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Race Race Discrimination

The Global Context for Racism in Australia
Keynote Speech by Tom Calma, National Race Discrimination Commissioner and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, at the National Conference Racism in a Global Context, hosted by Murdoch University, Western Australia, 9 November 2007.

Delivered by Margaret Donaldson (Director of the Race Discrimination Unit, HREOC)


I wish to acknowledge the Nyungar people, the traditional owners of the land we are meeting on today.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is now an accepted truth that all countries are affected by the rapid increase in the movement of people, commodities and ideas at the global level as well as the increase in cultural, ethnic and religious diversity that these movements bring.  Many countries, including Australia, are working to develop ways of managing the social impact of these trends.  Addressing racism is essential to this task.

While these are current trends, racism in Australia has always had a global influence. After all colonialisms founding intent was formulated thousands of miles away from its execution upon Indigenous people throughout the New World.

Racism in a global context presents us with complex challenges.  Nowadays, local issues, virtually in no time, gain a global dimension, making their way to a global media sphere.  Conversely, global events can resonate in almost any single locality around the world.   

Focusing on the topic of this conference, we see that these two domains, the global and the local, interact to form new ways of differentiating ‘us’ from ‘them’.  For example, at the global level, terrorism has become the code word for Muslims; while Muslim identity has become a marker of racial divide that instantly designates certain local communities as dangerous, even though they have been successfully settled within the community long before September 11 or the Bali attacks.  HREOC’s Isma Report documents the increase in discrimination experienced by Muslim and Arab Australian and its damaging effect on their community and family lives.

The Cronulla riot in Sydney is a particularly pertinent demonstration of the way in which the global discourse on race, with its reference to terrorism, evil and the ‘clash of civilisations’ can manifest as violent eruptions and displays of racial dominance and supremacy. 

At one level Cronulla is simply a local tale in which a close knit community, relatively homogenous in their Anglo Celtic origins, gathered to protest against Lebanese and Arab young people, whom they accused of engaging in anti-social behaviour on their beach.   But Cronulla is also a story of how this local tension can be transformed into something far more sinister, dividing entire sections of a society, as it gains strength and energy from the global discourse. 

But it is not only the intensification and scale of racism in a global context that concerns me.  It is also the shift in its form and practice as it imposes an almost complete reorientation of our social and ethical agenda.  The reorientation is simple and goes like this: if ‘they’ are fundamentally different from ‘us’, if ‘they’ don’t accept ‘our’ social norms and core values, then ‘they’ should be treated differently to ‘us’. 

An example of this is the proposal by the government to ask people from Arabic origins applying for permanent residency visas more questions than other ethnic groups are asked in the same situation.  It is inevitable that the social and ethical agenda underlying such policies, the agenda that identifies a ‘them’ and an ‘us’ will be passed on to the everyday interactions between groups and individuals within our society. As Race Discrimination Commissioner, this is a matter of great concern. 

The Australian’s journalist, George Megalogenis gives us another example of this reorientation when he looks at the use of statistics by media and academics which marked Australian Lebanese as an anomaly in the otherwise successful story of migration and settlement in Australia. 

According to the statistics, people from Lebanese background figure high in the rate of unemployment.   There is not much explanation at to why this is the case.  However the global debate around issues like the clash of civilizations, terrorism and the incompatibility of Muslim culture with Western way of life fills this explanatory gap providing the only framework to interpret the statistical graphs and tables.   

Interestingly, the same set of statistics shows that the Australian-Vietnamese community has a similar rate of unemployment as the Lebanese community.  However, thanks to changes in our perception of Asian communities in the last few years, the explanation for these statistics has not involved demonisation in the same way as with the Lebanese community. 

A further look at the statistics within the national context according to Megalogenis partly redeems Lebanese and Vietnamese immigrants who have been targeted as a problem group in relation to unemployment.  The statistics indicate that white single mother families account for almost half of the total of unemployed families, i.e. 144,000 out of 357,000. By comparison, Vietnamese-born Australians have about 5,400 single mothers and 6,000 couples out of work.  The Lebanese-born are smaller still, at 1,800 and 4,700 respectively. On this analysis Lebanese and Vietnamese Australians are only a small part of a wider national unemployment issue.

What is new according to Megalogenis in this usage of evidence is,  ‘[T]he idea that a graph or table can reduce an entire community to un-Australian…in our political dialogue.’ This is a concrete example of the complete reorientation of our social agenda, vocabularies and concepts in relation to current forms and practices of racism.  The lesson here for us is that even pure, seemingly value free statistics might be given an ideological and racist content in this environment of global and local interaction. 

Having introduced some of the issues involved let me summarize my main concerns about the new forms and practices of racism in Australia as they emerge in a global context:

  1.   My first concern relates to the form that racism is taking in the global context. 

It has come to be accepted that the old and colonial form of racism based on biological difference is an abhorrent prejudice.  For example, the statement of Professor Andrew Fraser from Macquarie University, that cognitive and athletic abilities, testosterone and "impulse control" vary according to race, and "civilisations" was met by community condemnation, partly because it represented a return to the biology of race as a criteria for establishing a hierarchy between groups in our society. 

