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The changing face of racism


There are has been a lot of talk lately as to whether or not Australia is a 'racist country'. Those who think not will often point to our aversion to racial slurs that were once acceptably commonplace, or to our shared embarrassment at open displays of hatred on public transport.

Justice weighs POC people against white children, but the POC side of the scale is weighted down by an anvil called Race. Artwork by Chris JohnstonFollowing the US civil rights movement and the dismantling of the White Australia policy, public displays of racism became considerably less palatable. This creates a false sense of security that assumes that as long as long as one is not saying overtly racist things, then racism itself does not exist.

But the evidence shows a much grimmer reality, where the structural barriers preventing people of colour from participating fully in all areas of society remain firmly in place. As US President Obama said regarding Black Lives Matter and the issue of police brutality in the US, 'the African-American community is not just making this up ... it's real and there's a history behind it'.

Institutional discrimination is also real in Australia, and there is a history behind it. This is true both in civil society and in the application of criminal law. Indeed, there are few if any areas of public life that do not discriminate against various racial minorities.

The current anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment, for instance, goes deeper than the sporadic attacks against individuals in public that increase alongside our fears of terrorism. For instance, Australian jobseekers with Middle-Eastern sounding surnames must submit up to 64 per cent more resumes than someone with an Anglo name in order to secure an interview.

This highlights the unconscious bias many have against those descendent from this part of the world; people may not actively engage in racist displays against Arabs, but that doesn't mean they are willing to spend time in close proximity to them on a daily basis.

The damaging effect of unconscious bias is felt in early childhood. Like other brown and black people, Arab children are criminalised at a young age. Studies from Australia, the US and the UK indicate that brown and black children are punished more severely than their white counterparts for the same misbehaviour at school.

This discrepancy starts from as early as pre-school and, while children from white backgrounds are steered towards counselling, non-white children are likely to be suspended or expelled, and are diverted into the criminal justice system. Although affecting children from a broad range of racial backgrounds, as is so often the case, it is Aboriginal children who are most at risk.

This early criminalisation follows marginalised children into adulthood. Black adults are far more likely to be arrested and jailed for the same crime and to receive harsher sentences. Despite the fact that white Americans commit more minor drug crimes, blacks are arrested and jailed at a higher rate. Meanwhile, in Australia, laws ostensibly designed to protect all Australians are unfairly applied to Aboriginal people. 

Paperless arrest laws, for instance, were introduced into the Northern Territory last year to 'free police from paperwork', allowing them to detain people for up to four hours without charge. In practice, they are disproportionately used against Aboriginal people who make up than 75 per cent of those arrested. One of them, Kumanjayi Langdon, died just three hours after being taken into custody.

Although experts are warning that more deaths will occur if the law isn't scrapped, it has recently been upheld by the High Court.

Even policies ostensibly designed to protect Aboriginal Australians are, in practice, harmful to their mental and physical wellbeing.

From the year 1999 to 2014, the number of Aboriginal children taken from their families increased by 400 per cent. More children are removed from their homes now than at any point during the Stolen Generations. Writers such as Kelly Briggs have told of the ever-present fear many Aboriginal mothers have that their children will be taken away from them, something few non-Indigenous Australians could possibly comprehend.

And if being the target of unfairly applied laws wasn't enough, people of colour tend to be taken less seriously as victims also. Statistics reveal that crimes in which white people are the victims are punished more severely and garner more public outrage.

Former Oklahoma police officer Daniel Holtzclaw is currently on trial in the US for allegedly sexually assaulting at least 12 black women. Holtzclaw is accused of deliberately targeting vulnerable women from poor backgrounds, some with a record of minor offences, in order to minimise his chances of capture. Despite the long history of white juries exonerating crimes committed against black Americans, Holtzclaw was awarded a jury of eight white men and four white women.

What all this demonstrates is that it is both naïve and dangerous to equate racism simply with individual acts of bigotry. Racism is not just a matter of people hurling racial slurs or newspapers portraying a Muslim leader as a monkey.

As troubling as these may be, they are merely a symptom of a more invisible epidemic; that of an often-unconscious but systemic bias against those from racially and culturally diverse backgrounds, a bias which is still firmly in place, no matter how much we may wish to relegate it to the past.


Ruby HamadRuby Hamad is a freelance writer and columnist for Daily Life. She holds a Masters in Media Practice from Sydney University where she wrote her thesis on objectivity and bias in the western media's coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict. She currently runs workshops on this topic for Macquarie University's Global Leadership Program. She tweets @rubyhamad

Topic tags: Ruby Hamad, racism, Australia, Barack Obama



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Existing comments

Not content with racism, sexism, homophobia and Islamophobia, there is now an “invisible epidemic” of “unconscious bias”. That comes on top of “microaggressions”, those words or actions without a malicious intent that are deemed a kind of violence nonetheless. Then there are “trigger warnings”. With a bit of sophistry, almost anything can be twisted in service of the insatiable appetite of the grievance industry. “The Mikado” which is about the foibles of Victorian Britain, is criticized for stereotyping Japanese. Ta-Nehisi Coates whose father was a Black Panther, doesn’t advise his son to become a carpenter or a doctor, but to immerse himself in “black studies” and not be conned by “personal responsibility” which is simply a “broad exoneration” of white guilt; and any mention of black-on-black crime “is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding”. This blanket exoneration of criminal behaviour actually dehumanises the perpetrators and helps to maintain the social pathology of the ghettos. Postcolonial grievance studies lionises Frantz Fanon. His advice to remove the capital city to the countryside was followed by the Khmer Rouge when they emptied Phnom Penh. The perpetually aggrieved never promote anything that actually works, only that which destroys.

