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Gary Younge
Racism in the ring

This time around there are a few things we would do well to remember in the run-up to his proposed visit. First, Tyson is a human being. He is not a "monster", a "beast" or an "animal" as he was described in January. The rhetorical value of such descriptions is clear. They cast Tyson as a race apart. He is the ultimate "other". And since he does not follow our moral code, we do not have to apply it when referring to him. It is the opening salvo in the broadside of white supremacy. First dehumanise, then demonise - a perfect formula for promoting the bestial and relegating the cerebral, not just in Tyson in particular, but black men in general.

Second he is a boxer. He makes his money by punching people in the head so hard that they fall over and are rendered unconscious. He delivers brain damage for a living. We may not like this (I certainly don't), but our dispute on that score is with boxing, not with Tyson. The one thing we can be certain of, if he does come to this country, is that he will beat at least one person up because that is the whole point of him being here. So to describe his physicality (big, muscular, scary) or his personality (crude, swaggering, tough) as evidence of his brutality is as absurd as criticising ballerinas for being delicate and dainty or professors for being bookish and well-read.

Finally, he is a former criminal and, most pertinently, a rapist. In 1991 he raped Desiree Washington at a Miss Black America beauty pageant, a crime for which he was sentenced to six years in jail. Unlike the well-connected member of the Kennedy clan, who was in court facing the same charge at the same time, Tyson was not acquitted. He was punished. It is intriguing to hear liberals, whose views on criminal justice are generally underpinned by the idea that criminals can and should be rehabilitated, waive that argument in the case of Tyson as though his soul itself is irredeemable. In a fit of illogic they claim that he has shown no remorse, but conveniently forget his insistence that he was innocent. It is difficult to apologise for something you say you didn't do.

So, if Tyson does come he will not be travelling light. As well as his entourage of minders he will be journeying from, in and to a context. He will leave a country where 40% of black children grow up below the poverty line - just as he did - and where incarcerating black people is a boom industry. One-third of all young black men are either in jail, on probation or awaiting trial. He travels as part of a sport, boxing, which has turned that poverty into profit by exploiting those who take it up to within an inch of their lives. And he will arrive in a country which has pursued an immigration "policy" for the past 30 years of keeping black people out and asylum laws designed to criminalise the most vulnerable.

How many of those MPs who will voice their opposition to Straw's decision in the Commons next week lost their voice when it came to the asylum bill, which offends the dignity of so many survivors of state-sponsored rape throughout the world? They are rightly attentive to the plight of Desiree Washington; but if she were Rwandan they would be thinking of detaining her in an army camp.

His reception, both positive and negative, also shows the limits of identity politics. He arrives in a country where two women are killed every week by their current or former partner and reported rape has risen by 165% in the past decade. His arrival reduces the entire issue into the hierarchies of oppression. People who use their blackness or femaleness as the end, rather than the starting point, of their ideology are destined to cut themselves off from the needs of others. "I'll see your race and raise your gender," said the feminist to the black, male activist as both ignored the racism in the women's movement and sexism in the black community, as though there was only a strategic and no ethical response to the event.

None of these points answer whether Tyson should be allowed in the country a second time, but relate to the blatantly racist, hypocritical manner in which the question was put the first time and the inadequacy of the response to it. Jack Straw's decision to bend the rules to allow Tyson into the country because he is famous and a few individuals are going to make money out of him is wrong.

It is an insult to those who have suffered domestic violence, for by waiving the rules on financial grounds Straw puts a price on rape. It suggests that if Tyson were a less successful boxer, a car salesman or a computer engineer he would be kept out of the country because it would cost us less. If he prevented Tyson entering the country he might (although it is unlikely) make a few people bankrupt. By allowing him in he makes the entire government morally bankrupt.

Those who ask how consistently applied is the rule that keeps those who have been convicted of serious crimes out of the country have a good point. General Pinochet, who bore responsibility for the rape of hundreds if not thousands in Chile, was until recently welcomed with open arms. Laws such as these are often implemented with far more rigour against black people than they are against others. There are almost certainly hundreds of people who commit similar crimes arriving every day. The price Tyson pays for his fame is that we know what he has done and since we know it we cannot, with any integrity, ignore it.

Nor is it any mystery why hundreds of black people, and some whites, packed the streets of Brixton to greet him. A community that has been criminalised by the state and vilified by the press is likely to look with leniency and forgiveness on those who have fallen foul of the criminal justice system and are attacked by the media. But the collective denial which underpinned the notion that a rapist - whose victim was a black woman at that - can be transformed into a poster-boy for anti-racism was entirely wrong-headed. Like Straw, it signals that misogyny is forgivable so long as it is coupled with fame.

Tyson should be denied entry to Britain because it is wrong to base the rule of law on the power of the purse. But for every placard at Hampden demanding that he should be kept out, there must be another at the Home Office calling for other black people to be allowed in.

• gary.younge@theguardian.com

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