Human rights

In the shadow of Christchurch, is Australia an inherently racist country?

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Reclaim Australia rally in Melbourne, 2015 (Screenshot via YouTube)

The Christchurch shooter is but one manifestation of Australia's racism, writes Suresh Rajan.

I write this piece the day after Harmony Week has commenced in Western Australia. I also write this with an enormously heavy heart, following the events in Christchurch. The question I pose myself and have done repeatedly for the last 20 or so years is whether Australia is an inherently racist country?

When I first committed pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to answer that question, I wrote:

Studies have been done by a variety of people and institutions that address the question. The modern equivalent of empirical research (Googling that question!) reveals around 18 million pages in 0.43 seconds. Having had a cursory glance at a few pages of those results, it would appear that the majority of the authors indicate that, in their view, this country has a very firm and pronounced racist streak running through it.


Many studies have been done of this subject. Most notably, Professor Kevin Dunn from the University of Western Sydney has done considerable work on a longitudinal basis of the racist attitudes towards migrants to this country. In essence, his findings indicate that around 10% of us harbour extremely racist attitudes towards the most recently arrived migrants to this country. It is hard to be categoric about this figure and its implications for policy makers until you can place it in a contextual framework. In other words, does a 10% figure make us more racist than are the Americans, Chinese, English or French and so on? Is 10% more than it was 30 years ago? Are things improving as we become a more culturally diverse and pluralistic society?


But looking at the question on a more anecdotal basis can also be revealing. In 2003, the Ethnic Communities Council of WA released the results of its five-year study into racism in Western Australia. As the president of the Council at that time, I was intimately involved in releasing those findings. We had to delay the finalisation of that study on a number of occasions because of international incidents. The first of those incidents was the bombing of the World Trade Centre in September 2001. The study was predicated on a survey of people from the new and emerging communities to WA via Middle Eastern and African communities.


It was readily apparent that the international events would skew the results and the perceptions of these communities of racism being perpetrated against them. The other international incidents that delayed the completion and the publication of the results of that study were the Bali and London bombings. Eventually, when the results were published they portrayed a very disturbing picture of the society in which we live. Well in excess of 70% of those community members perceived that they had racism and discrimination perpetrated against them in areas such as accommodation provision, service delivery areas and so on.


Just as disturbing as these results are, the fact that political parties predicating their manifesto on completely nationalistic and often clearly and blatantly racist policies – such as those espoused by Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, Bob Katter’s Australia Party, Pastor Danny Nalliah’s Rise up Australia Party – get carriage in this country. Usually, the level of support received by these parties is around the level of racism identified by Professor Dunn in his studies — 10%.


These parties appeal to the basest survival and fear instinct present in most human beings. All sense of humanity is then lost as their primal survival fears are preyed upon. It is interesting that these same people do not recognise the same primal fears that are being felt by asylum seekers to this country fleeing persecution.

Looking at all of that and placing ourselves in the current context, it must be said that my fears are even more acute today. The political parties predicating their respective manifestos on nationalistic and blatantly racist policies have grown markedly.

There are now elected – albeit some by a quirk of the electoral system – members of the current Parliament that make no secret of their racism. Whereas at one time you would suggest that Pauline Hanson was the only openly racist Member of Parliament, today you would point to Fraser Anning, George Christensen, Cory Bernardi and a host of others, even in mainstream parties. The fact that they have been elected to Parliament is an indication of a sufficient level of popular support being enjoyed by them. This is, of course, also an effective litmus test for the level of racism in the wider community.

Further, in a nation that has as its foundation the practice and attitudes of racism towards its First Peoples, it does not take much to have those practices and attitudes resurface. In recent years, we can point to the blatant nationalistic riots at Cronulla in 2005. Cheered on by racist shock jocks such as Alan Jones, these riots gained momentum and spilled out into anger, frustration and violence. The treatment of Indian students particularly in Melbourne and Sydney was seen by many, particularly in the sub-continent, as blatant racism.

We can also point to the desire on the part of Milo Yiannopoulos and others of his ilk to visit here and preach messages of hate as an indication of the levels of acceptance of their status. When the previous convenor of one of the chapters of the KKK visited Perth, he indicated to me how well entrenched the KKK was here.

Now we have Christchurch in all its tarnished glory. The comments of the perpetrator in his manifesto were around white supremacy. He used the oft-quoted and revered David Lane with his 14-word slogan wanting to secure the existence of the world for white children.

But he is not an orphan or an island in his thoughts and beliefs. The white supremacist movement is thriving in Australia at the moment. There are new groups surfacing all the time. The police are aware of these groups and monitor them but that does not diminish their numbers.

So to come back to the question that I raised above. The only answer that I can come to is that Australia has an inherently racist streak that runs through its society. And that that streak has grown exponentially during the last few years. The targets of its racism continue to be the Indigenous population first and then the most recently arrived group of migrants lumped together as being from one or other ancestry and/or a particular religious faith.

This is a sad but true indictment of Australia today and the Christchurch shooter is but one manifestation of all of that racism and hate.

Suresh Rajan is a former president of the Ethnic Communities Council of Western Australia. He is a regular contributor on the subject of multiculturalism to media in Perth and has been for many years.

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