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The challenge of Social Cohesion

Race Race Discrimination

Speech given at the ANU Research School of Psychology Annual Lecture

We live in interesting times. We live in times when tolerance and harmony are becoming elusive, when intolerance and division are becoming the norm.

In the United States, Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for President – having called for a wall to be built along the American border with Mexico, and having proposed a ban on Muslims entering the country. For the past two years, since the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, racial strife has afflicted many cities across America – protests, civil unrest and sometimes violent confrontations have occurred with unerring frequency.

In Britain, we’ve seen Brexit. Many of those voting for an exit from the European Union were motivated by a desire for Britain to reclaim its sovereignty on matters of immigration. There was a steep rise in hate crimes tied to the Brexit vote. According to authorities, there were more than 3000 allegations of hate crimes made to UK police in the week before and after the 23 June vote. That’s a 42 per cent spike compared to the previous year.

In France, mayors from about 30 French towns along the sun-soaked Riviera have enforced a ban on the burkini. Many have said they will refuse to accept a recent ruling by the Council of State, France’s highest administrative court, that held the ban to be unconstitutional.

Elsewhere in Europe, social anxiety and cultural fear can be clearly detected. In Austria, there will be a re-run of its presidential election, which in May almost saw the far-right Freedom Party candidate Gerhart Holzinger claim victory. In Germany, for much of this year, the far-right Alternative for Germany party has been polling well above 15 per cent. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom is leading the polls, and is pledging to ban all Islamic symbols and mosques. Across Scandinavia, anti-immigrant far-right parties have been growing in popularity, and are even partners in coalition governments.

And, of course, we have seen far-right political organisations emerge, or re-emerge, here in Australia. During the past two years, protest movements targeting Islam have received significant media attention. Our new parliament contains a number of senators who support a ban on Muslim immigration, the establishment of a Royal Commission into Islam, and the abolition of the Racial Discrimination Act in its entirety.

These, then, are challenging times for liberal democracies. We are seeing social cohesion being tested across continents. Is it possible for democratic societies to contain diverse populations while still maintaining harmony? What are the prospects for multicultural acceptance and liberal integration? And is it possible to have a meaningful sense of national identity, based on history and tradition, but which leaves room for cultural diversity?

These are some of the questions I will deal with today. But first let’s consider in more detail the concept of social cohesion.

Social cohesion

The concept of social cohesion has a relatively recent history. It is true, of course, that scholars have long considered the question of what holds groups together – the question of conflict and consensus. Hobbes, for example, wrote about ‘concord’ and ‘union’. The German sociologist Tonnies wrote about Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft – or community and society. Durkheim wrote about solidarism, anomie and alienation. We have long debated whether it is personal bonds or more impersonal values, which explain why we stick together as groups.

It was during the 1990s that social cohesion gained currency. It emerged amid sociological and policy interest in questions of social order amid globalisation. The movement of people, goods, money and ideas across borders brought change and flux. Inequality was rising; identities were becoming fluid. Old certainties were dying: jobs, industries, cities and even nations that were once there were there no longer. 

According to one early formulation in 1996, by Canadian policy analyst Judith Maxwell, social cohesion ‘involves building shared values and communities of interpretation, reducing disparities in wealth and income, and generally enabling people to have a sense that they are engaged in a common enterprise, facing shared challenges, and that they are members of the same community’. In 1997, a French government commission defined social cohesion as ‘a set of social processes that help instil in individuals the sense of belonging to the same community and the feeling that they are recognised as members of that community’. Similarly, in the same year, a Canadian government committee viewed social cohesion as ‘an ongoing process of developing a community of shared values, shared challenges and equal opportunities […] based on a sense of trust, hope and reciprocity’.

Like all social concepts, there is no one agreed definition of social cohesion. But there are some common elements. Note the emphasis on shared values, common enterprises, shared challenges, a sense of community. And note that, while social cohesion can be regarded as a property – as something a group has or possesses – it can also be understood as a process. It is not simply a result of something, but something for which a community continually strives. Explaining it in more scholarly terms, social cohesion is regarded as an independent variable – something that determines a social result; for others, social cohesion is a dependent variable – it is the result of actions elsewhere.

