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Why we're losing the war on racism

  • 10 June 2009
When discussing racism, the response is as important as the accusation. The slow response from police and our political leaders to the recent spate of Indian-bashings demonstrates what can occur when racism is tackled passively. It also shows just how difficult and complex this fight is.

Racism is a purely subjective and visceral beast. You feel it in the gut first before it can be rationalised. And that's if you are lucky.

For Indian International student Sourabh Sharma, it came in a hail of punches and kicks as he was assaulted on a Melbourne train. Passengers watched helplessly as six youths kicked him to the head while screaming racial insults.

Another student, Sravan Kumar Theerthala was stabbed with a screwdriver in a party in Melbourne's north and remains comatose in intensive care.

The police believe the attacks were motivated by opportunism. But to deny that racism played a part is a severe miscalculation. The students, who feel victimised, say the police are out of touch with their concerns. The crimes escalated into a diplomatic incident that risks the country's $15 billion a year international student trade.

The police are not totally to blame. They are a symptom of our society's immaturity when it comes to discussing issues of race.

While it was in power, the Howard Government spurned no opportunity to yank the ethos of multiculturalism from our collective conscious. During those dark years we saw our former prime minister steadfastly deny any concerns of racial tensions, especially during the flash points of Hansonism and the Cronulla Riots.

The results are a generation of youth starved of effective leadership when it comes to tolerance, and a society whose default position is near hysterical denial when any accusation of racism is levelled at it — whether from a former cashed-up CEO or from Indigenous activists.

It can also be displayed in the idolisation of a 19-year-old Gold Coast waitress, Clare Werbeloff, who shot to fame on the back of racist stereotypes broadcast on television.

Prime Minister Rudd displayed much needed backbone when it came to the National Apology, but no matter how heartfelt the apology was, the decision to offer it was in line with the national mood. Tackling racism is not seen as a vote winner. It requires stern leadership to delve into places in which we as a society are not comfortable.

President Obama displayed this through his landmark 'race speech'