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Australia’s structural racism and the pandemic

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Black Lives Matter protest in Brisbane (Image by Belinda Donovan)

While Australia's structural racism must be addressed, Lyn Bender questions whether crowded demonstrations are the best approach during a pandemic.

Australia has a long history of racism denied, yet prides itself on its lack of racial tension.

Prime Minister Morrison asserts, in light of the protests in Trump’s USA, "We are not America". Our Indigenous Australians would beg to differ on this as they march around Australia in protest at the end of National Reconciliation Week. Oh, we have said "sorry" — but still, they suffer and die.

But if lives matter, congregating en masse in the midst of a global pandemic is also putting lives at risk.

In 1938, a conference of 32 global delegates was convened at the French resort of Evian by U.S. President Roosevelt, to discuss the problem of Jewish refugees. Hitler had been pursuing his policy of "cleansing Germany of Jews" by making the conditions of living increasingly unbearable and lethal for its Jewish citizens, thus forcing many to leave.

There were three Australian delegates; including  Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas W White, DFC, VD, MP, Minister for Trade and Custom.

At that conference, White stated:

"It will no doubt be appreciated that as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration …"

And the rest, as they say, is history. Unchecked by any world censure, Hitler went on to craft the genocidal "Final Solution". And many an Australian government minister has since echoed this rejection of the "undesirable refugee".

Currently, we have refugees imprisoned in close quarters in COVID-19-unsafe crowded accommodation. There is no end in sight to their punitive forced isolation. Their crime is that they sought refuge from persecution. They have been stranded by the opposed Medevac legislation that should have provided medical attention. Like the 'Hotel California' that they can never leave.

Another emblematic and tragic case has been the ongoing torment meted out to a now-famous Tamil detention family by Australian immigration. Since they were moved to Christmas Island last August, a series of court orders have stopped the Morrison Government from deporting parents, Priya and Nadesalingam, and their Australian-born daughters, Kopika (aged four) and Tharunicaa (aged two) to Sri Lanka. 

Australians in their adopted home town of Biloela have welcomed this family and lobbied for their return, indicating that not all Australia supports this cruel policy of detention or forced return.  

These are all merely examples of our politically structured persecution of minorities, that serve to illustrate the iceberg beneath.

The Chinese were a despised group at different times in our history. Patrick White our esteemed British-born Nobel prize-winning novelist, wrote of the Chinese, in his first novel in the 1930s, Happy Valley, as a lower class of yellow-skinned Chinamen. White was depicting the derogatory language of the time. Current COVID-19 fears show how easily this old prejudice against Chinese and Asian Australians is reignited in the minds of some Australians.

When I was employed as a psychologist (for six weeks) at Woomera Detention Centre in the South Australian desert, some of the officers proclaimed the belief that we were at war with the detainees. The guards denigrated the detainees for bringing their children to Australia on boats. I was asked to leave when I raised, in conversation with staff, the question of the refugees trying to bring their children to safety. I posed the question, "What would you have done?”

But all this leads to the pièce de résistance — the denied and fundamental cornerstone of Australia’s structural racism. The barely acknowledged, historical and current structured racism against the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and their descendants.

We must not deny the stolen lands, massacres, destruction of language and culture, massive incarceration rates, deaths in custody, higher rate of chronic illness, poverty, the Stolen Generations, lower life expectancy, the famous gap that never closes. Yes, there was an apology but reparation has been denied. The pain lives on for generations.

It took a unique kind of chutzpah and moral ineptitude for Rio Tinto to blow up sacred 45,000-year-old Jucaan Caves at the beginning of Reconciliation Week and to offer a weak "apology" on the final day.

However, I believe the protests in capital cities threaten black lives and put the lives of vulnerable groups at risk. Indigenous lives are at greater risk of COVID-19.

It’s a form of craziness to plan events that place us all at risk of a surging pandemic, ironically, in the name of life mattering. Perhaps it is the craziness born of decades of feeling unheard and being ignored. After all, the Uluru Statement from the Heart was rejected summarily and tourists still want to clamber all over Uluru.

The medical advice is clear. As we slowly reduce restrictions, large gatherings put our health gains and entire communities at risk. But the angst of our Aboriginal Australians must also be heard and acted upon. If authorities had been prepared to genuinely meet with Indigenous advocates, we might have averted the really tragic timing of mass protests during a pandemic.

Lyn Bender is a professional psychologist. You can follow Lyn on Twitter @Lynestel.

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