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Institutional racism

Race Discrimination

Keynote speech at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation’s Institutional Racism conference
1 November 2017, Melbourne
Edited transcript

To Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Gary Smith, thank you for the welcome, and thank you Professor Yin Paradies for all your work on race relations in Australia. This is an important conference. It comes at an important time. It is timely not only because of 50 years of institutional racism being in our lexicon or vocabulary, but also because the world is thinking very hard about race relations in the face of resurgent nationalism and white supremacy. We are seeing this in force in the United States, in Europe, and unfortunately here as well, in Australia, to some degree.

Researchers have an important role to play in how we respond to racism in its many forms. This would be my challenge to delegates here over the next few days: to remember that your research has practical power. This is one of the great strengths of the Alfred Deakin Institute: its work is connected with policy and developments in society. Your work in clarifying concepts, in interrogating issues, must have some bearing on what policymakers do and on how people talk and think about issues in their everyday lives. I can't emphasise how urgent this task is at the moment on race relations in Australia.

As Professor Mansouri mentioned, yesterday marked the 42nd anniversary of the Racial Discrimination Act coming into effect in Australia. For those who are international visitors, the Racial Discrimination Act is Australia's federal legislation on racial discrimination. It's our society's official statement rejecting discrimination and hatred based on race, and we had the opportunity in Sydney to reflect precisely on the question that you raise in this conference: whether we have come closer to realising racial equity, or whether we are still in a society where racial injustice has been intensified.

It's not always easy or comfortable to hold a mirror up to our society on such questions, but it’s vital that we are honest and open in doing so. It's fair to say that the results over the last 40 or 50 years has been mixed. We have made progress – there's no doubt about that – but there's still a long way to go.

Today I'd like to touch on four aspects of racism in Australian society which I hope may inform you in your deliberations over the next three days. I'd like to talk about how challenging it is for us as a society to talk about racism, both in general terms but specifically on institutional racism. Part of that also involves the challenge for those involved in anti-racism to speak a language that is calibrated to winning over others. I also want to reflect a little on the Racial Discrimination Act and its importance in combatting racism today. Then I want to talk about how we conduct conversations about colour – in particular, colour-blindness and the need for more bracing conversations about race in a multicultural society. I'll add, as well, some reflections about identity politics which has attracted a great deal of commentary in recent months as people reflect on how to respond to resurgent far-right nationalist populism. But first some reflections on our historical progress on race relations.

From 1967 to 2017: the persistence of institutional racism

In thinking about 50 years, I naturally turn my mind back to what Australia in 1967 would have looked like. This was a very different Australia to the one we inhabit in 2017. The Australia of 1967 was still one which had a White Australia policy; that policy was not yet fully dismantled. Nineteen sixty-seven was the year we had the referendum which led to Aboriginal people being counted for the first time in the reckoning of the Australian population.

Much has changed since 1967. We know, of course, that the White Australia policy was fully dismantled by the 1970s. Following that, we saw the influx of non-European migration taking place in significant numbers for the first time in the 20th century. We saw the advent, in time, of a multicultural Australia. Today, we are a country that is defined, in part, by our diverse nature and character.

Contrary to what some may say in our public or media debates, Australians are very comfortable with our cultural diversity. This is what the research tells us consistently. It says to us that there is a broad middle-ground that believes that multiculturalism is good for the country. Moreover, the majority of Australians are comfortable with the rate of immigration.

This is the reverse of what we see in other similar liberal democracies – such as the United States, the UK or those in Europe. In such places, you would find perhaps two-thirds or a majority of the population being hostile to immigration. Here, you have about 60 per cent who believe the rate of immigration today is about right or too low. You have 83 per cent, based on the Scanlon Foundation's research last year, who say that multiculturalism is good for the country. That's not a one-off finding. The finding the previous year was 84 per cent. The year before that was 85 per cent. As social scientists, you would know there are very few questions that could garner a response in the magnitude beyond 80 per cent on any question affecting social issues.