For our purposes, it is important to simplify – to ensure that social cohesion isn’t just a concept with value only for academic debates. Here in Australia, during the past decade or so, the Scanlon Foundation and Professor Andrew Markus of Monash University have been the pioneers of the study of social cohesion. Since 2007, they have published an annual survey of social cohesion in Australia.

According to Scanlon and Markus, there are five domains of social cohesion in Australia. First, there is belonging – the extent to which people identify with Australian society and have a sense of belonging to it. Second, worth – the satisfaction people have with their present financial situation and their feelings of happiness. Third, social justice and equity – the sense that people have in Australia as a society of opportunity, equality and fairness. Fourth, participation – people’s voluntary work and involvement in political activity. And, fifth, acceptance, rejection and legitimacy – people’s experience of discrimination, and their attitudes towards minorities and newcomers.

Most of us would agree that Australia is, and has been, a highly cohesive society by any objective standard. The Australian experience of mass immigration is an emphatic success story. In every decade since the end of the Second World War, Australia has taken in more than 1 million migrants, and has done so without encountering social discord. We have been an exemplar of nation-building, an immigration nation where multiculturalism is celebrated and accepted as part of our national story.

We do not have frequent outbreaks of civil unrest or racial rioting, whereas that is quite common in many other liberal democracies. The children of migrants outperform the children of Australian-born parents when it concerns education and employment. Eighty percent of those who arrive in Australia as migrants become Australian citizens within a decade. These are all signs of the success that we have had in maintaining social cohesion.

The results of the Scanlon Foundation survey confirm this. The 2015 Scanlon Foundation survey found that 93 per cent of respondents had a ‘sense of belonging in Australia’ either to a ‘great extent’ or ‘some extent’. Only 2 per cent of people strongly disagreed that people of different backgrounds get on well together in their local area. Only 3 per cent strongly disagreed that the mix of different backgrounds improved life in their local area. Indeed, a very high proportion of respondents answered that they believed multiculturalism has been good for the country: 86 per cent.

This level of endorsement of multiculturalism has been highly stable over time – in previous years, it has sat at 84 and 85 per cent in 2013 and 2014, respectively. An index on social cohesion devised by Markus and the Scanlon Foundation has also had scores which have been largely stable, albeit with slight fluctuations from year to year. Between 2010 and 2015, the Scanlon-Monash Index score, across the five different domains of social cohesion, are very close to identical.

Multiculturalism and social cohesion

There are a number of reasons for our success as a cohesive society – in particular, the integration of our diverse population. The first is the nation-building character of our immigration program. In the years immediately following the Second World War, this was articulated very explicitly in terms of ‘populate or perish’. Over time, the rationale has changed, but the nation-building dynamic has remained. Immigration has been understood, for the most part, as something to enrich and strengthen our country.

The nature of our migration intake has also been a factor. Since the late 1970s, there has been an emphasis on skilled migration and English proficiency among migrants. This goes some way to explaining why migrants have, in general, enjoyed strong integration into the labour market.

Our multiculturalism has also been of a certain kind – one anchored in citizenship. In its simplest sense, a policy of multiculturalism means a public recognition of cultural diversity. Yet Australian multiculturalism has been about more than this. It has been about extending the ranks of citizenship to everyone, regardless of their background. It has stood for the proposition that any right to express one’s cultural identity and heritage is balanced by a responsibility to accept Australian liberal democracy. It is expressed through that pledge of loyalty that immigrants take when they become officially Australian citizens: ‘I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people, whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect, and. whose laws I will uphold and obey.’

And, historically, there has been political leadership on all this. For most of the years since the end of the Second World War, matters of immigration have been quarantined from fundamental partisan contest. Since the 1970s, this has also included broad bipartisan support for the policy of multiculturalism. There has been agreement that these matters were too important to leave exposed to the bruising conflict of partisan politics.

There are signs that our social cohesion faces some challenges. A recent survey of 10,000 respondents by Andrew Markus, supplementing the annual Scanlon Foundation social cohesion survey, found a number of groups that experienced significantly higher level of discrimination compared to the general population.

