Why I'm No Longer Talking To Orient People About Race

You don’t need me or anyone else to tell you that 2020 has been an almightily convulsive year – and it’s still a long way from finished. But as we hurtle helplessly into its last knockings, new crises arrive so relentlessly that questions raised during earlier ones risk going unanswered. Our 21st -century condition of perpetual immersion in the present moment doesn’t seem to be doing much for either our memories or our consistency.

Regular readers (are they any other types these days?) will know that The Orientear has long been the main, and often only, Orientcentric platform for voicing unfashionable concerns, and examining the thorny issues that Orient’s own MSM dare not approach. It can also boast an auspicious history of anti-racism, so is obviously the best place to take stock of the Black Lives Matter protests of June, and everything that flowed from them. This is not an academic or abstract discussion, nor is it snowflakey navel-gazing – race is central to how football operates. Around a third of the playing talent English league football is black, mixed race, or from another ethnic minority background, yet vanishingly few of the managers, administrators, investors or owners are. And, let’s be honest, very few match-going fans are either. We’ve become so used to this that – like so much else about race relations – we rarely question it.

For clubs like Carlisle, Plymouth, Millwall, Lincoln, or Southend, based in places with an overwhelmingly white population, it follows that they would attract an overwhelmingly white fanbase. But Leyton Orient is based in a London Borough that (the last time it was properly measured) has a population that is 17% black (and growing) – and 21% Asian (and growing). With our historic ties to families that have left the area, you wouldn’t necessarily expect our fanbase to perfectly represent the local population – but even when it was permissible to attend a football match in person, we usually had an awful lot of empty seats at most matches, and disappointingly little diversity amongst those who were turning up.

Matt Joseph

It’s not really my purpose here to revisit the usual arguments about why that is – but to try and introduce some new ways of considering the problem, using perspectives that many of us have only heard for the first time this summer.

In my opinion, racism is not a matter of fact, it is a matter of degree. That means it’s not as simple as Why I’m No Longer Talking to Orient People about Race saying that a person either is or isn’t racist, but that there are degrees of racism that – to be frank – pretty much every human being on the face of the planet (including me) has been guilty of at some point or other in their lives. I don’t think racism is an identity (though it could be a conscious choice) but a behaviour that can be accidental, occasional, forgivable, and unlearnt. But let there be no doubt that it is incredibly harmful and should be challenged whenever and wherever we see it.

Jabo! Jabo! Jabo!

Which brings me back to Leyton Orient Football Club. Is it racist? Institutionally or otherwise? Are we,the supporters, racist? Well, characteristically, my answer would be “it’s complicated”.

Laurie Cunningham (rejected by Arsenal, Orient’s best ever player, England’s first ever black international, the first Englishman to ever play for Real Madrid) is often held up as an indicator of how progressive LOFC has been, historically – plaque, statue and all. As an early pioneer of Black British excellence, at a time when his profession was a generally hostile place for people like him, Cunningham is worth commemorating. And it is true that Orient was quicker than many clubs to include, and eventually embrace, black players into the team. So far, we’ve also avoided any of the pitiful scandals that have caught out other clubs (eg West Ham’s director of recruitment admitting in 2018 that he was trying to limit the number of Africans in their squad, Liverpool sticking up for inveterate scumbag Luis Suarez, a good 30% of everything John Terry ever said or did, Millwall’s entire modus operandi, etc etc) but maybe that’s just because we’re small enough to creep under the radar, at least until the current age of online citizen journalism.

Tamika Mkandawire

So, where do we stand today? Well, our reaction to the BLM protests was initially impressive. Nigel Travis (who is both the heart and the soul of Orient at board level) was quick to make his own personal views known after the BLM protests – and he has the credibility to be believed on this subject. Lest we forget – after an ill-tempered EFL Trophy match at home to Southend in September 2019, he was quick to announce:

“football is very important to me and I am sure it is to you, but the way that we conduct ourselves is even more important and racism is something that is abhorrent and will never be tolerated. I despise racism, and I want all our fans to know that Leyton Orient will not tolerate it in any shape or form. Every individual, regardless of race,nationality, ethnicity, creed, or sexual orientation is entitled to respect and dignity for whom they are as a person. Leyton Orient is proud of its genuine mix of backgroundsall working toward a common cause.”

These comments were in response to an incident that would not have become widely known had he not drawn attention to it – so you couldn’t accuse him of reactive or performative virtue-signalling. His words should be emblazoned across every part of this football club in perpetuity.

Naturally, current Club Captain, and future Manager Jobi McAnuff was thoughtful and gracious in his response, while being honest about his own painful experiences and those of his friends,colleagues, and family. He signed off his open statement on Instagram (later reproduced on the club’s website) by saying ”all I ask is that this isn’t just a trend or something we do for a day, a week or a year, it’s something we all need to commit to for life. To support each other, call it out when we see it, hear it or experience it, even if it’s not you that it happens to directly, and try to do our part in turning the tide and making some real changes now and for the generations to come” (the bold text is in the original).

King Kev

McAnuff also pointed out that “The lack of opportunities that are clear in a lot of industries throughout our country, including my own, show there are huge challenges and a lot of work to be done” – but maybe we should be re-assured that Orient could never reject a black applicant for a senior coaching or managerial role at the club on the grounds that they lacked experience, references, or a track record of achievement, given the multiple opportunities that have been given to our current Head Coach and some other members of the team.