This evidence, for me, is an emphatic affirmation of our progress. This is not an Australia many would have contemplated in 1967, but it is an Australia that enjoys widespread harmony and cohesion. That is an achievement that does warrant recognition.

Even so, racism persists – and it persists in a serious way. We may have eliminated racism from many formal institutional settings in Australian life but that hasn't eliminated all forms of racism. We know, for example, that there remain some very explicit institutional expressions of racism, or, at the very least, institutional sanctioning of racism. The constitution still has two clauses that permit racial discrimination. Section 51 (xxvi) gives the Commonwealth a head of power to make laws with respect to any race of people, whether that is for their benefit or detriment. Section 25 of the constitution allows for people to be potentially disqualified from voting in state elections because of their race. We cannot pretend that we have expunged racism from the formal structures and institutions of Australian society.

That's not even to start with what is the topic of this conference – and that's the rules, the processes, the practices, the attitudes, the assumptions, the habits, the behaviours that amount to racial discrimination through prejudice and stereotyping. If I may, very quickly, go through some of the evidence of ongoing institutional racism in Australia today.

I've already mentioned the Australian Constitution. If we were to look at the experience of First Peoples here in Australia – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – in places like the justice system, we find plentiful evidence of disadvantage and institutional racism. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people are about 17 times more likely to be involved in the justice system than their peers, and by that I mean incarceration. Despite making up just three per cent of the general population, about one quarter of Australia's prison population is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. That cannot be explained by anything like criminality that is associated with a particular background. It can't be explained away by just socio-economic location. It is indicative of some institutional racism.

If you look at health, we know that the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians remains about a decade – again, an indication of the historical legacy of dispossession and racism; a situation that is quite deplorable in what is an advanced and prosperous liberal democracy. Just recently, there was a damning report conducted by the Anti-Discrimination Commission in Queensland, which found high to extreme levels of institutional racism within Queensland's sixteen public hospital and health services. All of the sixteen services in Queensland were rated with 'high' levels of institutional racism. Ten were rated as having 'extreme' levels of institutional racism.

You'll be familiar, many of you, as well, with the Federal Court's finding late last year that the State of Queensland had breached the Racial Discrimination Act in Palm Island. Again, an indication of how systemic and institutional racism exists within policing in Australia. Here in Victoria, in recent years, we know that there have been efforts to identify and to remedy institutional and structural racism within community policing, particularly as it affects African communities.

If we look at the experience of those from migrant and multicultural backgrounds more broadly, we again find some evidence of institutional racism being potentially at play. In general terms, of course, Australian society is marked by a high level of social mobility, certainly when you compare our society with others. The children of migrants in Australia on average outperform the children of Australia-born parents when it comes to educational attainment or labour market participation. If we were to look at the prize-winning students graduating from our universities, such as Deakin, or if we were to look at our top-performing students in high schools across the country, you would find no issue with cultural diversity being represented. If anything, cultural diversity is being overrepresented. There are many stories of 'model minority' students thriving and flourishing in our education system.

But yet if we were to look at whether mobility has played out within our organisations and institutions, particularly in leadership, you would not find such diversity yet being reflected.

Last year, we published research conducted in partnership with a number of organisations, which provided a snapshot of what senior leadership in Australian institutions and organisations looks like. We looked at the ASX 200 cohort of CEOs, the heads of federal and state government departments, the federal parliament, including the federal ministry, the vice-chancellors of Australia's universities.

We found a dramatic underrepresentation of cultural diversity. About 68 per cent of the general population has an Anglo-Celtic background, with about 20 per cent having a European cultural background, 11 per cent having a non-European background and 3 per cent having an Indigenous background. However, we found that in those cohorts there is no more than 5 per cent in any one sector that has a non-European or Indigenous background. The ASX 200 was the best performing cohort, with 5 per cent. That figure got lower if you look at the parliament, the heads of government departments, if you look at university vice-chancellors.