Similarly, up to 1967 Indigenous people were subjected to ‘scientific’ scrutiny that estimated their mental and physical capacity to survive as proportional to the amount of white blood that circulated through their body. 

Currently, this old notion of racism has taken a new form.  Biological racism is being replaced by cultural racism.  Biological inferiority has been largely replaced by cultural incompatibility.

This new form of racism is, in my view, more insidious as it passes itself off as an aspect of social management rather than as an inherent necessity.  For instance, Pauline Hanson claims she has no qualm with Asians.  Rather, the problem according to her, is that Asian immigrants ‘have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate’. 

Similarly, the culture of Indigenous people, rather than the constitution of our blood, is now seen more than ever as the main hindrance to our social inclusion and improvement.  For instance, commonly included in the public debate on child abuse and violence in Indigenous communities is the question of culture.  Indigenous people are continually called on to defend their culture against an underlying assumption that it is inherently violent and open to abusive practices. 

Globally, the culture and religion of people from a Muslim background are seen as incompatible with a Western way of life and its values.  Yet while culture forms the new axis for differentiating ‘Us’ from ‘Them’, it maintains in the same way as racism based on biology, the dominance of one group over another and the dehumanizing that this entails.

Ghassan Hage, an academic from the University of Sydney, sees our most disturbing race clashes, such as the Cronulla riots in 2005 and its aftermath, as a mutation of the old forms and dynamics of racism.  As discussed, the riots summoned the global and the local dynamics of social and political tensions to bear on a localized event. 

According to Hage it was only at the turn of the century that ‘Muslims’ became by far the primary threat.  It can be said that this period saw a globalisation of the Islamic ‘other’.  And like all processes of cultural globalisation, it involves contradictory processes of homogenisation and heterogenisation of a cultural group.  Thus, while ‘Islam’ was becoming homogenised as the global threatening ‘other’, the category that embodied the Islamic threat differed from one country to another: ‘Asians’ in Britain, ‘Turks’ in Germany, and ‘North Africans’ in France.  In Australia, it was the category ‘Lebanese’ which came to embody this threat.’

In a world in which racism increasingly takes the form of cultural incompatibility the skeptics and the pessimists of human coexistence found, according to Hage ‘another proof that multiculturalism has found its limits in its encounter with Muslim cultures.’

  1. My second concern relates to the way we now discuss race related issues; the language we employ to give weight to our lived experience and to render the current human condition understandable. 

We are inundated with events and statements that jam our systems of representation and articulation.  In the process, as many of you who have been active in combating discrimination are aware, words like racism, multiculturalism, participation and integration have become elastic terms, changing to suit the speaker and his/her context. 

For instance, in the development of Australia’s social policies in the 60’s and early 70’s the term ‘integration’ stood in contrast to its policy predecessor ‘assimilation’.  The former approach emphasised a high level of interaction between all ethnic groups in the economic, social and cultural spheres.  However, this interaction did not come at the expense of cultural identity.  Assimilation on the other hand required ethnic groups to merge into the mainstream without recognition of their distinct cultural identity. 

During the debate on the introduction of a citizenship test in Australia the context for these terms changed and with it their meaning.  Here ‘integration’ was seen as an alternative to ‘multiculturalism’ which was depicted as the maintenance of separate cultural identities.  Integration was portrayed as a new approach that would ensure that migrants, refugees and their children adhere to core Australian values and way of life.  In this context integration became synonymous with ‘assimilation’ requiring cultural identity be relinquished in order to promote social cohesion and harmony.

What then, in these discussions on issues such as citizenship, core values and national identity is meant by the term race or racism? Surprisingly, or maybe not, the term is rarely mentioned.  Even though certain groups of people continue to be demeaned, excluded and dehumanized in these discussions, the term ‘racism’ is being erased as too confronting and counter-productive to social cohesion.  The argument that is gaining momentum is that the term racism is irrelevant to the current social and political debate which is more about the ‘management’ of a culturally diverse society.  Addressing racism is simply an indicator of the effectiveness of government policies whose overriding goal is the management of diversity. It is not an end in itself.

It is clear that throughout our discussions of race related issues, language has become a screen that allows racism to escape the scrutiny of our social norms and institutions. 

  1. The third area of concern is the way in which the new forms of racism is being practiced at the political, social and institutional level. 

For example, I have on several occasions throughout my term as National Race Discrimination Commissioner expressed my abhorrence at political statements that single out certain communities as unwilling or incapable of integration.

In Australia we have long accepted that people should not be treated differently on the basis of their race or ethnic origin and it is troubling for instance that the changes to the intake policy for refugees seem to do just that.  As you are well aware this is what is presently proposed in relation to African refugee intake.  I have made my view clear in a recent press release that points to the hardship experienced by our African communities when official credence is given to the already existing prejudices against them.  The singling out of Muslim Australians in the same way has provoked an outcry from me and others as damaging to an entire community, even if the statements purport to apply to a small minority within that community. 

In many speeches, publications and interventions I have outlined the challenges that minority communities are facing in Australia at the moment and the resilience that they exhibit in facing the new racism through their engagement in multicultural and cross-cultural activities and initiatives.

