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The changing face of racism

  • 30 November 2015

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.

Following 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