For example, 51 per cent of Muslim Australians born in Australia reported experiencing discrimination over the past 12 months. According to Markus, who conducted extensive focus group research in addition to quantitative surveys, ‘Muslim respondents indicated concern at what they saw as deterioration in relations, linked to the actions of politicians who they saw as inciting division within the community, and at much of the Australian media which was seen as biased and ill-informed in much of its coverage’. It is concerning that there is a small minority within the Muslim Australian population that does not appear to be positive in outlook or who identify with Australia. While close to 75 per cent of Muslim Australians indicated they had a sense of belonging in Australia to a ‘great’ or ‘moderate’ extent, 14 per cent indicated they did not know or declined to answer.

This recent research found a strikingly high level of discrimination experienced by those of African backgrounds.  For example, 77 per cent of those born in South Sudan, 75 per cent of those born in Zimbabwe, 67 per cent of those born in Kenya and 60 per cent of those born in Ethiopia reported they had experienced discrimination over the last 12 months. The research also indicated that those born in South Sudan had reported markedly higher levels of discrimination in areas including employment, property damage and physical attack.

In addition, Markus made some notable findings about the attitudes of second- and third-generation Australians and their attitudes towards cultural diversity and immigration. They found that when asked what they least like about Australia, 19 per cent of third generation Australians – that is, those born in Australia of parents who were both born in Australia – indicated ‘too much immigration’. Based on an Ethnic and Cultural Tolerance scale developed for the study, Markus found that 29 per cent of third-generation Australians obtained low scores for tolerance.

Taking a step back from these findings, we might say there are three significant threats to Australian social cohesion at the moment.

First, there is an undoubted danger posed by extremism invoking radical or fundamental interpretations of Islam. There are elements seeking to exploit the alienation and anger of young people, by turning them against Australian society. These Islamist extremist elements, it must be said, represent a small minority among Muslim Australians, the vast majority of whom are law-abiding members of our society, and whom identify with Australia. We should not be judging the entire population of Muslim Australians based on the beliefs and actions of a few. But, clearly, the threats posed by extremists can undermine our social trust and multicultural harmony.

Second, we have seen the re-emergence of extremist nationalism. For close to two decades, such extremist nationalism has operated largely underground. Yet its adherents have now been emboldened to be active in open view and in public forums. They have been particularly virulent within social media channels, where they spew their hateful messages and seek to intimidate others. Their rhetoric is often inspired by white nationalist movements in the United States and Europe, which describe multiculturalism as a form of ‘white genocide’, and which advocate ethnic and racial purity. These are frequently groups that express sympathy for neo-Nazi ideas and racial violence.

Third, there is perhaps the greatest danger: complacency. We are entitled to take pride in our success as a multicultural nation. But we must see this as an achievement to be protected from social anxieties and cultural fears. More broadly, as a society we can sometimes turn a blind eye systemic racism and disadvantage, especially that which affects Indigenous people. As recent protests in Kalgoorlie and the treatment of Indigenous youth in Northern Territory juvenile detention facilities demonstrate, these are issues that remain unresolved.

Those in our public life have a special responsibility. I welcome the bipartisan support within the parliament for a statement on racial tolerance and non-discrimination. This week, the Prime Minister agreed to move a motion suggested by the Opposition Leader to reaffirm the parliament’s commitment, first made in 1996, ‘to the right of all Australians to enjoy equal rights and be treated with equal respect, regardless of race, colour, creed or origin’.

Our political leaders have a responsibility to set the tone for our society – a tone of civility and respect, of tolerance and acceptance. Any political licensing of fear and division may have grave consequences for our social fabric. Because political rhetoric isn’t about mere words. As we all know, words can have consequences. People can act on them. History teaches us that it is a short step from humiliating or dehumanising groups to inflicting violence upon them – especially when racial differences are involved. There is too much at stake for us to be indifferent to the potential consequences of unleashing hatred and bigotry.

Racial Discrimination Act

For most of the past three years, we have had constant debate about section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. This is the section which makes it unlawful to do an act that is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate someone because of their race. This week in Parliament, there has been a push to amend section 18C of the Act, with a number of senators seeking to delete the words ‘offend’ and ‘insult’ from the section.

In 2014, of course, the federal government did attempt to repeal section 18C, following an election pledge to do so. The proposed legislative change was abandoned after widespread public opposition to the government’s proposal. One Fairfax poll in March 2014 found that 88 per cent of people agreed that it should remain unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate someone because of their race. Other research indicated very strong majority support for the retention of the current section.