Ross Howard | 28 November 2015  

Whatever the merits of Ruby Hamad's arguments may be, her analysis of racism looks only at the bias of white Westerners against dark-skinned people. By limiting her victims to those of swarthy complexions, she leaves herself open to the suspicion that she sees these peoples themselves as incapable of racism and xenophobia. If anyone wants to see vicious characterisations of people as monkeys, and various other animals, google "anti Jewish cartoons Islam', and click on 'images'. I think that should disabuse them of any view that Muslim/Arabs are incapable demonising and marginalising their fellow humans. If we paint one culture as evil and another as victim, we will end up with the catastrophic failure to administer justice that was seen in Rotherham, England. Hundreds of young girls over many years were preyed upon by men of largely Pakistani background. The authorities were so paralysed by a fear of being branded as racist that they failed to act. Ruby Hamad is right to call out racism perpetrated by whites against non-whites. But this should never mean that a lesser standard of behaviour is expected, let alone accepted, from non-whites towards whites.

Gerald Lanigan | 29 November 2015  

An insightful article: a step to overcoming the problem is the need in the first place to recognise the existence of discriminatory thought and behavour happens - even at a personal level; to be aware of one's own racist and discriminatory thoughts. I grew up in New Zealand in the 1950s and mixed freely with local Maori kids. At the time I thought we were all just the same - though I realise, with the benefit of hindsight, that many Maori people didn't believe that they were being treated fairly or as equals. The Waitangi Tribunal is an impressive example ofan attempt is being made at a national level to right some of the wrongs done to New Zealand's indigenous people. When I arrived in Australia, I was shocked to see so much discriminatory behaviour at many levels in Australian society: not just against Indigenous people, but even against children from certain low income suburbs. A cunning strategy used by some kids from one local suburb when they were job-hunting when leaving school, was to ask friends from nearby "better" suburbs, if they could use their addresses on their job applications: just to improve their chances of getting an interview. How much of this internal discrimination in Australia is contributing to high unemployment rates in certain suburbs and towns?

Paddy Byers | 30 November 2015  

Possibly the greatest contributor to both the conscious and unconscious bias against those who are 'different' is TRADITION. This was neatly summed up in the film 'Mississippi Burning' with the attitude displayed in the words of a white officer, "That's the way Negroes are treated in Mississippi. That's the way they have always been treated, And that's the way they always will be treated", Fortunately there has been some improvement in attitudes, both there and also here, but there is still a long way to go. We are answerable for even our unconscious biases if we ignore the prompts that surface occasionally to suggest we look deeper at how we react to such awkward situations.

Robert Liddy | 30 November 2015  

We all fear what we don't know and understand. Laws have been put in place with punishments and that goes a certain distance. Racism will never go away until we begin to understand each other and feel comfortable in each other's company. I speak and understand only English and sometimes when I am on a tram I feel alienated. The response comes from a lack in me, not a fault in those communicating with friends. I am not the centre of the universe.

Margaret McDonald | 30 November 2015  

I`m not sure that prejudice against "the stranger" or the new-comer can really be equated with racism. It is almost "natural" and even evolutionary although it is certainly not pleasant to experience or behold. The film "The Twelve Canoes" (I think) illustrated this beautifully, as between members of adjacent Aboriginal clans. One way to minimise this is to Westernise your name and clothing etc., as Jews did escaping to UK and Australia from Eastern European pogroms. Or wait until assimilation gradually occurs , as happened to the Irish especially but that can take a couple of generations. The point is that there is nothing new or special about Arabs. It would be nice if Christians could worship openly in Saudi Arabia though! And even evangelise as Muslims are free to in Australia.

Eugene | 30 November 2015  

Racism by any other name is still Racism. When it comes to Racism, Australians are in denial. To be fair, the endemic racism is inherited from the country's original sin, British Colonialism. Multi-cultural Australia is redolent with racism; the new breed of new arrivals from Europe despise Asians and vice versa. Our failure to bond with our regional neighbours is a case in point; they are different, therefore, they don't meet our (human) standards - the way eugenics perceived Africans to be sub-human -. It's harsh, but it's the foundation of our prejudices. And, by the way, just because "those of swarthy complexions" (Gerald Lanigan) are just capable of being racist, does not excuse anyone. Especially us. It's not the multiculturalism that we seek. We want an integrated society that regard human as humans - just like us and everybody else. Indeed, we've joined the human race, we are racists.

Alex Njoo | 30 November 2015  

To Gerlad Lanigan - yes, there is still always racism from all corners of the world, all ethnicities but, more often than not, when "westerners" discriminate against "non-westerners" - the west still comes out on top. And no matter how much arabs paint racist caricatures of jews - Israel is now the winner (part of the west). Aussie Anglos once kept Irish/Catholic Aussie out of certain jobs - but now these hairy unwashed are part of the "winners" team.

AURELIUS | 01 December 2015  

Try being Irish when the British Empire was at its height. The Commitments got it right when they said/sang, not so long ago, 'The Irish are the Black men of Europe'. Bias against an outlier group seems to be a sociological constant. The danger is when it becomes socio-pathic. Totalitarian/authoritarian societies encourage bias as a means of supressing dissidents and encouraging subservience in the hoi polloi. Open democratic societies encourage biases - social economic and political. The trick for democracies is not to let these biases get out of control by using a minimum of suppression.

Uncle Pat | 02 December 2015  

The destruction of racial nations is part of an agenda to impose a global government. The borders of Europe have been opened to those of the middle east for the benefit of greater Israel. Your appeals to 'racism' could be interpreted as disingenuous, deceptive and more to the base, individuated egoistic self who cares for nothing more than 'self'..... Many question the personal integrity and the sincerity of the so called social justice warriors seen at places like ES...... Your writings appear deceptive, and with outcomes in mind.

Noachideous | 05 December 2015  

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