John Barnes doubled down on his defence of Liam Neeson in the wake of the actor’s comments about deliberately walking the streets hoping to “kill” a black man after a friend of his was sexually assaulted.
Speaking on BBC Question Time on Thursday, the ex-Liverpool FC star said society must have “open and honest conversations” about “subconscious bias”, claiming everyone discriminates and does not admit it for fear of being called racist.
Barnes, who previously defended Neeson amid accusations of prejudice, drew a link between media influence and the impressions that people form of minority ethnic groups within society.
“You read the newspapers everyday and you hear about Muslim terrorists, Nigerian gangs and that gives you a negative impression, not just of terrorists and of conmen and gangs, but also Nigerians and Muslims,” he said.
“This is the influence that society has on us and we can’t help the way we’ve been brought up,” he added, telling his fellow panellists it was important to “have the conversation, rather than as soon as we mention anything say ‘you’re racist, you discriminate – but we don’t’.”
“I have to give him [Neeson] credit because, as much as we all want to say we view people as equal we don’t, and we have to admit it,” Barnes told the audience.
“We are influenced by our environment and the environment he came from, albeit from a Catholic and Protestant point of view, is ‘whoever the enemy is, we have to kill (the enemy)’. The enemy at that particular time happened to be black.”
His comments divided opinion on social media following the programme.
University of Oxford lecturer Professor Jennifer Cassidy wrote: “Westminster, I hope you’re taking notes. John Barnes took 90 sec to deconstruct the nature of discrimination in the UK, how it‘s bolstered by the media and fed to us by narratives. The fundamental necessity to admit it and confront it together.”
Another user, William Anthony, said: “John Barnes cutting through all the PC nonsense which society suffers from and makes one of most sensible statements on BBC QT I’ve ever heard.”
But comedian Ava Vidal described Barnes’ position as harmful, tweeting: “Liam Neeson asked what COLOUR her rapist was. And no amount of tap dancing from John Barnes and his calabash head is going to change that. This man is out there right now doing the most harm.”
Zubaida Haque, deputy director of race equality think-thank the Runnymede Trust, posted: “John Barnes is right to say that unconscious biases exist and that it’s impt to understand sources of prejudice than to shut down discussions. But there’s a fine line btwn free speech abt racist thoughts & harm to minorities. And racism in society is both individual & structural.”
Barnes also weighed in on Brexit, claiming the average person does not understand the ramifications of leaving the European Union.
And of the Independent Group’s recent formation in parliament, the retired sportsman said: “It’s not the right time for a by-election because, of course, Brexit is the biggest issue at the moment but I think Chris [Leslie, also on the panel] and his colleagues should be commended for a taking a stand for what they believe,” he said.