Some of this may well reflect time, and the lag between achievement in schools and universities and the time it takes for talent to come through the ranks. But it may also well reflect bias and structural barriers which would associate with institutional racism.

How we talk about racism

How do we talk about racism? What do we mean by racism? This is perhaps one background challenge to even talking about institutional racism today. The conversation we'll have in this room, I suspect, is an infinitely more sophisticated conversation than what people outside might have on racism.

Without making too much of a caricature, I would say that for many people, racism means a very particular thing. It's not what we would understand as researchers or those who reflect deeply about racism. Namely, the bar is set very high within public discourse on what constitutes racism. In the minds of many people, racism is only racism when it involves a belief in the superiority of one race over others. Something is only really racist if it involves an expression or outburst of some kind: nasty abuse, violent vilification, physical assault, the Ku Klux Klan. For many, this is what racism looks like, and anything short of that severity of racial superiority or doctrine is not truly or really racism.

This would help explain one curious feature of Australian public debate. Within media coverage of race issues, people often ask the question, ‘Is Australia a racist country?’ Whenever there is a major public controversy involving race, this question will be posed. For some, any suggestion that racism even exists in Australian society is taken as a grave insult. This is in part because racism is defined in the minds of so many people in such a way as to be synonymous with white supremacists and white nationalists.

But what if we weren't to define racism in this way in our public discourse? What if we were to recognise that racism may include conduct and attitudes that are less extreme? The British writer Reni Eddo-Lodge expressed this rather eloquently in her recent book:

If all racism was as easy to spot and denounce as white extremism is, the task of the anti-racist would be simple. But racism thrives in places where those in charge do not align themselves with white extremist politics. The problem must run deeper. We tell ourselves that good people can't be racist. We seem to think that true racism only exists in the hearts of evil people. We tell ourselves that racism is about moral values when instead it is about the survival strategy of systemic power. When a large proportion of the population votes for politicians and political efforts that explicitly use racism as a campaigning tool, we tell ourselves that such huge sections of the electorate simply cannot be racist as that would render them heartless monsters. But this isn't about good and bad people.

This is worth reflecting on. If we don't reduce racism to a matter of good and bad people – racists bad, anti-racists or non-racists good – it would mean a few things.

It would first mean that people wouldn't be caught up focussing only on intention, or motive. Too often people can excuse or justify an act or a state of affairs by explaining away that there was no malice involved. People can forget that racism is as much about impact as it is about intent. Just because someone doesn't have evil in their heart doesn't mean that another person wasn't harmed by a racist act or belief.

Second, it would mean that we would be able to see that in addition to extremist racism, there can be structural and institutional racism – a more banal form of racism, one that can appear with the face of respectability. It doesn't need to involve physical violence or threatening abuse. It can be perpetrated perfectly well, with a pleasant smile, and with good manners. Structural racism needn't involve people signing up to racist beliefs or acting as boors. Prejudice, ignorance, thoughtless, indifference – these all add up to what we would understand as racism.

The Racial Discrimination Act

Let me reflect now on the Racial Discrimination Act and how we respond to racism, as the law must play a central role in responding to racism, or protecting people against racism. If we were to survey the political debate of the last few years, I can think of few legislative provisions that have been debated as extensively as section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

I'd like to reflect on some of the parliamentary debate and developments that have occurred this year, or in the past 12 months, about the Act. We did see a parliamentary inquiry conclude earlier this year about the Racial Discrimination Act and freedom of speech. We also saw a bill introduced in the parliament to amend the Act, though that bill was voted down in the Senate in March.

Here's a quick recap for those who may need some reminding of the debate about section 18C. This is the section which makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate someone or a group of people because of their race. According to those supporting legislative change, section 18C imposes an unreasonable restriction on freedom of speech. In his second reading speech introducing the bill to amend the Racial Discrimination Act, for example, the Attorney-General characterised the current wording of section 18C as ‘political censorship, pure and simple’ and ‘an inappropriate barrier to people expressing their legitimate opinions’. Senator Cory Bernardi described section 18C in parliamentary debate as ‘a weapon of mass destruction in the battle for freedom in this country’.

