Which is better - to be a racist in words but not actions, or in actions but not words?* This is one question posed by the Malky Mackay affair.
To see my point, let's juxtapose him (and football generally) with the film and TV business. Many black actors have felt the need to leave the UK to pursue their careers for want of good jobs here. But this is not the case for black footballers. I suspect that 20-something black men get a better deal relative to their white peers in football than they do in other walks of life** (though this might be a low bar), and - so far - there is no suggestion that Mackay's team selections or other actions were racist.
Which brings me to the paradox. Whereas Mackay is being kept out of work because of his racist words even though no black person is claiming that he victimized them, no individual in the arts is being accused of racism even though many black actors feel that they are victims of racism.
There are two things going on here.
One is that intentions are mediated by institutions. In football there is cut-throat competition and as Gary Becker famously said this compels managers to act non-racist regardless of their private beliefs***. Exhibit A here is Ron Atkinson. By contrast, the British film and TV industry is less competitive, and this provides room for nepotism, tradition or subtle forms of racism to exclude blacks. Racism or non-racism can be an emergent process; both can exist, independently of the motives of individuals. As Bernard Mandeville pointed out in 1732 in a different context, private vices can coexist with public benefits and vice versa.
The other is that a nice guy image can be used to deflect attention away from misdeeds. As Machiavelli said,"it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them." Just as Jimmy Savile used his charity work as a front for serial sex abuse, and Bernie Madoff presented a trustworthy image to disguise his fraud, so images of liberalism and non-racism can hide racist actions; endless anti-racism statements and initiatives, for example, have not eliminated racism in the police. And not just racism, of course. We all know men who pretend to be feminists and yet treat women abominably.
Herein lies my concern about the Mackay affair. Punishing men for sexist and racist words, in the absence of any actions, might amount to hurting not the most racist and sexist men but rather those with the least self-control and who get on the wrong side of vindictive billionaires. And it might wrongly exonerate those who succeed in hiding their racism and sexism behind a front of hypocrisy.
* It should go without saying that it's better still to be neither, but this option isn't always available.
** There are no black managers in the league, but that's a story about club owners not about Mackay. And of course we should not suggest that billionaires are guilty of wrong-doing.
*** I'm not saying here that competition completely precludes injustice; there might still be space for some racist and homophobic actions.