So how can we address the new challenges of racism as it manifests in the global context.

The first response is to ensure that government policy provides a strong and sustainable social framework to fight racism, xenophobia and discrimination.  In my view Multiculturalism in Australia is an important cornerstone for such a program.

The ambivalence and at times, antagonism to multiculturalism as a policy framework led me to release on 17 August of this year my position paper on multiculturalism.  In this paper I outline the human rights principles underlying multiculturalism and call on the government to renew their commitment to this successful social policy. While the paper recognises the limitation of Multiculturalism as a policy framework to deal with systemic and individual racism against Indigenous people it  maintains that for other minority groups in Australia, multiculturalism has been and continues to be an effective strategy to identify and combat the root causes of the new and old forms of racism in Australia.

I point out in the paper that the multiculturalism debate, like the racism debate, tends to be framed negatively by, either international incidents involving terrorist attacks or, at the local level, incidents of racial tension or conflict.  For instance, following both the London attacks and the Cronulla riots in 2005, some politicians and media commentators asserted that such incidents were the result of the freedom that multiculturalism gives people to practice particular cultures and religions, i.e. those cultures and religions that are considered incompatible with the core values of Australian Society.  In this way, multiculturalism was claimed to erode social stability and national cohesion.

My position paper puts forward an alternative logic that argues that respect for each other’s culture, religion and race is a core universal value and is fundamental to our democratic way of life in Australia.  Far from detracting from social stability, the promotion of respect for each other’s culture and beliefs is conducive to social cohesion and community engagement by all groups.  In addition multiculturalism plays a central role in providing a rational, democratic antidote against extremist actions. 

Indeed a reinvigorated multiculturalism can act as a foundation for the growing cultural, linguistic and religious diversity of Australian society.  In short after a thorough consideration I came to the following conclusions

  1. Multiculturalism is a sound policy framework consistent with HREOC’s legislative mandate to promote understanding, respect and friendship among racial and ethnic groups in Australia and to combat prejudices that lead to racial discrimination.
  2. Multiculturalism is also a set of norms or principles compatible with HREOC’s vision for an Australian society in which the human rights of all are respected, protected and promoted.  In particular it resonates with a notion of equality which enables all Australians to participate fully in the social, cultural, economic and political life in Australia irrespective of race, religion, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin.
  3. Multiculturalism, both as policy and as principles, supports the ideals of a democratic society in which every person is free and equal in dignity and rights.

The second response to address the new challenges of racism is to ensure that our laws provide strong remedies to redress discrimination and promote equality.  Presently there is no legal avenue in our national Racial Discrimination Act to redress discrimination or vilification on the basis of religion.  Nor is there a capacity to promote equality by key institutions.  In this regard Australia is trailing behind the UK, Canada and other developed countries who have enshrined a duty to promote equality on government agencies as a statutory requirement.  In addition, the evidentiary requirements under the Racial Discrimination Act are proving so onerous that there is little chance for complainants to succeed in an action for unlawful discrimination.

These are just some of the issues that need to be reviewed in order to ensure that the legal mechanisms continue to be responsive to the new forms of racism I have outlined in this paper.

And finally, a third response to address the new challenges of racism as it manifests in the global context is to develop strategies to ensure that the principles of equality and multiculturalism become norms of our everyday life.  A case study of how racism enters the domain of the everyday is provided in HREOC’s recently released report on racism and sport entitled “What's the Score? A survey of cultural diversity and racism in Australian sport”.

The report indicates that despite the effort of all sporting industries and teams, racism is still an unwelcome player in the sporting fields across Australia.   Incidents of racial abuse and vilification occur across all major sporting codes involving professional sportspeople, amateurs, coaches and spectators.  According to the report "Sport is not immune from acts of discrimination, harassment and abuse; rather it often provides an environment which can lend itself to conduct which is not only inappropriate, but also unlawful".  Moreover, "The fear of racism in Australian sport is a major barrier to participation for Indigenous people and those from various ethnic and cultural groups."

The initiatives taken be national sporting organizations to combat racism are indeed promising but more work needs to be done to make sure that sport in Australia is inclusive and non-discriminatory. 

In the report we highlight and endorse initiatives like the Australian Sports Commission’s Indigenous Sport Program which developed a sport-specific cross-cultural awareness training package in 2000 to provide a basic understanding and appreciation of issues, culture, protocols and history of Indigenous Australians, and to promote awareness of their experiences and culture in a sport-specific environment.

We at HREOC are involved in many activities and initiatives that proactively combat racism on the ground, promote community relationships and trace the mutation of racism.  You are encouraged to check our websites and publications to find more about our activities.

In conclusion, I have tried to outline in this speech the way in which racism nowadays derives its force from the interaction of global conflicts and local disquiets.  It has relinquished biology and moved to inhabit culture as its domain of differentiation and subsequently as a basis of discrimination.  Multiculturalism was and remains our most successful anti-racism strategy; it needs ongoing support and reinvigoration.  Our task as anti-racism workers, activists and engaged citizens is to be vigilant in shedding light on new forms of racism.