In one sense, the debate about section 18C has already been had – and has already been resolved. The Government has indicated it has no intention of revisiting the issue. Within the new Parliament, it is unlikely that any proposed amendment will succeed. And yet, agitation over the legislation continues, and will likely do so for the life of this Parliament.

As I have said consistently during the past three years, there is no case for changing section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. The law should remain in its current form. Even so, nothing in a democracy is ever off limits from debate. Clearly, there is renewed public interest about the Act. We can only hope that any public discussion of the Act is based on an accurate understanding of what it means and how it operates. This begins with understanding the history of section 18C.

The section was introduced to the Act in 1995. It came in response to the recommendations of three major reports and inquiries: the National Inquiry into Racist Violence, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the Australian Law Reform Commission’s report into multiculturalism and the law. These inquiries found that targets of racist violence or harassment had little recourse to existing civil remedies under common law. While the Racial Discrimination Act was introduced in 1975, until 1995 it did not contain provisions covering acts of racial hatred in public.

The rationale for section 18C was clear from the outset. Racial vilification provisions were needed because racial abuse and harassment could escalate to racial violence. It was important that the law step in. It is essential that the law continues to play this role. The law reflects our values as a society; it sets a standard for acceptable behaviour. If, as a society, we repudiate racism, it is only right to have laws that express that commitment.

In philosophical terms, the current law is a recognition that acts of racial hatred may inflict harms on certain people.

There are three ways of understanding harm. One is the personal harm that can take place when someone is racially abused or vilified. There is a significant body of research, done in particular with respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia, which demonstrates the links of being subjected to racial abuse on a regular basis and poorer health outcomes, whether that is physical health or mental health.

There are also social harms associated with racial vilification. Racism undermines our cohesion as a multicultural society. It generates fear, suspicion and distrust. It feeds conflict and ugliness. If left unchecked, it can embolden or validate discrimination. These are harms that can be experienced by many in our society. It is not something that can be dismissed as affecting just a tiny fraction of Australians – not when we are so diverse. Given that almost half of our population was either born overseas or has a parent that was born overseas, the experience of racial vilification is something that can affect a great deal of people in our community.

The third kind of harm is the civic harm involved in hate speech. By civic harm, I mean that hate speech can offend the expectation and the entitlement that every member of our society should have to being treated equally. It can damage our sense of assurance that we can all go about our business and not have to apprehend that we will be subject to abuse, hatred or intimidation. It damages our decency as a society.

Many of the Act’s critics have said that section 18C goes too far – that it unreasonably restricts freedom of speech, and is too broad in its scope. I would like here to answer some of the questions frequently raised about this provision of the RDA and free speech.

Does section 18C unjustly restrict free speech?
Section 18C of the Act is accompanied by section 18D, which protects any fair comment or reporting on a matter of public interest, and any sentiment expressed ‘in the course of any statement, publication, discussion or debate made or held for any genuine academic, artistic or scientific purpose’. Provided something is done reasonably and in good faith, any fair comment or public discussion will be exempt from being in breach of section 18C. The Racial Discrimination Act is one of the few legislative instruments in Australian law that contains an explicit protection of free speech. It has struck a balance between freedom of expression and freedom from racial vilification. Given the broad protection of free speech in section 18D, we are entitled to ask, ‘What is it that people want to say, which they can’t already say?’

Has section 18D actually worked in practice?
Yes. There have been numerous cases considered by the courts, where something has caused racial offence, insult, humiliation or intimidation, but has been held to enjoy the protection of section 18D. For example, in the case of Bropho, cartoons published in the West Australian, about which Aboriginal people had complained, were deemed to have been artistic work and fair comment enjoying the exemption of section 18D. The section has also prevailed in the Kelly-Country v Beers case involving a satirical performer who purported to be an Aboriginal person called ‘King Billy Coke Bottle’. In that case, the court noted that while the act may have been offensive or insulting, but it fell within the category of artistic work protected by section 18D.

