Saturday, April 03, 2021

Fallacies of race and racism in Australia

I have been struggling with the return of racist language and discourse in Australia. It's really taken me by surprise. I thought that we had killed it outside some of those on the left and fringe elements on the right. Now it's back. 

I suppose I should start with a simple point. There is no such thing as a race within homo sapiens. 

DNA analysis shows us that the actual genetic differences between groups of people are small. It also shows us that we all carry mixed genetic ancestry. The Aborigines, for example, carry Neanderthal and Denisovan genes as well as later additions including those derived from the European occupiers. When we come to others such as those from Western Europe we find a complex admixture of genes that reflect multiple migrations and occupations. In a simple sense, we are all mongrels. Why, then, do we still use the term race?

All human beings belong to groups who use terms to describe themselves and others. For example, the term Hindu describes a group marked by religion.  

Those seeking or who hold power within groups use labels to consolidate their position and extend their influence. These labels are applied to those within and outside the group. The BJP promotes Hindu nationalism suggesting that Hindu and India are equivalent. This transforms a religious label into a political label. It also acts to exclude non-Hindus. Further, in pursuit of Hindu nationalism, the nationalists seek to use history including DNA results to establish the history required to support their claims. 

I could use other examples, but hope that I have made my point. But why if race has no meaning is it still important? The answer is complex. 

The idea of classifying people by race came out of the scientific revolution. Part of that revolution was a classification process focused on the identification and classification of different species, leading to the subdivision of humanity into different races. To this was added social Darwinism, the idea of competition within and between different human groups in which the best rose to the top over time. 

Inevitably, those on the top classified themselves as the best and sought to preserve their position. The racial subdivision was never clear cut. If you read Australian official documents, you will find references to the British race and to the Australian race as a variant. The Australian race was seen as superior, but there were concerns whether this could be maintained. 

Once you add in  social Darwinism, you are left with the uncomfortable thought that you might not survive the competition. Writing in the 1930s, the English travel writer J H Curle was left with the uncomfortable suspicion that the Chinese would become the dominant race. 

Racism is deeply associated with fear, In South Africa, fear about African competition for jobs made many European mining and industrial workers support the Boer approach to racial separation. In Australia the same forces played out, this time focused on workers from China and India. It is no coincidence that the Labour movement was the strongest supporter of White Australia to the sometimes distress of the Government in London wrestling with the problems of a multi-cultural Empire. 

 There was a remarkable and sudden transformation in Australia after the Second World War. Partly driven by fear, we must populate or perish,  the country opened its doors to migrants that would come to include migrants from all ethnic groups. Over twenty years, a country whose immigration policy had been based on racial exclusion transformed itself.

Of course there was suspicion of the new arrivals, of course there were examples of ethnic and racial exclusion, most migrant families will testify to that, but it was still a remarkable achievement. By the early 1990s, Australia was celebrating its achievements, This has turned round over the last five years.

One of the measures of this is the rise of racist based movements on the right. They were always there but on the absolute fringes.  The detailed reasons for this are beyond this post, but I want to make a few points. 

There were always fragilities in the social consensus underpinning the Australian transformation. People need time to adjust when faced with fundamental change. They need to feel that the things that they value are valued still. 

In 1957 under the pen name  Nino Cullotta, John O'Grady published They're a Weird Mob, the story of an Italian migrant to Australia. The book became a smash hit, as did the subsequent film. Both book and film are criticized today for some of their attitudes, Those criticising the book miss the point. Published just ten years after the start of the mass migration program, the book bridged the gap between traditional Australian stereotypes and the challenges faced by a new migrants. I suspect that in one blow it humanized the entire Italian migrant community, 

The social consensus underpinning Australia's migrant and multi-ethic success began to break down in the 1990s in the face of constant change. The formation of One Nation in 1997 was a sign of this.

This process has accelerated over the last few years  as those on the left continue to hammer the theme of Australia as a racist society. In so doing, they have recreated a race based debate drawing on overseas events that pits whites against the rest. 

