later was heard to have an accident in another room. Participants had previously been informed that they were either carrying out the study alone or with other participants in other laboratories next to them. When participants thought they were alone they showed no difference in the help offered to the Black or White experimenter. However, when they believed that other people were in a position to help, significantly fewer participants offered help to the Black experimenter than the White experimenter.

Gaertner and Dovidio explained these findings by stating that when there is an unambiguous situation, aversive racists will display no signs of prejudice but when the situation is ambiguous, and particularly when their actions can be explained away to other determinants, they will show these signs of prejudice. Further studies of aversive racism appear to support this theory, with research into selection for jobs (Dovidio & Gaertner, 2000) and university admission (Hodson, Dovidio, & Gaertner, 2002), and interactions between White and Black participants (Dovidio, Kawakami, Johnson, Johnson, & Howard , 1997) all providing supporting evidence for aversive racism.

So how does all of this fit with booing at a football match? Well, the model of aversive racism fits very nicely to what did, and did not, happen: Danny Wellbeck wasn’t racially abused – because that would be unambiguously racist, and these are not people who are generally racist – certainly not overtly. However, the booing of Evra became justified because it could be explained away by something other than the colour of his skin.

So how did the justification for these people occur? For some it will be an excuse to let out the abuse that they are not usually able to vent in modern society (these people are probably on the borderline of aversive racism and modern racism). Others, however, will probably have been people who would not be regarded as ‘racist’, and won’t consider themselves to be racist – but they will have still done it. Whilst it pains me to say it (my father is a Liverpool supporter so I have always had a soft spot for them) the majority of the blame, aside from the supporters themselves, must be laid at the door of Liverpool Football Club itself. They supported Suarez vehemently, wore t-shirts with pictures of Suarez when warming up for a live TV game, and refused to condemn him even when the evidence was presented and Suarez was convicted by the FA. By acting as though it was no big deal they legitimised it to their fans.

What we have now are the consequences. Actually, we had the extreme form of it a few weeks ago when a Liverpool fan allegedly racially abused Oldham player Tom Adeyemi. This was more overt than the case today and was a single case, but all of this is adding up. There are a number of cases creeping into football across many clubs, but Liverpool Football Club sit squarely in the middle of this maelstrom.

It is important not to turn this into a ‘back to the bad old days’ issue – racism in football is nowhere near as bad as it was 30 – 40 years ago. However, the things that are happening need dealing with, and Liverpool Football Club have shown that they are incapable of dealing with them on their own. Why is this? Ironically, I believe that part of it is due to the Kick Racism Out of Football campaign – it has become a slogan, a message on a billboard that doesn’t particularly mean anything to fans and means even less to football clubs. As long as they have some kids running around the centre circle before the match with some t-shirts on they can say they are ‘actively dealing with racism’.

I believe that the only way to give the Kick Racism Out of Football campaign teeth is for them to publicly withdraw the campaign from Anfield (Liverpool’s ground) and say ‘you are ostracised from what should be a moral campaign, and you are not coming back into the campaign until you show that you are serious about kicking racism out of football’. Because at the moment Liverpool Football Club themselves are falling into the category of aversive racism.


Update: Following on from this, Liverpool played Manchester United on 11th Feb 2012 and the match was marred from the beginning by Luis Suarez refusing to shake Patrice Evra’s hand in the pre-match show of ‘Respect’ that occurs before all English league football matches. This apparently led to trouble in the tunnel at half-time, and a bizarre post-match interview by Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish in which he claimed not to have seen the incident, praised the ‘banter’ yet again, and accused the reporter of being out of order for even raising the issue of the handshake (as I am writing this Suarez has apologised for yesterday and there is a report that Dalglish may have apologised for his behaviour in the interview, but still waiting for confirmation of this).

Now, this post isn’t about accusing Liverpool Football Club, Kenny Dalglish, or even Luis Suarez as racist – it is about the message that is sent out by individuals and institutions in situations such as this. It simply brings to mind the (possibly) Edmund Burke quote – ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’. In that respect, Liverpool Football Club and Dalglish can be accused, if not of doing nothing, then of doing too little too late. There were reports yesterday of Manchester United fans sporting t-shirts of Liverpool players in KKK clothing, the ‘Man Utd defending champions, Liverpool defending racists’ banners out in force – and this is highly damaging for the vast majority of Liverpool supporters who would not tolerate racism and are certainly not racists.