But don’t we have a right to express free speech, regardless of whether it’s racist?
No right or freedom is ever absolute. Where acts impinge upon the rights and freedoms of others, it is only right that we hold it to account. We accept many limitations of what people can say – consider the limitations imposed by national security laws, defamation laws, trade practices laws, or criminal summary offence laws. We do so because one right is always balanced against other rights. Laws against racial vilification reflect our society’s commitment to civility, respect and tolerance. Even if we were to accept that there is a right to be a bigot, that must never outweigh a right to be free from bigotry’s effects.

Why should there be a law against merely offending or insulting someone?
This is one frequent confusion about section 18C. It is concerned with acts that offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate because of someone’s race or ethnicity. This is a different thing to acts that merely offend or insult. There is a difference between someone insulting you or offending you because you support a certain football team or because of your political ideology. That’s because racial offence and racial insult can strike at the heart of a person’s being and their dignity, the part of their identity that comes from their background and ancestry. Having a law that covers acts that offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate because of race is aimed at nipping racial hatred in the bud – at preventing it from escalating into acts that cause graver harm.

Hasn’t section 18C in practice seen trivial cases reach court?
The Australian Human Rights Commission, as the body receiving complaints about racial vilification, will decline complaints that are trivial, misconceived or lacking in substance. The typical cases involving section 18C that courts have considered indicate the kind of racial hatred that attracts the attention of the law. These include cases where Aboriginal people have been described as “criminal trash” and “scum” that should be used as landfill (Clarke v Nationwide News), where a man was verbally abused in a building foyer and called a ‘Singaporean prick’ and told to go back to Singapore (Kanapathy v In De Braekt), or where a website published material denying the Holocaust and expressing virulent anti-Semitism (Jones v Toben).

But don’t we go too far if section 18C makes racial vilification a crime?
Section 18C does not make racial hatred a crime. It is a civil provision, not a criminal one. Racial vilification is not made a criminal offence under the Racial Discrimination Act. All the Act does is enable someone to lodge a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission, which conciliates complaints. Only when conciliation fails may someone take a matter to a federal court. No one can be convicted for breaching the Act, or be criminally prosecuted for racial vilification.

Shouldn’t section 18C avoid protecting subjective hurt feelings?
The courts have held that the standard to be met for section 18C to be contravened is conduct that has ‘profound and serious effects’, which are ‘not be liked to mere slights’. The test for whether an act breaches section 18C is also an objective one. The provision makes it unlawful to do an act that is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate on the grounds of race and ethnicity. The fact that someone feels they have been racially offended, insulted, intimidated or humiliated is not enough to mean that there has been something unlawful. Whether section 18C has been contravened is judged by a court according to the reasonable person of the target ethnic or racial group.

Doesn’t section 18C just lead to court litigation rather than conciliation?
Most complaints under section 18C do not reach court. The majority of complaints are successfully conciliated by the Australian Human Rights Commission. Many are resolved with apologies; others involve respondents agreeing to action such as undertaking cultural training or education. In the year 2015-16, the Commission finalised 86 complaints about racial hatred. The majority were resolved by conciliation. In that year, only one complaint about racial hatred, that is section 18C, proceeded to court.

Those, then, are some of the facts about section 18C and how it operates. It is difficult to see exactly how it is that it poses the kind of threat to liberal democracy and free speech that warrants it being the most pressing political issue to be debated during the first week of the 45th Commonwealth Parliament.

Cultivating social cohesion: legal and non-legal means

It should go without saying that we cannot rely upon legislation – and legislation alone – to safeguard our social cohesion. We cannot realistically expect the law to perform that function. The law is better to equipped to deal with symptoms rather than causes. We cannot legislate for the conditions of social trust and belonging. Social cohesion cannot be secured solely by the state, through its laws. Rather, it is a process that also makes demands on civil society. The work of social cohesion is something we conduct through our families, our work, our churches, our sporting clubs, our neighbourhoods.

Most reasonable people would accept that the law has an important role to play in maintaining social cohesion. As I have already noted, the law has an expressive power. It sends signals to society about what is acceptable and what is not. If there are not laws in place that hold racial discrimination and racial hatred to account, the signal may be sent that such things should be tolerated or accepted. You might say that laws have a significant psychological effect on people, an effect that we shouldn’t underestimate. Ask anyone who has experienced racism, and they will tell you that it makes a difference having the law on your side – even if a law in and of itself cannot eradicate racism.

