Is Australia racist? revised edition

Yes, of course, and its worse than you probably imagine

On Sunday February 26 Australia’s SBS TV network broadcast Ray Martin’s “Is Australia Racist?” the first program of its “Face Up to Racism (FU2racism) week”. Its a good question but it deserves a tougher answer than SBS managed to provide. Fortuitously, perhaps, this week also included the release of an inconclusive Parliamentary Report on what, if anything to do about the wording of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. In spite of my criticisms, below, of this SBS initiative, it performs a valuable service in the face of strenuous efforts by right-wing politicians and commentators – who cannot imagine that anything they say or do might be construed as racist – to confuse free speech and racist abuse by showing that many Australians suffer significant racist abuse, Aborigines and African migrants more than others, and that while almost two out of three Australians admit to being prejudiced, four out of five feel that there is racism in Australia and that something needs to be done to counter it. My discussion focuses on SBS’s #FU2racism week, not so much to run a critique of SBS, and only incidentally to dispute its treatment of racism, but rather to raise issues about public discussion of race and racism in contemporary Australia.

The first point to notice about Ray Martin’s opening program in the series, and about SBS’s advance publicity, is that it fails to specify precisely what #FU2racism understands by racism. This is unfortunate, not least because, like many contentious terms in public discussion, ‘racism’ has several meanings, each with different implications for how we might recognise and respond to it. More seriously, #FU2racism presents its own account of racism as if it were uncontentious. Racism, in its view, is an attitude, a prejudice or its verbal or physical expression, directed “towards people who don’t look like we do” – although w are also told that race prejudice is sometimes directed towards Muslims, whatever they look like – who we tend, not always consciously, to view “as a potential threat.” The appearance of the phrase “people … like we do” early in an on-line information page on #FU2racism suggests that it is a provisional stand-in for race , that the “people who don’t look like we do” belong to a different race or races than oneself. If racism is a prejudice or the expression of a prejudice, then, to ask ‘how racist is Australia?’ is to ask how widespread is such prejudice or its expression within the Australian population. This, it seems, is what the #FU2racism week has been designed to explore. My point in questioning this approach is not to suggest that the verbal or physical expression of prejudice is not damaging, whether it happens in schools, universities and other workplaces, in the street and shopping centres, at bus stops or on public transport. “Is Australia Racist?” showed several confronting examples, suggesting that we would be better off without it. Yet, this prejudice is not the only racism that should concern Australia today.

Fortunately, the #FU2racism information page informs us, while most of us are infected by an implicit (ie. not conscious) racist bias, neuroscience has shown that this bias is not “hard-wired” into our brains. The information page even offers an online test that innocent white Australians can take to assess whether, despite their own best intentions, they harbour any racist prejudices.

This approach assumes that the most significant damage caused by racism consists in the prejudicial behaviour of individuals, moving the study of racism out of the broad domain of the social sciences – anthropology, history, political science and sociology – and into that of psychology, especially neuroscience and psychology’s speculative sub-discipline, evolutionary psychology, which purports to offer an evolutionary explanation of race prejudice.

The same information page, headed ‘Like it or not, you’re probably racist,’ tells us that our brains have evolved to look “for patterns, things are lumped together into categories….. the question boils down to: in-group or out-group? Or – “Do they look how I look?” This is the contribution of evolutionary psychology: treating our implicit fear of outsiders as an atavistic survival, first consolidated millions of years ago in the reptilian brain and now cowering in our mammalian “amygdala [which] keeps track of all the negative stereotypes perpetuated within our environment – and it programmes itself to react to them, too.” (While this evolutionary speculation is clearly set out in the ‘Like it or not, you’re probably racist’ page, I did not notice it in any of #FU2racism week’s TV broadcasts.) Fortunately, we “are able to modify our unconscious bias, we just have to get into the habit of using a different attitude” – assuming, of course, that we are aware of our implicit bias and truly wish to be rid of it. Reference to implicit bias suggests that any of us might be racist without being aware of it – which makes sense of right-wing contortions over free speech and section 18C of the RDA and of the protestation we hear often enough from public figures: “ I’m not racist, but…”

Many of us learned in our earlier years that its not good to be racist, an injunction that is too easily understood as meaning no more than don’t be seen to be racist, and that the overt expression of racism is best avoided, which suggests a different view of the “I’m not racist, but….” protestation.

The treatment of racism as prejudice “towards people who don’t look like we do” raises several questions. First, the expression “people who don’t look like we do” is more complex than it might seem. It assumes that most individuals view themselves as members of a collective, the “we” in ‘like we do’, even if many members of the collective do not, in fact, look like they do – they are of another gender, taller, shorter, leaner or bulkier, have different shaped faces, different complexions, hair texture and colour, wear different clothing, etc. Each of us grows up surrounded by people who don’t look like oneself and we get used to it. At some point, we might encounter others who also don’t look like oneself, who we consign to the outer darkness. The formula ‘Don’t look like we do’ does not distinguish one group from the other. Neither look like we do, but only in the latter case is the observable difference treated as significant. We discriminate against an out-group, not because “they don’t look like we do” but because we target them for some reason and we say tha” they don’t look like we do” because we target them. ”People who don’t look like we do” offers no explanation of race prejudice. It does not explain why we target some of those who “don’t look like we do” but not others. Yet the formulation itself is agnostic on the question of whether “people who don’t look like we do” belong to races other than one’s own.