One of the major issues here is that Liverpool are a global brand when it comes to football; people (especially children) in other countries may have no knowledge of English/British culture in general – but they will know all about Liverpool Football Club. And so, when the club (and it has to be ‘the club’ because the people we are talking about are some of the highest representatives of that club) behaves in this way that message is being sent out to people – racially abuse people and get the full support of your club; play the victim (as Suarez appeared to do yesterday) and be supported yet again.

I wanted to make the point again that I felt got lost amongst the other stuff in the original post – what is the Kick Racism Out of Football campaign doing about this? How can Liverpool do so much damage, to the idea of kicking out racism and to their own club, but then next week have children carting an anti-racism banner around the ground and claim that they are actively trying to do something about eradicating racism?

The campaign needs to show that this is not just a banner, that it actually means something, and so I will say it again – they should withdraw the campaign from Liverpool Football Club until they actively show that it isn’t just a banner and that they will attack racism where they find it.


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4 Responses »

  1. Interesting blog. I was struck today by several actions that posed wider questions about racism, rivalry and ‘banter’.
    Which is worse booing the opposing teams captain, singing that one of your players eats dogs or singing ‘we’re not racist – we only hate Mancs’ ?
    Some people would argue it is all about context, other that there should be zero tolerance so any prejudiced behaviour should be punished.
    I think todays game highlighted that it is not as simple as some would like to make out.
    What do you think?

    • Hi Pete,
      Thanks for your post, some interesting points. I think your penultimate line says it all really – it isn’t as simple as some would (and no doubt will) make out. Football has always been a thorny issue, particularly because of the ‘banter’ element. It certainly helps to explain away many things that wouldn’t be considered tolerable in everyday society.

      The issue about – ‘we’re not racist, we only hate Mancs’ is an interesting one because it is such a classic defensive protest (and I’ve seen it used several times on Twitter today), yet it clearly doesn’t stack up – if it truly were about hating Mancs, why not boo all of the other players? And certainly a few who have a stronger Mancunian heritage than Evra!

      I certainly wouldn’t put all LFC supporters in the same category of ‘racists’, and I wouldn’t even put all of those actually doing the booing into a homogenous group either – even amongst them there will be a multitude of reasons for doing it. However, I do think the lack of tolerance (zero tolerance worries me because it can lead to all sorts of problems) needs to be led by the supporters themselves – the best way to deal with it would have been for those stood next to anyone booing to show their disapproval, that is probably the most powerful weapon there is in eradicating prejudice or antisocial behaviour in general. It isn’t easy, but I think it is necessary – it is probably the only way that we can avoid zero tolerance and all of the problems that brings with it.

  2. Response by Stan Collymore on twitter – “Every set of supporters in the country would have booed under the same circumstances. Anyone saying not is fibbing.”

    It could be that Collymore suggesting that the booking was a case of LFC supporters displaying ingroup v outgroup behaviour rather than aversive racism.
    This fits more with Dalglish’s comments regarding banter, his although praising LFC fans for their ‘fantastic’ behaviour is perhaps disingenuous.

    • It is true that it will certainly have an element of in-group/out-group to it, particularly when you have a rivalry such as Liverpool/Man Utd. However, there is also an element which argues against this being the primary driving force – if a player is banned from one team for a vicious tackle on a player from the opposing team (I’m not including ‘dodgy’ decisions here or a player who has feigned injury, but actual tackles which could or do cause injury) the response does not tend to be the same. The victim doesn’t tend to suffer the same levels of abuse as was continual through the entire match. This suggests an additional factor.

      I’m listening to Stan Collymore as well and simply can’t agree with him – well, I can but if I did we would have to throw a lot of other things into the mix. He appears to be saying that if it isn’t overt abuse then there is no way of knowing the reality behind it and so it can’t be looked at. Shall we apply that to hiring practices? As long as the employer doesn’t racially abuse a black candidate they can refuse to hire them, and as long as they give a spurious excuse it just has to be accepted?

      Finally, Dalglish just doesn’t seem to know how to deal with this – but it would be far better to keep quiet than keep talking, because it just makes it worse – if it is just banter then that is fine, because banter is a big part of football – once again, legitimising it.

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