Anthony Joshua’s appearance at a Black Lives Matter protest in his hometown, Watford, produced two breaking news stories. Journalists scrambled to upload speculation of an apparent injury as AJ limped amongst the thousand-strong crowd in a leg-brace. The economic boom in UK boxing has been synonymous with Joshua over the last decade, and so questions about his health reverberate across the sport as it plots a roadmap out of lockdown. However, it was another story that was gathering pace online and proving more alarming. Social media timelines were flooded with outrage in response to alleged racist remarks made by the unified heavyweight champion.

The speech was warmly received and considered non-contentious by the peaceful marchers in attendance. Joshua, who explained he was reading aloud words penned by a friend, spoke passionately about building communities, reducing violence and the need for unity between races. However, a paragraph in the speech read:

“We need to be united in non-violent demonstrations, show them where it hurts, abstain from spending your money in their shops and economies, and invest in black-owned businesses.”

This section in particular evoked a vicious backlash amongst some boxing fans, and those interested further afield. Dozens of Twitter users posted a similar question: ‘What if a white athlete, such as Tyson Fury, called for the boycott of black-owned shops and instructed followers to only support white businesses?’ Over 15,000 people signed a petition to ban Joshua from the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year, as right-wing figures circulated a clip of the paragraph online, stripping it of context to arouse reaction and garner support for their own controversial cause.

 

The burning question is: Can supporting black-owned businesses be categorised as racist?

 

The response to these remarks by the public – even if well intentioned – was entirely wide of the mark. It’s a long-standing tactic of protesters to boycott businesses that support oppression. From the anti-apartheid movement in the 1970s to present day advocates of Palestine, people have understood that marches and banners have a finite impact, and challenging the economic basis of injustice can be far more effective. “Abstain from spending your money in their…economies” is an insightful call to divest from corporations and politicians that benefit from racism, not a call to boycott your brother’s joinery company or auntie’s café purely based on the colour of their skin.

Black activists in the US have asked their community to support black businesses for decades. It was a perverse reality that people were being oppressed by the state but continued to support corporations complicit in their oppression as local businesses failed. A campaign to boost local economies, providing people with jobs and a sense of pride, in a society that deprived them of both, is as logical as it is moral. The Irish have done it throughout their diaspora. Chinese shops, restaurants and markets are common throughout the world. And there was, and continues to be, a need for black people to support their businesses in a society that has erected so many obstacles to see them stumble on route to economic success.

“Britain is not America!” has been a familiar cry of people criticising demonstrators in the UK. That, too, appears incorrect in this context. Research from The University of St Andrews found that black people in Britain are routinely discriminated against in business. People looking to open businesses are denied start-up loans despite having similar credit ratings to white citizens. Existing black-owned companies looking for additional capital are refused loans whilst white people in similar circumstances are approved. In property, both commercial and residential, an application of a black person in Britain has a greater chance of being rejected than white people with similar financial history. That is not imagined victimhood, or an historical injustice to forget, but common practice in modern Britain and America. The need for communities to support their businesses is vitally important, particularly those marginalised by the state and its institutions.

 

False equivalence?

 

The angry chants of the enraged included, “What if a white sports star had said this?” You can imagine them, hordes of agitated people who often label others ‘snowflakes’ typing furiously, needlessly offended. It’s an indictment of our education system that society continues to have such a poor grasp of racism. There’s an infantile, perhaps innocent, but utterly superficial belief that racism is about individuals. People should not be disrespectful about another person’s race, and as long as we don’t mention race or call people bad names (at least not to their face) then there is no such thing as racism. That is only a fraction of the complex, historical issue. Racism, like class and other social differences, is primarily about power, and we acknowledge that society places some groups in a position of advantage while others are continually marginalised.

When Anthony Joshua – one of boxing’s most prolific champions – calls for the support of black-owned businesses, it is a rally to improve the community’s economic and cultural conditions, which have been attacked for generations. The reverse – white people calling to only support white businesses, which are already plentiful and influential – would be to deny that progress.

When people say Black Lives Matter it is not a rejection of other people or struggles, but an urgent call to highlight injustice. Responding that ‘All Lives Matter’ is a badge of ignorance or bigotry. When men ridicule International Women’s Day, and arrange an alternative for men, they are rejecting the reality that women for generations, and across the world, have been oppressed because of their sex, men have not.

When heterosexuals call for Straight Pride, despite never being oppressed anywhere in the world for their sexuality, it is an attack on people of other sexualities and their social inclusion.

When working class people fight for better conditions either at their place of work or at home with their families, they are dismissed by the media and politicians as lunatics waging class war, when they are in fact seeking to challenge their on-going exploitation by the ruling class. The idea that every person and social group is equal in society – and our words and actions all have the same meaning and consequences – is demonstrably untrue.

The injection of Tyson Fury into the debate was interesting. The WBC champion has since labelled Joshua’s words as ‘bullshit’ and stated he would be ‘crucified’ if he said the reverse. If Fury asked supporters to only support white-owned businesses, it would be unquestionably racist because corporations and institutions are already dominated by white people at the exclusion of others. However, if Fury highlighted the discrimination that the Traveller community experience in the UK, and asked people to respect and support Traveller organisations, then that would be a morally progressive stance, highlighting a meaningful cause. The issue is not about name-calling, it is about recognising that we need to uplift sections of our society through positive, progressive action.

 

Unity

 

As this article goes live, thousands of largely white working-class people have assembled across the UK with the stated intention of protecting statues and British culture, or a narrow version of it. It has, in many cases, been reduced to street violence and physical attacks on minorities and the police. The issue of racial injustice has been relegated as the general public now wants an end to all protests and counter-protests. Throughout film, television and literature, popular work has been removed from platforms, drawing ridicule and criticism, despite there being little evidence that minorities have called for the removal of classic sitcoms like Faulty Towers, for example. Sections of working-class people are compelled to defend against an imaginary threat, and the so-called silent majority want a return to normality – the status-quo – even if that is unpalatable to people facing discrimination. It is a successful distraction.

What would be truly terrifying to those in power, and what would (or should) be genuinely uplifting for ordinary folk of all races, would be to understand each other’s struggles and to link them together, identifying a common threat. Working class people in the north east of England recognising that the same millionaires in parliament that closed their industries, destroyed their livelihood and cut their welfare and health services are the same people that oppress black people and others. Becoming galvanised to seek a common solution would be far more beneficial than assembling in Newcastle city centre and looking for a scrap in the name of concrete historians. The working class is not to blame for crimes of the British aristocracy, but our innocence is challenged when we ignore our fellow man and side with the powerful. Divide and rule is a cliché but a reality; the wealthy tell us that minorities are to blame for our ills, and we vote for charlatans because they look like us and say the right thing, while implementing policies that devastate us all.

Anthony Joshua’s sentiments should be welcomed as a starting point in building that understanding and unity.

It was disappointing, then, to watch head of boxing on Sky Sports, Adam Smith, label Joshua as “naïve” and Eddie Hearn speculate on AJ’s behalf that he “probably regrets what he said.” Joshua has successfully navigated a complex arena in which he faces pressure to suppress his authentic self to appeal to sponsors and a wider, multi-racial audience. He is disciplined, not formally but informally, and silenced into the corporate line.

Anthony Joshua is no radical. His words and deeds are not revolutionary. He does not seek the destruction of capitalism or British society. Joshua is a positive symbol of black success in the UK. He inspires young people and, on this occasion, used his considerable platform to promote unity and positive change. If we as a society deny people’s just causes, refuse to make reasonable reforms and vilify black people who take measured stands, we may find the next wave of social unrest far more devastating.

By Jamie Sokolowski