Is Australia racist?

By | | comments |
(Image via sbs.com.au)

'In asking Australians to face up to racism, it appears to be their individual prejudices that concern SBS rather than the structural racism that is built into Australian institutions.'

~ Emeritus professor Barry Hindess

ON SUNDAY 26 February, Australia's SBS TV network broadcast Ray Martin's Is Australia Racist?

It is the first programme of the Face Up to Racism week (#FU2racismand it's a good question, but it deserves a tougher answer than SBS managed to provide.

Fortuitously, perhaps, this week also included the release of an inconclusive parliamentary report on what, if anything, should be done about the wording of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA).

In spite of my criticisms of this SBS initiative (below), it performs a valuable service in the face of strenuous efforts by right-wing politicians and commentators – who cannot imagine that anything they say or do might be construed as racist – to confuse free speech and racist abuse, by showing that many Australians suffer significant racist abuse, particularly toward Indigenous Australians and African migrants. And, while almost two out of three Australians admit to being prejudiced, four out of five feel that there is racism in Australia and that something needs to be done to counter it.

My discussion is not so much a critique of SBS – and only incidentally to dispute its treatment of racism – but rather to raise issues about public discussion of race and racism in contemporary Australia.

The first point to notice about the opening programme in the series – and about SBS' advance publicity – is that it fails to specify precisely what #FU2racism understands as racism. This is unfortunate, not least because like many contentious terms in public discussion, "racism" has several meanings, each with different implications for how we might recognise and respond to it. More seriously, #FU2racism presents its own account of racism as if it were uncontentious. Racism, in its view, is an attitude, a prejudice, or its verbal or physical expression, directed “towards people who don't look like we do” – although we are also told that race prejudice is sometimes directed towards Muslims, whatever they look like – who we tend, not always consciously, to view “as a potential threat”.

The appearance of the phrase “people ... like we do” early in an online information page on #FU2racism, suggests that it is a provisional stand-in for race, that the “people who don't look like we do” belong to a different race or races than oneself. If racism is a prejudice or the expression of a prejudice, then to ask "How racist is Australia?" is to ask how widespread is such prejudice or its expression within the Australian population. This, it seems, is what the #FU2racism week has been designed to explore.

My point in questioning this approach is not to suggest that the verbal or physical expression of prejudice is not damaging, whether it happens in schools, universities and other workplaces, in the street and shopping centres, at bus stops or on public transport. Is Australia Racist? showed several confronting examples, suggesting that we would be better off without it. Yet, this prejudice is not the only racism that should concern Australia today.

Fortunately, the #FU2racism information page informs us that, while most of us are infected by an implicit (that is, not conscious) racist bias, neuroscience has shown that this bias is not “hard-wired” into our brains. The information page even offers an online test that innocent white Australians can take to assess whether, despite their own best intentions, they harbour any racist prejudices.

This approach assumes that the most significant damage caused by racism consists in the prejudicial behaviour of individuals, moving the study of racism out of the broad domain of the social sciences – anthropology, history, political science and sociology – and into that of psychology, especially neuroscience and psychology's speculative sub-discipline, evolutionary psychology, which purports to offer an evolutionary explanation of race prejudice.

The same information page, headed 'Like it or not, you're probably racist', tells us that our brains have evolved to:

'... to look for patterns, things are lumped together into categories ... the question boils down to: in-group or out-group? Or — “Do they look how I look?”'

This is the contribution of evolutionary psychology: treating our implicit fear of outsiders as an atavistic survival, first consolidated millions of years ago in the reptilian brain and now cowering in our mammalian,

' ... amygdala [which] keeps track of all the negative stereotypes perpetuated within our environment – and it programmes itself to react to them, too.'

(While this evolutionary speculation is clearly set out in the 'Like it or not, you're probably racist' page, I did not notice it in any of #FU2racism week's TV broadcasts.) Fortunately, we “are able to modify our unconscious bias, we just have to get into the habit of using a different attitude” – assuming, of course, that we are aware of our implicit bias and truly wish to be rid of it.

Reference to implicit bias suggests that any of us might be racist without being aware of it — which makes sense of right-wing contortions over free speech and Section 18C of the RDA and of the protestation we hear often enough from public figures: "I'm not racist, but ..."

Many of us learned in our earlier years that it's not good to be racist — an injunction that is too easily understood as meaning no more than don't be seen to be racist and that the overt expression of racism is best avoided, which suggests a different view of the "I'm not racist, but ..." protestation.

The treatment of racism as prejudice towards "people who don't look like we do” raises several questions. First, the expression “people who don't look like we do” is more complex than it might seem. It assumes that most individuals view themselves as members of a collective — the “we” in "like we do", even if many members of the collective do not, in fact, look like they do as they are of another gender, taller, shorter, leaner or bulkier, have different shaped faces, different complexions, hair texture and colour, wear different clothing, and so on. Each of us grows up surrounded by people who don't look like oneself and we get used to it. At some point, we might encounter others who also don't look like oneself, who we consign to the outer darkness.