For legal instruments to have their desired effect, however, they need to be supported by non-legislative means. If we wish to strengthen social cohesion or if we wish to combat racism, we must have dedicated efforts to do so beyond legislation.

Here, I would like to reflect on some of the educational work that the Australian Human Rights Commission has pursued through the National Anti-Racism Strategy. This is a strategy that has been in place since 2012. The strategy aims to improve public understanding of racism, and to empower Australians to respond to prejudice and discrimination. Educational work conducted as part of the strategy covers the workplace, schools, sport, public services and the internet. There has, for example, been curricular material developed for primary and high school students in history and physical education, as well as guidance for employers on dealing with cultural diversity in their workplaces. We have also been putting the finishing touches on resources for early childhood educators.

The ‘Racism. It Stops with Me’ campaign is also part of this strategy. It invites individuals and organisations to pledge a stand against racism. Since 2012, more than 420 organisations across the country have been formal supporters of the campaign. Some express their support through public events; some use the campaign as an opportunity to begin systemic change in their organisation.

That is because organisations join the campaign for different reasons. Some organisations join because of local incidents involving bigotry and hatred. In country Victoria, Bendigo council supported the campaign as part of the community’s response to anti-Muslim protests over the building of a mosque in the town. In the case of Ventura Bus Lines, the company responded to a much publicised incident on one of its buses in Melbourne, where a passenger racially abused and threatened another passenger who had been singing a song in French: as part of its support for ‘Racism. It Stops with Me’, the company introduced new training for bus drivers about how to deal with racist abuse. Other organisations, such as the 20-odd universities across the country who are campaign members, join because they believe it is a powerful way to build a more welcoming atmosphere within their organisation. Whatever the context, membership of the campaign is one way of expressing public commitment to racial tolerance and cultural harmony.

The efforts of the campaign, however, underline one thing. It is important – vitally important – that we consider our personal and organizational responsibility to stand up to racism and to make our communities better places. When racism occurs, it does damage: to the individuals who experience it, but also to our society. Every time an act of prejudice or discrimination goes unchallenged, there is the danger that someone may feel empowered to deal out more of it.

More generally, there remains the challenge of resisting complacency. Casual and everyday forms of racism may appear at best to be niggling complaints about a joke here, or an off-handed remark there. The subtle sideways glance, or the soft bigotry of low expectations may not appear worthy of our attention. But if we are not careful, prejudice and intolerance can quickly escalate. Low-level racism can give licence to something more serious. There is, you might say, the banality of racism. Fighting it can more often than not mean having an important conversation with a friend or someone in your family – as opposed to confronting a hostile stranger.

Conclusion

Of course, very often, racism does take the form of a hostile stranger. In her recently published memoir, The Hate Race, Maxine Beneba Clarke, who is of Afro-Caribbean descent, writes of walking her five month-old baby in a pram in Melbourne’s suburbs, when a white ute pulls up alongside her:

Go on, fuck off. You make me sick, you fucken black slut. Go drown your kid. You should go drown your fucken kid. Fuck off will you.

Racism is real; it exists. And it is one of the threats to our social cohesion. Yet we can often struggle to deal with it.

In cases like overt racist abuse – like the example of Clarke and her abuser in the white ute – few except racists would decline to denounce it. Racism there is black and white. It is one reason why, whenever racism is given media coverage, it usually involves a nasty incident on a bus or train, where the perpetrator can stand to be condemned for their viciousness. Where there is no doubt about the disgusting nature of racial hatred.

But take away some of the extreme hatred, show racism in its more subtle or insidious forms, and our response can be different. Whether it is the rehearsal of racial stereotypes, or acts of racism that involves anything less than full-blown malice, there can quickly emerge a defensiveness about race. Sometimes, you get the impression in public debate that it is a worse offence to call someone or something racist than it is to do something that is racist. 

Explaining this is perhaps another subject for another lecture. But I suspect it points to the role of social power in any public debate about race. Who gets to define what is racist? Can racism ever truly be understood if one has never experienced it? What if one experiences life from a relative position of privilege or power? Abraham Lincoln said, ‘Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.’ If Lincoln was right, maybe it is a test of a society’s character to see how its more powerful and privileged members treat those less powerful and privileged. In a multicultural society, social cohesion may demand more generosity and understanding than what some may be prepared to give.

Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner