When the United Kingdom entered lockdown in March, millions of low-income schoolchildren found themselves without reliable access to meals. The British government, under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, made relief funds available to businesses across the country, but was reluctant to expand their efforts to cover children in need.
In stepped Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford, who himself grew up in poverty and experienced food insecurity throughout his childhood. Rashford set out to raise money to feed the 400,000 children in the Manchester area who had been affected by the lockdowns, but ended up raising over £20 million that went towards feeding 4 million children across the country.
Building on the success from his initial work, Rashford began lobbying the U.K. government to do more to alleviate and end child poverty. His concern was that the government would not be funding free school meals for children during the summer months, despite typically doing so for households facing food insecurity. Rashford’s campaigning and public pressure led the Johnson government to reverse its stance on the policy, which resulted in 1.3 million children getting the food they needed over the summer.
After the summer of 2020, Rashford announced the creation of the Child Food Poverty Task Force, where he would work with business and charity leaders to find ways to support children experiencing food insecurity while also pressuring the U.K government to do more to ensure that children could have food on the table.
In September, Rashford started a petition to the government to end child poverty and food insecurity and asked the government to ensure food funding through spring of 2021. The petition received over 200,000 signatures, forcing the government to take it into consideration, but a Labour Party amendment to guarantee that funding failed by a 61-vote margin.
In the aftermath of the vote, hundreds of thousands more people signed the petition, bringing the total number of signatures well over one million. Rashford slammed Conservative party Members of Parliament (MPs) for their “lack of empathy,” and called on the public to ramp up pressure on the government.
Eventually the government acquiesced to Rashford’s demands, and committed to providing £400 million in funding for child food and anti-poverty programs through 2021. Leading politicians, footballers and celebrities praised Rashford, and he received an MBE (Member of the British Empire) from the Queen for his work. Having fed millions of children across the country, it is hard to overstate the impact that Rashford’s efforts have had on the U.K..
That has not stopped right-wing media outlets from attacking Rashford every step of the way. Rashford, who is Black, had faced racial abuse in the past: He was called a slew of racial slurs in 2019 after missing a penalty kick versus Crystal Palace, and was part of the England squad whose Black players had Nazi salutes and monkey chants aimed at them during a game in Bulgaria just over a year ago.
But when Rashford became a larger public name during his campaign for ending child poverty, the racial abuse only worsened. After Conservative MP Kevin Hollinrake said that the government should not take extra steps to feed children because that was “a parent’s job,” Rashford responded that for some families it wasn’t a matter of desire but of means, and that all parents want to do right by their children. Right-wing commentator David Vance attacked Rashford for these comments over Twitter.
This past week, British media outlet the Daily Mail published a piece targeting Rashford for purchasing several homes worth over £2 million that implied that Rashford’s charity work was somehow disingenuous or invalid because of his wealth. Rashford replied that as someone who came from poverty, those investments were his way of securing his assets and providing for his family.
This is not the first time that the Daily Mail has attacked Black athletes for their spending habits. The outlet previously criticized Manchester City star Raheem Sterling for taking an £80 flight home from vacation when he earns £200k weekly. It also criticized him for buying his mother her own house that cost more than it should have in the Daily Mail’s estimation.
Rashford and other Black athletes in the U.K. have frequently been held to a double standard. When Rashford and Sterling’s England teammate Harry Maguire was arrested in Greece over the summer, he got an easy pass from the media. Even the left-leaning Guardian called him a “model professional” and wondered how his arrest could have happened.
The impact of Rashford’s work has been immense, made all the more impressive by his positive attitude, relentless determination, and resilience in the face of persistent racism. This is a phenomenon seen in the United States as well – Lebron James’ work with the “I Promise School” has constantly been called into question as a “stunt” by right-wing media outlets.
Treatment of Rashford and James highlights the ridiculousness of the right’s criticism of Black athletes. Commentators like Ben Shapiro have often slated NBA players for complaining about social injustice while themselves being millionaires, but when Black athletes do use their money to advance causes they believe in, the racist criticism continues. For Black athletes across the world, it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t.