Liam Neeson And The Prevalence Of Racial Stereotyping

Unless we start to resolve the systemic challenges in our communities, we are doing nothing to mitigate the racist stereotyping articulated by Neeson.

Liam Neeson at the Festival Deauville in 2012 (Elen Nivrae/Flickr/CC)

Liam Neeson at the Festival Deauville in 2012 (Elen Nivrae/Flickr/CC)

A few weeks ago, Liam Neeson, the actor best known for his role as a protective father in the Taken movies and as Obi-Wan Kenobi’s mentor, sparked controversy due to comments he made during a promotional interview for his latest movie, Cold Pursuit. When asked how he had prepared for his role in the revenge story, he recounted an incident that took place 40 years ago whereby a female friend told him she had been raped by an unknown black man. Neeson’s immediate reaction was to walk the streets for the next week or so, armed with a cosh, hoping he would be approached by a “black bastard” who would walk out of a pub and have a go at him so he could kill them.

The interview precipitated a backlash across social media with many accusing him of racism for conflating the actions of an individual with a whole community of people. Journalist, George Johnson, wrote on Twitter that Neeson’s account is indicative of a larger problem and that this “is definitely a reminder that there are folks who walk around hoping to provoke black people so they can kill us. A lot of them are in law enforcement and politics”. However, there were many who also defended him, commending his honesty and highlighting that – within the interview – the actor had described how he felt ashamed and horrified at his initial response. Former England footballer, John Barnes, felt Neeson should receive a medal for his honesty and for shining a light on unconscious racism that permeates all communities.

If we look at this from a public safety perspective, what Neeson said highlights the latent feelings of difference, of poorly integrated communities, of the potency of social stereotypes and above all fear that permeate some sections of society. There is a lot of fear out there within and between communities. Those that are of particular salience within the radical right milieu include the fear of Muslim men raping white children, of creeping Sharia, and of white genocide. Fear, if harnessed malignly, is a potent force. For those working with communities to build integration and to challenge the impact of negative stereotypes, what Neeson said matters greatly because it demonstrates the scale of the challenge.

How Are We Addressing Racist Fear?

So how do we respond? Unfortunately, when it comes to building community cohesion upstream of counter-extremism or counterterrorism efforts, very little is being done. You only have to consider Dame Louise Casey’s review of opportunity and integration, which in 2016 found clear evidence of communities living side by side but very much apart. This review presented very clear recommendations and yet they have not been realized. And why not? When you consider the scale of cuts to Local Authority services across the U.K. over the last nine years (in many instances up to 40%) it is in the areas that help facilitate proactive community engagement, integration and cohesion that these services simply no longer exist.

Another example of policymakers trying to grapple with this issue can be found in a recently released report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Hate Crime, named “How do we build Community Cohesion when Hate Crime is on the rise?”. Within it is a foreword by Professor Ted Cantle CBE who rightly states; “There is clear evidence that community cohesion programmes, especially those that built understanding through mixing and contact, improve relations between different communities. These programmes are however quite limited at present, so need to be extended to all areas and to engage people from all backgrounds. In some cases, these programmes will also need to be intensive to tackle long-standing prejudices and stereotypes”. My own research clearly highlights how the deficit in Local Authorities’ engagement with white working class communities contributes not only to the securitization of their relationship with these communities but also serves to drive support for radical right groups and individuals who take on the role of their surrogate community representatives on wedge issues.

The APPG report details some of the work being done in this space; notably the Stand Up! project which sends facilitators into secondary schools to deliver materials and work with students (primarily in Year 9) to learn about discrimination, racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim hatred. While this work is clearly important, if it’s the only targeted response for this type of extremism, it is far too narrow in its focus. Yes, we should stop children from growing up to be racists. But what about adults? While the space on the radical right is becoming more diffuse, when compared to other forms of extremism, it is generally an older man’s gig. And yet there is a distinct scarcity of anything that could be considered a strategic approach to dealing with the stereotypes, grievances (real or perceived) and the fear which drives support for the radical right amongst these age groups.

My concern is that the wrong lessons will be learned from what Neeson said and why he said it. While the “victim-centered” approach to hate crime rose to prominence after the Macpherson report which followed the murder of Stephen Lawrence in London in 1993, there has not been nearly enough thinking into approaches to prevent the crystallization of negative stereotypes occurring in the first place. The only evidence I have identified of a commitment to breaking down social differences and stereotypes, is the Connecting Communities Programme which was discontinued in 2010. One of the submissions to the APPG Hate Crime enquiry made reference to the government’s Action Against Hate strategy from 2016 which states “we will only be able to address hate crime if we understand its causes and effects…government does not currently have a public account of how it understands the dynamics and drivers of hate crime, nor a theory of change about the strategies which can tackle it most effectively”. The lack of commitment, innovation and frankly ambition in this space continues to be a mystery to me.

What did we learn from Liam Neeson’s controversial interview?

During the London riots of 2011, I remember sitting in a briefing room at New Scotland Yard when we were planning the response to unprecedented disorder not just in London but across the country. A senior officer referred to London at the time as a “tinderbox”, a perfect set of conditions that could ignite at any point. I remembered this conversation this week, and that very same feeling returned that we are in fact skating across the surface of very thin ice. Unless we start to resolve the systemic challenges within our communities, we are doing nothing to mitigate against the impact of the kind of trigger-incident articulated by Neeson.

So, what did we learn from this interview? Even though Neeson was talking of an incident that took place 40 years ago, much of what he said resonates today. There are latent fears, stereotypes, biases, and misunderstandings that remain. And for me, there is far too little emphasis on understanding, respecting and embracing the differences between communities and a general reluctance to have the difficult conversations that need to be had in this regard. This essentially leaves this space open for manipulation by those who trade very effectively on fear. I have long called for prioritization of these community integration efforts that must take place upstream of work conducted under the auspices of the Counter Extremism and Prevent strategies. We cannot effectively counter the polarization of our discourse by ignoring the existence of differences within and between communities. This plays into the hands of those seeking to sow division and who claim basic freedoms have been sacrificed at the altar of political correctness. Are there differences between communities based upon color, culture, sexual orientation, and religious observation? Yes, and the celebration of those differences should not be a source of division.

It is how we embrace difference that makes us strong, not only focusing on how we are the same. When the political establishment clamored over themselves to emulate the words of the late Jo Cox MP, many saw this as an opportunity to focus only on the common ground and to continue ignoring the gulfs of difference within our communities, essentially choosing to be willfully blind to difference. But without difference, wouldn’t the world be a boring place?

Focusing on the common ground is the easy stuff, the low hanging fruit. Central and local governments across the U.K. need to start moving out of their comfort zones, to create the spaces to have the difficult conversations that need to take place. Otherwise, they continue to skim over the surface of what are real and unresolved fissures within and between communities. And you can be sure that those who capitalize on the nature of difference are circling in the waters beneath.

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Global Outlook // CARR / Liam Neeson / Racism