I may say that this is silly, that there is no such thing as race, but by attaching a label you may create the very thing that you are opposing. The War on Terror is a case in point. Now we are seeing the same thing in the rise of white racism, with the label creating the very thing that the attacks are meant to stop. 

I never expected that certain fringe groups that I opposed in the past would become a major threat. I still think that the present position is controllable. However, the threat is there. 

Australia has become a more fragmented society in economic, cultural and demographic terms. Resentments have grown.  Scope exists for a right wing political leader to emerge capable of capturing the different resentments. That leader will not come from the extreme right, but will need to capture some of their views.      




marcellous said...


Race may be practically non-existent (and certainly difficult to define) as a scientific or biological concept but while social constructs of it remain you can hardly dismiss it (and its twin, racism) as a fallacy.

Are you saying that if we just decide/pretend they have gone away Australia will be back to the optimistic 80s?

I doubt that. Whether we have John Howard to thank for that, or whether, if it hadn't been John Howard, it would have been someone else, is a more philosophical question. OK, you may also let John Howard off the hook entirely, for all I know.

I do agree that a lot of discourse on this and other matters has been taken up ready-baked from the USA where it has been incubated in different social conditions from here. That has been the path of popular and general culture in Australia for over a century as the USA has become the anglosphere dog rather than the tail. Same thing has happened on many fronts. That doesn't always make such discourse totally inapplicable here even if it probably makes old fogies like (dare I say) us bemused with the alacrity with which certain causes are taken up here by the young.

I do wonder though where this post comes from. Are you finding social attitudes a bit different back in the bush/the university town of Armidale?

Anonymous said...

I think the reason "we" worry about racism in Australia is simply because we can't spell "xenophobia" with any consistency - and it doesn't fit easily on t-shirts, or within twitter comments.

Pleased to see Jim seeming to acknowledge the significance of "They're A Weird Mob" - for which I was castigated on an earlier thread, and moreso on another blog - since deleted, but very disappointed to see the phrase "European occupiers" creep into his thinking/comments.

And I share marcellous' bemusement as expressed in his last paragraph.


Anonymous said...

Also, it should be observed, Jim's "Scope exists for a right wing political leader to emerge capable of capturing the different resentments" completely ignores (I don't suggest approves of) the left wing's quite deliberate creation/resurrection of this probable source of trouble.

("left" and "right" are not particularly descriptive any more, I think - but that was Jim's term, so I went with it)


Jim Belshaw said...

Marcellous, I can dismiss race and racism as fallacies without denying their continuing impact as social and ideological constructs. My point is that they survive in ways that I had not expected despite the destruction of their previous underpinning. I would agree with kvd's comments about xenophobia.

The post did not come from my Armidale experiences, this remains a reasonably tolerant city although the attitudinal divides have entered discourse, but from my broader bemusement and indeed dislike off the way that the application of slap-dash labels has ignited passions and prejudices. I thought that Australia had done pretty well in developing a pluralist society, in at least reducing if not overcoming previous prejudices. Now I wonder.

In earlier writing on the so-called war on terror, I made the point that the rhetoric used risked creating, indeed did create, the very thing that the intent was to avoid. I think that some of the same thing is happening now.

We can think of this along two dimensions. First, the constant emphasis on the "whites" in the discussion, a racist term, is encouraging a "race" based response among those attacked. The left is in fact creating its own demon. Second, the emphasis on the more extreme right in combination with the first has given certain right wing views an unwarranted credibility that again risks creating, indeed may have created, the very thing feared.

If y6ou asked me did racial prejudice exist in Australia I would say of course. Working in the Aboriginal Housing Office gave me plenty of exposure to the way that continuing prejudices affect Aboriginal people. One of the difficulties lies in the way that multiple attributes get attached, often implicitly, to a single label. Here I will use an Armidale example.

Aboriginal people are over-represented in jail and in certain crimes. Crime or antisocial behaviour in Aboriginal communities is concentrated in particular in the most disadvantaged segments. This says nothing about Aboriginal people as such but much about the relationship between disadvantage and crime. And yet, the particular anti-social activities, I am using that word broadly, gets attached to the Aboriginal people in general.

