The problem of racism has roots throughout history and is sadly still alive in Western culture and politics, writes Bilal Cleland.
THERE IS NO DOUBT that the Enlightenment led to mass participatory democracy, freedom of expression, religious toleration and growing emphasis upon human rights.
There was, however, a dark side, that of scientific racism and eugenics, promulgated with sincere respect for the betterment of a version of mankind.
Charles Darwin, the darling of the enlightened elite, horrified the church.
What it was horrified about, however, was the notion of evolution, not that often-ignored second part of the title of his work: ‘On the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life’.
His cousin, Francis Galton, became convinced that natural selection did not work quite so effectively with humans as with the animal kingdom, so it needed a helping hand through the science of eugenics.
This fruit of the Enlightenment gained support for decades.
‘...we would expect, as a corollary of the evolution theory, that human families would differ from one another in hereditary ability.’
The conclusion is reached ‘that the average standard of the negro race is two grades below our own’; that the Australian native is at least one grade below the African; that the Lowland Scot and the English North-Country man is ‘decidedly a fraction of a grade superior of the ordinary English’.
This notion of the hierarchy of races has a long life.
In 1935, Non-Britishers in Australia: Influence on Population and Progress had a foreword by the leading history scholar of the time, Ernest Scott:
The ideological basis of the “modern emphasis upon race” is due largely to the writings of the French Count Gobineau. That philosopher contended: “The history of mankind proves that the destinies of people are governed by a racial law. Neither irreligion, no immorality, no luxurious living, nor weakness of government causes the decadence of civilisations. If a nation goes down, the reason is that its blood, the race itself is deteriorating.”
In 2022, our Prime Minister, speaking outside St Andrews Ukrainian Church promised to allocate additional places to Australia’s current humanitarian refugee intake, to accommodate those fleeing the unfolding war in Ukraine.
No such offer was made to the 700,000 displaced Afghans.
We all saw how African residents fleeing Ukraine were treated by Christian Poland.
It has been reported of Poland:
‘Its government... has warmly welcomed traumatised Ukrainians, just months after turning away Afghans.’
However, there are other reasons why there has been such a difference between attitudes in the Western media towards Ukrainians and the brown-skinned refugees.
‘Welcoming those people fleeing wars that the West has fomented would be an admission of Western culpability. Not only do Ukrainian refugees offer palatable infusions of whiteness into European nations, but they also enable governments to express self-righteous outrage at Russia’s imperialist ambitions and violent militarism.’
Alongside this, we must place the dominant attitude of so many compatriots towards our First Nations people.
The “black armband view of history” decried by the White conservatives has just been illustrated by the outstanding work of the team at the University of Newcastle’s Centre for the 21st Century Humanities, itself a fruit of the positive side of the Enlightenment.
It is becoming increasingly hard for the deniers of reality to smooth over this history.
Bilal Cleland is a retired secondary teacher and was Secretary of the Islamic Council of Victoria, Chairman of the Muslim Welfare Board Victoria and Secretary of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils. You can follow Bilal on Twitter @BilalCleland.
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