The formula "don't look like we do" does not distinguish one group from the other. Neither look like "we" do, but only in the latter case is the observable difference treated as significant. We discriminate against an out-group, not because “they don't look like we do” but because we target them for some reason and we say that "they don't look like we do” because we target them. ”People who don't look like we do” offers no explanation of race prejudice. It does not explain why we target some of those who “don't look like we do” but not others. Yet the formulation itself is agnostic on the question of whether “people who don't look like we do” belong to races other than one's own.

Second, then, are “people who don't look like we do” members of one or more different races and is it racist to view them as a potential threat? A positive answer would suggest that racism is a matter of prejudice against members of other races. Yet natural and social scientists who study race have generally concluded that there are no biologically distinct human races (see, for example, Stephen Jay Gould's admirable discussion in his The Mismeasure of Man).

This would leave racism as a matter of treating people as if they belonged to biologically distinct races. The authors of Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Lifeargued that the division of populations into races – as the final #FU2racism TV programme did and as still sometimes happens in national censuses and landing cards issued on international flights – is itself racist. In this last case, it is the practice of classifying people into races that are racist, even if no prejudicial treatment follows directly. This classificatory "racism" might seem relatively harmless except for the fact that it identifies readily available targets for prejudicial bias. It is perhaps best seen as a relic of times in which governments regarded race and race difference as matters of serious public concern.

Since the time of W E B du Bois' pioneering The Conservation of Racesmany sociologists have argued that race and racial difference are social constructions and this view is now rarely disputed within the discipline. To say that race is socially constructed is to say that, even though there are no grounds for regarding race as a biological phenomenon, race is nevertheless a significant social phenomenon. Alana Lentin of Western Sydney University has published important work on this issue — see, for example, Lentin's 'Race' in the 2017 Sage Handbook of Political Sociology.

So, how might we address the question How racist is Australia? in either the classificatory or prejudicial senses just noted? It might seem that a really sophisticated survey with carefully designed questions would be the way to go. #FU2racism goes part way there with a large-scale survey examining individual experiences of race prejudice and views about the extent and impact of racism in Australia. While, as noted earlier, two out of three admitted to their own prejudice, we should bear in mind that the remaining one in three is likely to include some who are unaware of their own prejudices.

Yet, what do these findings tell us about how racist is Australia? The question is about Australia, not just the Australian people who make up an important part but not the totality of what we think of as Australia. If according to our imaginary survey, the average Australian turned out to be somewhat less racist than the norm for national populations of largely European descent, this would answer only part of the question about Australia.

To address this, we would have to consider the extent of structural racism by looking also at Australian institutions, state and Commonwealth laws and agencies, schools, colleges and universities, churches, clubs, the RSL, political parties, movements, crowds at sporting venues and sporting codes, including cricket, which is not normally treated as just another sporting code. But it is hard not to notice that few non-whites ever make it into Australia's international cricket teams. Recent American experience and Wednesday's The Truth about Racism programme suggest that if we do not face up to structural racism, attempts to address its effects will be portrayed as privileging its victims.

If it turned out that most Australians were not particularly racist, this would tell us little about the official face of Australian racism. This is on display for all the world to see in the conduct of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and Australia's various police forces, not to mention Australia's treatment of its Indigenous Peoples, whose effects are ritually lamented every time a predictably disappointing Closing the Gap annual report appears. It is also on international display in Australia's treatment of the many asylum seekers – few, if any, of them white – languishing on Manus and Nauru.

To repeat an earlier point, the issue in these cases concerns more than the prejudices of individual public servants and ministers working in these areas – although some of these can be problematic enough – it also concerns government policies and the institutional protocols, departmental ethos and constraints within which they work.

If there is a need for us to face up to the racism of many Australians, the same is true of Australia's institutions. Reforming the first will have little direct impact on the second. In asking Australians to face up to racism, it appears to be their individual prejudices that concern SBS rather than the structural racism that is built into Australian institutions. The extent of racist prejudice in Australia is certainly worth exploring but SBS' reluctance to tackle structural racism represents a serious failure of nerve.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

Monthly Donation


Single Donation


Barry Hindess is an emeritus professor at Australian National University’s School of Politics and International Relations.

Support equality. Subscribe to IA for just $5.

Recent articles by Barry Hindess
The I in ICAC: Independent or inaccurate

Barry Hindess discusses the importance of a Federal ICAC, saying an Independent ...  
Corruption is the price we pay for democracy

Political corruption is rife within modern day democracy, but the destructive ...  
Corruption in politics: The picture isn't so clear

Dr Barry Hindess says what the public see as political corruption is ever-changing ...  
Join the conversation
comments powered by Disqus

Support IAIndependent Australia

Subscribe to IA and investigate Australia today.

Close Subscribe Donate