I'll give you, as well, some of the opposing arguments that were made in the parliament. Many of these arguments focussed on the risk of giving license to racism and the importance of setting a standard for our society. Senator Pat Dodson said that amending section 18C ‘will not promote freedom of speech, it will promote racial hate speech and racial discrimination’. Senator Nick McKim reflected that changing section 18C would ‘send a message out in the Australian community that it is now easier to say racist things and be racist in Australia’. Meanwhile, Senator Jacqui Lambie said, ‘section 18C does not restrict freedom of speech, it is about providing a benchmark for human decency’.

If we were to pause and reflect on how the debate has transpired, a few things are clear.

First, it is clear that there is strong community support for the current wording of the Racial Discrimination Act. A Fairfax-Ipsos poll earlier this year of 1400 voters, for example, found that 78 per cent of Australians believe it should be unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate someone on the basis of their race or ethnicity. This is a finding that echoes an Essential Research poll in February which found that over 75 per cent of respondents did not believe people should be free to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate others on the basis of race. That poll found that only 10 per cent of Australians believe that people should have the freedom to insult and offend others on the basis of race.

These are pretty clear findings, and consistent over time. Surveys were also done in 2014 when this issue was first played out. Fairfax, for example, found that 88 per cent of people believed it should remain unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate others on the basis of race. If we were to match this up with some of the survey findings on multiculturalism that I mentioned at the outset of my remarks, bearing in mind 83 per cent believe multiculturalism is good for the country, we see a very strong similarity in the magnitude of the response here.

That is no accident, in my view. It reflects very clearly that there is strong public support both for multiculturalism and for racial vilification laws in their current form. Australians, by and large, embrace our multiculturalism, and if we support multiculturalism, it follows that having in place laws against racism is essential. If we reject racism and embrace diversity, it is only appropriate that we have laws that prohibit racism.

There's another aspect to community views I want to reflect on. It should be clear that the majority of Australians recognise that freedom of speech, as with all freedoms, is not absolute or unqualified. As the saying goes, my freedom ends where your freedom begins. I may have the freedom to swing my fist in the area in front of me, but that ends where your nose begins. Any right to express bigotry must not exist at the expense of a right to live free from bigotry's effects. Freedom, however, doesn't exist in a vacuum.

As a liberal democracy with a multicultural character, we value freedom alongside civility, tolerance and harmony. In the case of racially charged speech, one's exercise of speech could well harm the freedom of another. One of the effects of racial vilification is precisely that it can silence those who are on the receiving end. Victims of racism find the experience of racism as one that makes it more difficult for them to exercise their freedom.

Finally, the debate about the RDA has revealed an ongoing contest about who constitutes 'mainstream Australia'. On this question, it's worth noting the public comments of parliamentarian Ian Goodenough, who chairs the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, which conducted the inquiry into freedom of speech and the RDA:

Many mainstream Australians are resentful of the emerging culture of political correctness, which prevents them from expressing their opinions on certain sensitive cultural issues in workplace and social settings where minorities are involved. Anecdotally, there is a perception that certain ethnic minorities are afforded greater protections from constructive criticism than mainstream Australians through political correctness. Rightly or wrongly, this perception does exist, and I would like to see the playing field levelled.

Yet who exactly belongs to the mainstream? And who exactly belongs to the minority?

If we are to consider the proposition that there is a view out there on racial vilification that can be described as 'mainstream Australian', should we consider that to be held by those of a majority ethnic or cultural background? Or should we be considering the mainstream to be represented by the three-quarters of Australians who believe it should remain unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate someone on the basis of their race? Or by the eight-tenths of Australians who believe multiculturalism is good for the country?

This is one telling lesson from the debate we've had on the Racial Discrimination Act. It's that 'mainstream Australia' may not be the group some people have in mind.

