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Why we're losing the war on racism

Protesting Indian student puts up flag, Flickr image by scissorhands33When 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' after the scandal involving his former pastor. Delivering his address during the middle of a divisive election was not politically savvy, yet it is now acknowledged as one of the key turning points which propelled Obama to victory.

Kevin Rudd also needs to take the lead when tackling this scourge.

Fighting racism involves the mother of all hearts-and-minds campaigns. Anti discrimination programs are only effective when followed with strong political backing and vice versa.

The AFL realised this and their expansive anti-racism strategy has been effective because it was articulated and pushed from the top down. The AFL is now a totally different league from what it was 15 years ago, because they realised that anti-discrimination is one never-ending season where complacency is defeat.

Off course the AFL is a billion dollar industry and its anti-discrimination push was also designed to protect its assets. However, unlike our political leaders they had the insight to acknowledge that racism is bad for business.

Under Howard it was merely a chapter in his ongoing culture wars and its ramifications had no economic bite. What the Indian student crisis shows us is that the stigma of racism, bred by those Howard years, could now lead to real damages to our economy and international standing.

The recent announcement by Victoria's Attorney General Rob Hulls to push for tougher sentences for hate crimes is one positive step.

However, for it to be viewed as something more than a response to the international backlash, our leaders and police officers need to have a frank and open conversation about racism without being nervous or defensive.

Only through this will our society evolve and live up to its multicultural ideals. By choosing to ignore it our defence of our country's much touted tolerance will sound increasingly hollow at home and abroad.

Saeed SaeedSaeed Saeed is a journalist for Leader Newspapers.


Topic tags: saaed saeed, racism, indian student bashing, clare werbeloff, Sourabh Sharma, Sravan Kumar Theerthala



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Existing comments

This race issue never goes away. Maybe that tells us something, that members of a particular human group, racial, cultural, religious or whatever, are genetically wired by evolution to prefer the company of other people of the same group and to be wary of other groups. Maybe this is seen in multi-racial societies like Australia where migrant groups instantly flock together into groups and the host population is on edge about this. Maybe this is natural and to be expected.

The great Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas, held that it was entirely natural for people of different groups - family, community, nation, etc. - to prefer one another's company and to feel a greater sense of bonding with and loyalty to one another. In no way does this natural, wired inclination involve a belief that people outside "my" group are inferior. They are just different, not part of "my" group. If this is indeed the case it raises a huge question mark over the long-term natural viability of multi-racial and multi-cultural societies.

It needs to be acknowledged, too, that western liberal societies like Australia, whatever tensions they may harbour, deal with diversity much better than other models of society, eg., Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, Palestine, the Balkans, etc., where ethnic or religious animosities frequently spills over into violence. We need to keep a balanced perspective.

Sylvester | 10 June 2009  

Acronyms or abbreviations such as "AFL" are unhelpful to interested readers who live elsewhere than in Australia.

R Tait | 10 June 2009  

From my conversations with Indian students (I meet many as part of my work duties) they recognise that virtually all of these attacks are by 'Lebanese youth'; which does bring up an interesting conundrum - how does society deal with racism when it is one apparent victimised minority (in their own minds at least in the case of Lebanese male youth) that is committing 'racist' attacks on another group?

As well, India itself is not a country free from racism - ask any 'black' South Indian how they are treated by Northern Indian society or, of course, consider the fate of the Dalit.

It is very generous of Saeed to state that the police were not "totally" to blame.

I also would not concede that Clare Werbeloff was idolised - the general response seemed more to be that she was a publicity seeking airhead.

So before we once again self-flagellate about what a racist country 'White' Australia is we should draw a deep breath and consider that dealing with issues of racism and religious division in a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic community is just as difficult for us as it is for our friends in India and other nations with diverse communities.

chris gow | 10 June 2009  

It still amazes me that people buy Obama's claim that he never heard Wright spew out any of his racist hate, even after 20 years of attending his church. I doubt that a white candidate who had attended a similarly racist organisation, like the KKK, would have been believed by the media and given a free pass. Racism in reverse?

Patrick James | 10 June 2009  

Nobody is calling for self-flagellation or the belief that other ethnically diverse nations manage racism better than Australia. However it is self-righteous and evasive to claim that Australia handles ethnic and religious diversity better than other nations.

Evasive because it provides an excuse to deny the reality of racism in Australia. In Cronulla, Lebanese descent youth; a few months ago in suburban Melbourne, Sudanese refugees; now, Indian students; perennially, Indigenous Australians. The fact that specific ethnic groups can be identified as targets of periodic street violence is proof enough that we do not adequately manage racism in Australia.

As a billion-dollar industry, the Australian Football League demonstrated good business sense. As an Australian sporting organisation, it demonstrated the maturity to recognise you can't fight racism by denying it.

