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.