But “cultural fit” (another insidious excuse in the corporate world) is another matter entirely. And given the apparent closeness of some senior figures at the club with parts of our fanbase that give off serious “All Lives Matter” energy, there may be some cause for concern here. In June, writing in the Atlantic, John Rice offered his own classification of racism. It works in the same way that the US law considers murder to have different degrees, according to the severity of the offence, and it provides a useful framework to assess where we stand today at the Os. Generally, I don’t agree that there is a direct read-across between racism in the USA and situation in the UK, but I think this model works well to develop an understanding of racism that isn’t simply black and white (arf).

Anyway, it works a bit like this:

First degree racism – overt, direct and wilful acts of racism e.g. using the “n” word (or other derogatory racial epithets) with intent, assaulting, excluding or insulting someone because of their race/ethnicity etc. Thankfully, even most football knuckleheads have long since learned that this in unacceptable

Second degree racism – obstructing or demonising anti-racism. Into this category come “All Lives Matter”, “White Lives Matter”, fulminating about the risk of COVID being spread at BLM protests remaining silent about Dominic Cummings, VE Day celebrations, or beaches crammed full of pasty Brits turning red. We’ve seen plenty of thisamongst our fanbase.

Third degree racism – pernicious, unspoken, unwritten, unconscious prejudice that puts impediments in the way of black (and other ethnic minorities – but especially black) progress. Now, this is, by its very nature, harder to spot and easier to deny – but it’s part of what McAnuff was talking about, and there is clear evidence that it permeates our sport. But just how prevalent is it at Orient?

Josh Koroma

By its very nature, much of the evidence of third-degree racism will be circumstantial. But it is true to say that, in the summer of 2019, the club replaced a successful, black, performance coach who had come up through the ranks before the current management team arrived, with someone that the Director of Football had worked with before. The following season, our first back in the Football League, saw us struggle for fitness in the latter stages of games, and the rehabilitation of both McAnuff and Turley from their injuries take much longer than it ought to have. And what do these latter two players have in common with Ekpiteta and Widdowson, who both fell out of favour with the management team for large parts of last season?

And how many of you noticed that, in January of this year, the boards that have been pitchside for many years bearing the slogan “O’S AGAINST RACISM” were quietly removed to make way for more advertising? As an indicator of the Club’s priorities, that speaks with more volume than any number of banterlicious tweets it might make. Perhaps we need an Official Civil Rights Partner.

On the other hand, last season did finally see the club dispense with the services of a commentator who used to find it amusing to troll the message board by “pretending” to be racist, so reputational risk is something the club is alive to. But there are still some unanswered questions about the views of some in the club hierarchy, particularly those who are known to associate with fans with known links to far-right groups. Yes, there have been plenty of fine words lately, but without the concomitant actions, it does beg the question “so what?”. One might hope that, as promised by Travis, lifetime bans would swiftly be handed out to anyone who was found to be involved in the DFLA led unrest in London that started as a response to the BLM protests the previous week.

Jobi McAnuff

Nevertheless, the arrival of Danny Senda is re-assuring, and perhaps our strong start to the season is linked to the impact that he has had alongside the return of McAnuff to the dressing room and pitch. And the Leyton Orient Trust – though independent of the football club – continues to do some sterling work in the local community. The ongoing renewal of #OurClub should be built on initiatives like this, as we look to a future when our city, our sport, and our lives will need to be rebuilt better after this pandemic.

Yet this isn’t just a 2020 thing - these last few years have been fractious. The latter-day Hearn era was characterised by stability in the third tier, and relatively little drama on or off the pitch. We had to make our own fun back in those days, and our small knot of eccentrics and misfits did just that, largely untroubled by bad vibes in the ground, on the trains, or at any of the provincial fleshpots we marauded around. But the twin cataclysms of Becchetti’s arrival and the EU referendum catalysed a change in energy around the club and re-legitimised some toxic tendencies that had been dormant for a while. Reactionary, homophobic, xenophobic, and misogynist attitudes have become more audible and visible in recent years while following Orient, and this is a trend that has sadly been seen across the country, and not just at football.

A British Future. survey in January this year (i.e. before lockdown, and before the BLM protests) found that 28% of Britons agreed that “we give too much attention to isolated racist incidents at football, it is much less of a problem than it was a generation ago” (39% disagreed – the rest were either indifferent or said they didn’t know). But this is set against a trend that suggests we are now heading in the opposite direction: even though this season was curtailed, Kick It Out recently revealed that the number of reports made to it of racist abuse at the match .was up by more than 50% on 2018/19. And its own survey found that during 2019, 30% of supporters said they’d witnessed racist comments or chants at a football match - and 71% said they had witnessed racist comments on social media directed at a footballer.

It remains to be seen how our fantastic new digital growth agency, who will be powering our online brand this season, can help us with these challenges. At the time of writing, their team of innovative post-modern metropolitan millennials did not have any black or mixed-black people within it, and for all the knotty, tortured talk of “BAME” we mustn’t forget where the abrupt new interest in racial equity started (Black Lives Matter, remember? I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it) ... Black people experience these injustices more than any ethnic group in modern Britain, and yet they provide a disproportionate amount of the labour, and talent, that attracts and binds us to our sport. If Leyton Orient is to have a successful future, it is very likely that black people (and other ethnic minorities) will be a key part of it, both on and off the pitch.


No Justice
No Peace
FFS Orient
Play it to Feet
Jobi McAnuff For President : Black Lives Matter : Up The Os