Seeing colour

Let me turn now to colourblindness. This goes to another aspect of how we must counter racism, because it's not enough for us to just rely on laws to combat racism. I'll be the first to acknowledge that. Laws are necessary but not sufficient. Not everyone who experiences racism is going to resort to the law, and make a complaint under the Racial Discrimination Act. We know from the experience of having the Act over 40 years that showing, or proving – if you do get to court – that racial discrimination has occurred can be difficult. So we need to think about the non-legislative means of combatting racism.

This is work we conduct at the Human Rights Commission, not least through our Racism. It Stops with Me campaign. Part of that campaign is about equipping people with the tools to be able to talk about race, and to be able to challenge racism.

One of the things we need to be really adept at doing, to have some fluency or literacy in, is dealing with the idea of colourblindness. This is perhaps one limitation of our current multicultural status quo. While the vast majority of people are comfortable and relaxed with cultural diversity, this can also prevent them from being forthright in dealing with racial difference.

What I mean is this: it's easy to think that multiculturalism is simply about saying that everyone has their place, that we accept people from whatever background. The idea here is that we're all friends, or that we're all Australians. This is a worthy sentiment, and a good place to start. But if we stop at that, it could set the bar too law. It could just imply a soft form of tolerance. One problem with beginning and ending with such ideas is that we don't ever get to talk about differences in any real sense. It's one thing for us to talk about differences if that means talking about different foods and cuisines and how telling it is that we resort, when we talk about multiculturalism, to talking about culinary diversity. But it's another thing to talk about racial differences and about attitudes towards race. A lot of this has nothing to do with food or with flavours. If only things were as easy as embracing culinary diversity, we would have eradicated racism by now.

There is some evidence, as many of you would know, that a colourblind approach to race can in fact impede racial equality rather than enable it.

One study by Brigitte Vittrup, a researcher at the University of Texas, Austin, is particularly noteworthy in my view. In Vittrup's study, about 100 families, all of whom were Caucasian with a child five to seven years old, were recruited for a study about racial attitudes. The first step involved giving the children a survey which asked questions about their attitudes toward different groups. The second group involved the researcher assigning families with certain tasks. One-third of the families were asked to watch multicultural-themed videos for a week. The second third of families were asked not only to watch those multicultural-themed videos but also to discuss interracial friendship. The third set of families were given no videos but were asked to discuss racial equality on their own every night for five nights.

It's interesting to see some of the backstory to this. Once the research exercise was embarked upon, the researcher was confronted by a problem. Namely, within the last group, that is the families who were asked to talk about race, five families abruptly quit the study. A number of the families said they didn't want to have conversations about race with their child, and they didn't want to point out skin colour to their child.

Vittrup encountered a second problem. The families in the study were invited to return to her lab for retesting after having watched those multicultural-themed videos. Yet the retesting found that the three groups of children failed to exhibit any change in their racial attitudes. It quickly became apparent why the children as a group hadn't budged. When Vittrup looked through the diaries of the parents involved in the study, she found that a majority of the parents failed to follow through in actually talking about race with their children. She found that many of the participating parents would later admit to her that they didn't know what to say to their children about race and didn't want to say the wrong thing. The parents didn't talk about race because they were afraid they would make things worse.

For the minority of parents who did follow through, however, the result was quite encouraging. The research exercise found there was a dramatic improvement in racial attitudes in a single week among those families that managed to talk openly about interracial friendship as prescribed. I think it's an interesting demonstration, grounded in research, about how simply talking about racial difference can make an enormous difference to people's attitudes. But the default barrier of ‘we don't see race’, or ‘race is invisible’, gets in the way of even recognising or naming the problem in the first place.

It is interesting to look at the American experience here, on all this. In New York City, for example, there have been a number of liberal and progressive private schools that have sought to incorporate into their curriculum teaching about racism and privilege. And again, some of what Vittrup encountered in her research emerged as problems. Many white American parents, in particular, felt deeply uncomfortable with having their children talk about race.