I live in Armidale near a social housing estate with a high Aboriginal population. In discussion on the UNE History page on moving to Armidale people were advised not to live in the area where I live because of the crime rate. Indeed, it's fair to say that people in Armidale are worried about crime in general even though the city is actually safe.

It is true to say that there is more "crime" in the area in which I live. The little convenience store near where I live has been robbed a number of times, most recently a few nights back when three young kids with a replica gun held it up stealing cigarette lighters and some lollies.

I suspect that I am diverging a little, but I wanted to make three points. The first is that we feel quite safe here despite episodes such as this. The second is that the disadvantage that leads to the crimes is not being addressed. The third is that despite rules that are designed to stop people identifying the ethnic background of offenders, everyone one knows, reinforcing existing labels. We would be better off if reporting were factual. Then we could focus on the problems.

Now kvd, I use the word occupiers as well as invaders and settlers depending on context.

marcellous said...

"the left wing's quite deliberate creation/resurrection of this probable source of trouble"

I don't agree with KVD there. It's not a question of creating so much as confronting and thereby stirring up.

In the past there was something similar in disagreements between, eg, "discreet" homosexuals and "flamboyant" ones. The discreet ones would complain about the flamboyant ones spoiling it for them and attracting trouble. (There's probably still something like that going on vis-a-vis today's more avant garde diverse sexuality groups.)

It's also a bit of a chestnut about whether politics should best be pursued by confrontation/revolution or compromise/incremental change. Taking the first of these respective pairs (confrontation/compromise) the latter cannot occur without some element of the former, and confrontation is rarely total because in some ways people do make accommodations and get on with things.

Not so sure Jim about "whites" really being a racist term, at least in the way that hurts. This is an old argument about discrimination: discrimination hurts when it punches down. The greater racism is mean "white" in the sense of, depending on context, not "black", not "asian", not x, not y, without even needing to say it. Flip side of that is how (as you advert to) members of minorities are all tarred with the same brush when behaviour of some of them which is objectionable to the majority is observed.

marcellous said...

that got a bit garbled, should be 'The greater racism is meaning "white"' etc

marcellous said...

See also this:

Issue framed as about being "different" at work.

Jim Belshaw said...

I have a part completed postscript that I may still bring up. For the moment, a brief supplementary comment.

The problem lies in the use of labels. I mainly listen to ABC radio national. I also read CNN, the Guardian and the Conversation among others. I find it hard to see how the constant repetition of the word "white" in a pejorative sense can be seen as other than racist. If I am reacting to it in a negative way, it's not surprising that others are reacting even more strongly.

There is some very silly stuff out there that makes it hard to address real issues.

Anonymous said...

Agree with Jim's take - but sincerely hope the titles he mentioned are not his only source of "balanced" news :)

@marcellous it is not about politics per se - it's more about power. We can sit here arguing the toss about the relative merits of the various "oppressed tribes" but someday, you will need to acknowledge that power shifts according to the efficient harnessing of that 3-5% of feckless voters. You can't reach them 1 by 1 - so better strategy is to assign them a "class" or "distinction", and then tell them they're hard done by.

"Race" is just the new "class" determinant, is all - and life was simpler then.

There are others contained in the alphabet soup of hard-done-by minorities, and pretty soon, if handled right, they add up to a significant 3 or 4% voting bloc to be pandered to - to achieve "power".

But I did very much appreciate your delicate "more avant garde diverse sexuality groups" description; hope it gets you by in your elsewhere life, but I'd be careful :)


Tikno said...

The nature of human ego tends to want to be seen "more" than others and reluctant to be rivaled. In order for the "wanted format" to be realized then there must be something to be looked down (deliberately formed or labeled).

Who coined the term "white supremacist". Who labels the black with all lowly labels in the past. Who is deliberately linking political issues and covid-19 with the Chinese race while forgetting the history of the origins of other outbreaks. Who deliberately started the game of throne between China and USA?