The sanctimonious words from politicians about these attacks on Indian students are always quickly followed by expression of concern for the multi-billion dollar education export industry.

Perhaps if Australia were to suffer the loss of that income, politicians would get their heads out of the sand and enact legislation with sufficient teeth to prevent racist violence if, as a nation, we can't develop beyond our present smallness of mind and spirit.

Ian Fraser | 10 June 2009  

Certainly some of the attacks are deplorably racist and all of them must be prevented. But we are not a racist or ethnically discriminatory society - not in the way that we were (rather naively) 60 years ago. All of US (the people who read) are now well used to meeting people from ethnic backgrounds different from our own - at work, at parent nights, as neighbours, in the shops, and wherever else we turn. And all of US now know that associating with people from different backgrounds doesn't hurt.

The fact remains that have-nots console themselves with the fact that they are Jets and not Sharks (or something), and make and savour meals out of grievances that are sometimes real, sometimes imagined and sometimes based on distorted perceptions of history. Saeed is there with the best (or worst) of them when he blames Howard for such racism as there is when he ought to be blaming Adam.

Let him assess the origins of people who were admitted to Australia in the Howard years, and let him read Barry Cohen's May 26 piece in The Australian.


Jim McGrath | 10 June 2009  

Sylvester, what do you mean when you say we are "genetically wired"? That isn't usually an acceptable excuse for bad behavior. It seems to me that the lesson of the New Testament is that you love your neighbour and try and build your community on that principle too.

Brian Dethridge | 11 June 2009  

It is a fallacy to assume that the conflicts between 'black' south Indians and 'white' north Indians in India is a racist tendency. To begin with India never considered the 'blacks' and the 'whites' as different races. They were merely two sections of the same people following the same culture and traditions and same religious contexts for thousands of years until someone developed the Aryan Invasion Theory for their economic and hegemonic needs!

While the recent spate of violence against Indians is condemnable, the leadership in Australia would do well to appeal to the Aussies to recall their civility and conduct themselves. It is important to understand that 'race' is only skin deep. Beyond that we are all human beings. For the time being the Aussie Govt is bound to provide security to the tens of thousands of Indian students who contribute to the education industry of Australia. While the Indians be assertive but not necessarily violent except in self defence. That alone is Dharma!

Siva | 11 June 2009  

This sort of article and accompanying discussion certainly leave unanswered, and sadly often unasked, many pertinent questions, do they not? To me, some questions particularly relevant here would be: why is it that whenever one group, here labelled "Lebanese", attacks another group, labelled "Indian Students", the commentariat immediately declares "Australians" are racist? or, why are Lebanese and Indians suddenly at war with one another, here in Australia? or how many of those Indian students our television shows angrily roaming the streets of Melbourne and Sydney are in fact Indian students?

We need answers to questions such as these before we go into paroxysms of angst that Australians - all Australians? - are racist.

John Sabine | 11 June 2009  

Thanks for the interesting feedback. It was not the intention of this article to self-flagellate. What I was trying to say is that we should discuss racism because it undoubtedly occurs in any country with a big multicultural mix. I think that by us acting defensively about this issue compounds the problem. I think by us having an ongoing honest debate as a society about racism is a good thing. I think we should get out of this mentality of "are we racist or not?" and view the discussion as "how can we tackle racism proactively". This kind of discussion is forward thinking and stops the discussion from turning into stodgy angst ridden accusations and counter accusations.

Saeed Saeed | 11 June 2009  

Looks like the good old Australian history is repeating itself again eh? E.g. Old England's attitude towards racism is still showing in general attitudes of modern day Aussies! This poor old country of ours is still living in the 20th Century! The Dark Ages! Australia will never come out on top!

Floyd | 11 June 2009  

I'm confused. I don't deny that these attacks happened but I really struggle with whether we really are racists. Contrast the following two ABC reports:



Paul Cutler | 11 June 2009  

Brian: What I mean when I say that we are 'genetically wired' is that we have an innate preference for our own groups, above all, our families, but other groups as well. Such preference is not 'bad behaviour' but rooted in our human nature.

The New Testament requires us to love our neighbour who is everybody that crosses our path but the obligation is the more intense the closer my neighbour is to me. This is only natural and, therefore, reasonable, as Thomas Aquinas taught. I have a greater obligation in charity to my parents than to the man presenting the nightly news on TV.

Sylvester | 12 June 2009  

I am really hoping someone knows of groups that go into schools to help students and parents re racism. I hope the cost is not much because I am about to write a letter to a secondary school in Narre Warren which had a racist incident that concerns me. I work with the Afghani Hazara group with enculturation and two of those families children were involved. I want to write in the letter some suggestions of groups they could contact to come into the school and work with students and parents on this issue. Just a list of any group I could suggest the school contacts would be much appreciated.

Norah with all body parts crossed!!

Norah McCluskey | 17 August 2010  

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