Here, a very telling contrast can be drawn with the parents of those from other racial backgrounds. Schools in New York City have found that the parents of children from minority backgrounds have been much more welcoming of the exercise of talking about race. And if you're talking about the American context, as many Black or African-American parents would explain, it matters. Race matters. The kind of conversation that children from some backgrounds, when they are of a certain age, have about race is very different from what others would have. Consider ‘the talk’ that many African-American parents have with their children, for example, dealing with questions such as: How are you to respond when a police officer pulls you over? How should you talk to someone in a position of authority (lest you be subjected to institutional violence)?

Identity politics

Let me conclude with identity politics, and how we should make sense of some of the populism that has been fomented and the backlash against diversity and multiculturalism that we are seeing in many liberal democracies today. It is a view among some that if there is a populist challenge to liberal democracy and racial equality, that the best response is for us to change the way that we conduct public conversations. Or to be more precise, if there's been a backlash against 'the system', the system itself must change.

I'll give you some examples.

In his reflections on the retreat of Western liberalism, the British journalist Edward Luce suggests we have forgotten how difficult it is to contain age-old human prejudices, let alone shed them. But he blames, in part, an identity liberalism, which treats society as less than the sum of its parts. This identity liberalism has, he argues, helped to fuel a backlash by majority-white communities.

In a similar vein, American writer Mark Lilla has argued that there has been a self-defeating celebration of cultural diversity at the expense of commonality. According to Lilla, in the U.S., Trump wasn't the product of a so-called 'white backlash' or 'white-lash', rather it was left-liberals and their obsession with diversity that ‘encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity was being threatened or ignored’. Such people are not reacting against the reality of a diverse America, but rather, ‘against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by political correctness’.

From the perspective of political theory, I find echoes here of the recognition versus redistribution debate that occurred back in the late 1990s. Back then, as now, voices are warning against privileging the identity claims of minorities above a national mode of politics. But is an identity politics, and what commentators really mean here is multiculturalism, really to blame? Has it gone too far? And if it has, in what respects has it gone too far?

I would counsel some caution in going down this route. Those who diagnose an excess of identity politics are not so clear in explaining just where the line should have been drawn on multiculturalism.

Let's take the U.S. as an example here. Over there, as we all know, a great deal of Trump's political support was driven by a hostility against the Obama presidency. Trump was, after all, the one who began the ‘birther’ movement. So, if we were to follow the logic of rejecting identity liberalism, we are entitled to ask a few questions. Was it a bridge too far that Barack Obama had become president? Did the very fact of his presidency embody something of an ascendant identity liberalism? And if we are really talking about identity politics, what about white nationalist or ethnic majority populism? Aren't they forms of identity politics themselves?

These are some questions that I don't believe have been fully answered yet in the debate we're having about so-called identity politics. And there are two things involved in the identity politics diagnosis with which I believe we can take serious issue.

First, the idea that recognising cultural diversity and all that has been associated with it may have been a mistake. To arrive at that point really says that the claims for recognition may not really have been claims about rights or dignity at all, but rather just the self-interested claims of minority interests and ethnic lobbies. That's a deeply disturbing way of framing what has happened over the past few decades.

Second, it appears the diagnosis appears to imply that if we are seeing an explosion in intolerance, prejudice and bigotry, then the proper response should be to accommodate it. That we should listen to grievances and establish a new equilibrium.

But let's not forget: if we are going to listen or accommodate, that when people express fears about immigrants posing a danger to our society, or when people say they are fearful of difference, this is not an abstract point. For those in society who are immigrants, or the children of immigrants, these aren't debating points. They're rather something more personal. They are statements that add up to people saying you don't belong in a society, or that you have less of a claim to belong. Calling such things out, you would hope, would not be dismissed as just another example of identity politics or political correctness.

But such challenges go to the heart of what is the challenge for you over the next three days. As we are finding all too often today, the problem with institutional racism and racism in our multicultural society is as much about naming it as it is about responding to it.


Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner