Marcus Rashford has achieved something monumental. By forcing the Government into a U-turn on free school meal vouchers over the summer holidays he has secured a warm meal for thousands of children in England living in poverty. But this is more than a story of a working class kid repaying and supporting his community.
What might have spurred Rashford on was the statistic that 45% of black and minority ethnic children live below the poverty line in England. Forty-five percent. Close to half. He knows all too well what life looks like to be in that 45%. He was almost in it. Given his background in Manchester, it is almost certain that friends and perhaps even family will have struggled to feed their children.
More often than not, these are the sacrifices and childhoods of millions of children in millions of youth academies up and down the country. For a lot of working class kids, football is sometimes the difference between no meals and a square meal a day. Given the school system fails young black kids, becoming a footballer seems less of a lottery ticket and more of a practical way out.
And yet to reach the very top of football requires exceptional ability and support. It requires a determination to succeed. It requires the drive to beat the odds. These are the qualities that elevated Rashford into an elite footballer, but they’re also the life skills required of BME children to avoid the gaps in the system.
This is because far too often, BME parents are working the jobs that often go under-thanked and underpaid. It took a global pandemic for the world to sit up and notice the importance of these jobs and, crucially, its workers. There is no direct connection between the black woman being spat on in a train station and superstars like Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford, but there is a shared experience. They are raised by the Belly Mujingas of this world – black women working all hours to put food on the table, to give their children a better chance in the same country that restricts their own.
As COVID-19 has progressed a similar pattern has emerged – BME people are overrepresented in those at the sharp end. This has led to people, wrongly, believing that this is due to some genetic predisposition. The opposite is true. Taking into account all the comorbidities there's no actual reason for BME people to be so overrepresented. The reason they are is because they happen to be exposed on the frontline of society, and restricted from accessing support services. Rashford’s success will help more than young black children, but they will be one of its key beneficiaries. It took his care and drive to make up for the failings of society.
It's incredible for a 22 year old to secure a U-turn out of this government. With an 80-seat majority, the only thing that's a credible threat to the government is public opinion. It has not had to make a major concession on support measures for the working classes since April 2020, so it is nothing to be sniffed at that Marcus Rashford has managed to achieve this in a few days. It's especially impressive when footballers were singled out at the start of the pandemic for not doing their part. Rashford is a specific example of how young, black, working class men have been singled out by politicians and the media for their own ends, and both he and #playerstogether demonstrate that for all their recent privilege, they appreciate the struggles of those left behind. They understand systemic oppression better than those tasked with resolving it.
The demonisation of footballers is a long-treasured pastime for certain aspects of the country. Working class people should never be allowed to amass wealth in the way footballers have, it seems. It’s a tenet that has been heightened as football has become one of few industries where black and working class people can achieve social mobility. The UK has some 151 billionaires - yet it was footballers who were singled out to “do their bit” by donating their wages.
Rashford's always been self-assured since he emerged. He proudly announced in post-match interviews that his goals on his Premier League debut against Arsenal recalled his achievements just days before in his Europa League game against Midtjylland. He works hard and handles criticism from others well. He did not seem preternaturally gifted as some teenagers do when they break on the scene, but his improvement and mental maturity suggest he is going to make the most of his substantial talent.
As he's filled out physically and become a man, he's become a man in maturity as well. A leader. This can't be divorced from his standing today - a young black man with money and soft power. Playing on the biggest stage at one of the biggest clubs. Still subjected to all the subconsciously racist criticism but turning that into yet another weapon in an arsenal of talents. These are the archetypal skills needed by great United players and leaders. Defiant, self-sufficient, confident, arrogant on the pitch but aware that he is a small part of a larger endeavour - but that would never stop him from leading when the situation demands it. On the pitch and off it, he is already a 22-year-old leader.
People who come from adversity and appreciate where they have arrived often end up trying to give back. Across the country there are millions of Rashfords. He was one of the few able to make his way on the back of hard work, opportunity, talent, support and chance. But there are many more who work no less hard, or who face insurmountable problems who might otherwise have achieved. As a BAME kid, Rashford probably knows that he is one of the fortunate few who can support those who are now in a similar position as he once was. Structural racism means that gifted youngsters may find themselves in unfulfilling jobs – jobs that are disproportionately taken by minorities in Britain. These jobs are often unfairly called low-skilled, and more often low-paid.
Circling back, this is how BME people came to be overrepresented in Covid-19 statistics. It wasn't a biological predisposition; it was the fact that BME people often end up in those low paid front-facing jobs that are only now acknowledged as integral to society. We end up in those jobs for the very same reason people are out marching in protest of police brutality and the murders of black people - structural racism.
It’s this systematic oppression and reinforced disadvantage, exacerbated by class differences in the United Kingdom that keeps almost half of BME working class kids in poverty. It's structural racism, intersected with classism, that saw footballers singled out for criticism amongst high earners. It's structural racism that drove Marcus Rashford to speak up. Marcus Rashford is both the product and defiance of structural racism. Just as he is showing Manchester United a way forward with his rapid improvement and increasing importance, so he is showing a way for activists and the wider public that change can be made and demanded by those outside Parliament.