Monday, September 29, 2008

Survey tracks changing Australian attitudes to race and ethnicity

In an earlier post, By global standards, Australia is NOT a racist country, I complained about the way in which Australia and Australians were unfairly typed as racist. Now the Australian media are carrying reports of a ten year study into Australian attitudes towards race and ethnicity.

I have not been able to find the original study on-line yet, but thought that I should provide details from reports so that I have the material on-line for later reference.

Before outlining the reported results, a few definitional points.

I have argued before that the terms "race" and "racial prejudice" have become so confused as to lose meaning.

To argue, as some do, that we need to be careful about admitting Muslim migrants is not racial prejudice because Muslims are not a race but a religion. To the degree that prejudice exists, and I define prejudice simply as an unfounded view formed independent of evidence, we have to be very careful to distinguish the form of prejudice.

I would also argue that all human beings are prejudiced in the sense that we use labels and stereotypes to classify and simplify things. This holds for all aspects of life. Some might argue, for example, that I am a metrophobe, prejudiced against our big cities. Now I would argue that this is based on the evidence, but you see what I mean.

We also need to distinguish between holding and acting on a prejudice. To be anti-Bosnian Muslim is one thing. To act to enforce this view through ethnic cleansing quite another.

This, or so I have argued, is one of the strengths of Australia at two linked levels.

One is our capacity to judge individuals independent of our prejudices about their group. We saw this in the big migrant intake in the immediate post war period. Of course there were cases of prejudice, but we went through an ethnic revolution with remarkably little aggro.

The second is that we have a sense of public order and balance that makes us reluctant to support extremes. This has to be qualified. All of us can give contrary examples. But I think it us still true as a broad generalisation.

The combination essentially allows us to adjust to major change.

The Study

According to ABC news, the study led by UWS's Human Geography and Urban Studies Professor Kevin Dunn tracked attitudes on cultural diversity and racism of 12,500 people across Australia over a ten year period. If I have this correct, this is both a big sample and a longish period. So the results should be reasonably robust.

The Results

More than 80 per cent of Australians see cultural diversity as a good thing. This is quite a remarkable number. Depending on the exact form of the question, always an issue in surveys, I suspect that there are not many countries in the world that would generate such a high number.

Some 10 per cent of Australians believe that some races are superior or inferior to others or are opposed to cross-cultural marriages. This number became the media headline - "one on 10 Australians are racist". I found the percentage very re-assuring. Contrast it with the 29 per cent of the vote gained by the far right parties at the recent Austrian elections.

At a more detailed level, people were asked which cultural or ethnic groups did not fit into Australian society. Forty per cent suggested that some ethnic groups do not belong in the country. The most commonly cited were Muslims or people from the Middle East.

There were clear regional and age divides.

NSW was the least tolerant state, with 46 per cent suggesting that some ethnic groups do not belong in the country as compared to 28 per cent in the ACT. The media reports did not provide details of the geographic break-up in NSW. However, comments from Professor Dunn suggested that Sydney was the most prejudiced part of NSW and Australia, reflecting the city's role as an ethnic melting post.

On the age side, 65 per cent of people over 65 thought that some ethnic groups did not fit in, dropping to 31 per cent for those aged 18 to 34.

Finally, the results suggested that prejudice had dropped over the ten year period.


Both Professor Dunn's remarks and the media commentary had a bias. Professor Dunn focused on the need for continued action to address "racism", while the media focused on the one in ten who were classified as racist. I had a very different response, bias if you will.

These are good numbers. They show that Australia is adjusting to change. But they also have a warning in the NSW numbers. You cannot ram either change or certain attitudes down people's throats. You have to allow time for them to adjust.


Geoff Robinson said...

This survey is pretty consistent with previous ones. About 1/10 are old style racists (no coincidence Pauline polled about this). Others are on a spectrum in which neither the monoculturalists or the cosmopolitans have a majority hence the debate goes back and forth.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Geoff. Do you happen to know where I can find previous surveys? This one is a longitudinal study, which is a little different.