Second, then, are “people who don’t look like we do” members of one or more different races and is it racist to view them as a potential threat? A positive answer would suggest that racism is a matter of prejudice against members of other races. Yet natural and social scientists who study race have generally concluded that there are no biologically distinct human races (see, for example, Stephen Jay Gould’s admirable discussion in his The Mismeasure of Man). This would leave racism as a matter of treating people as if they belonged to biologically distinct races. The authors of Racecraft: The soul of inequality in American life argued that the division of populations into races, as the final #FU2racism TV program did and as still sometimes happens in national censuses and landing cards issued on international flights, is itself racist. In this last case, it is the practice of classifying people into races that is racist, even if no prejudicial treatment follows directly. This classificatory ‘racism’ might seen relatively harmless except for the fact that it identifies readily available targets for prejudicial bias. It is perhaps best seen as a relic of times in which governments regarded race and race difference as matters of serious public concern.

Since the time of W.E.B du Bois’ pioneering ‘The Conservation of Races’ (1887, now readily available online) many sociologists have argued that race and racial difference are social constructions and this view is now rarely disputed within the discipline. To say that race is socially constructed is to say that, even though there are no grounds for regarding race as a biological phenomenon, race is nevertheless a significant social phenomenon. Alana Lentin of Western Sydney University has published important work on this issue, see, for example, her ‘Race’ in the 2017 Sage Handbook of Political Sociology

So, how might we address the question ‘how racist is Australia’ in either the classificatory or prejudicial senses just noted? It might seem that a really sophisticated survey with carefully designed questions would be the way to go. #FU2racism goes part way there with a large-scale survey examining individual experiences of race prejudice and views about the extent and impact of racism in Australia. While, as noted earlier, two out of three admitted to their own prejudice, we should bear in mind that the remaining one in three is likely to include some who are unaware of their own prejudices.

Yet, what do these findings tell us about how racist is Australia? The question is about Australia, not just the Australian people who make up an important part, but not the totality of what we think of as Australia. If, according to our imaginary survey, the average Australian turned out to be somewhat less racist than the norm for national populations of largely European descent, this would answer only part of the question about Australia. To address this, we would have to consider the extent of structural racism by looking also at Australian institutions, state and commonwealth laws and agencies, schools, colleges and Universities, churches, clubs, the RSL, political parties, movements, crowds at sporting venues and sporting codes – including cricket, which is not normally treated as just another sporting code, but it is hard not to notice that few non-whites ever make it into Australia’s international cricket teams. Recent American experience and Wednesday’s “The Truth about Racism” program suggest that,if we do not face up to structural racism, attempts to address its effects will be portrayed as privileging its victims.

If it turned out that most Australians were not particularly racist, this would tell us little about the official face of Australian racism, which is on display for all the world to see in the conduct of Customs and Border Protection and Australia’s various police forces, not to mention Australia’s treatment of its indigenous peoples, whose effects are ritually lamented every time a predictably disappointing ‘Closing the Gap’ Annual Report appears, and of the many asylum seekers, few, if any, of them white, languishing on Manus and Nauru. To repeat an earlier point, the issue in these cases concerns more than the prejudices of individual public servants and ministers working in these areas – although some of these can be problematic enough – but also government policies and the institutional protocols, departmental ethos and constraints within which they work.

If there is a need for us to face up to the racism of many Australians, the same is true of Australia’s institutions. Reforming the first will have little direct impact on the second. In asking Australians to face up to racism, it appears to be their individual prejudices that concern SBS rather than the structural racism that is built into Australian institutions. The extent of racist prejudice in Australia is certainly worth exploring but SBS’s reluctance to tackle structural racism represents a serious failure of nerve.

White Working Class Racism

“We tend to associate racist and sexist attitudes with uneducated, low-income working class people”
I was shocked to find this statement in the printed version of an LSE seminar paper by a London University Academic. I should not have been. The view it expresses has preoccupied Left commentary on the outcome of the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump as US President.
In the British case, the working class – here the “uneducated low-income working class people” – whose conduct is to be explained is normally implicitly white while, in the American case, commentators refer explicitly to the white working class. After a flurry of efforts to explain Britain’s Brexit vote and Trumps election in terms of working class disaffection from mainstream politics, and particularly from what many commentators still view as “progressive” political parties, more-informed commentators pointed out that the LEAVE victory was not simply down to the working class while others (eg Hsia-Hung-Pai openDemocracy 11 July 2016) insisted that the British working class was not entirely white.
The same paper gives a clear example of the assumption Hsia-Hung-Pai disputes, continuing that many “find it difficult to fathom … that [racist & sexist] attitudes are not only those of uneducated low-income classes, but that they are prevalent amongst the educated middle classes” before contrasting both the uneducated low-income classes and educated middle classes to ”people of colour”, thereby implying that members of the classes in question are without colour, ie.“white”.
Following my initial surprise, my first reaction, as always when I encounter the rhetorically inclusive “we”, was to wonder who they might be; was I now part of this “we” and, if not, would I want to be? No. I do not belong nor do I wish to belong to this rhetorically invoked collective, for several reasons. Before I get to these reasons, let me just ask: How is it that “we”, whoever that might be, have come to look down on the white working class?
Salt of the earth
When I first encountered socialism, in the early 1950s version of Britain’s Labour Party Young Socialists, it seemed that the working class could do no wrong. Its members were, as one visiting speaker explained in a phrase that stuck in my mind, “the salt of the earth and our hope for the future.” (Did this mean that they were not racist? At the time, I didn’t think to ask) My impression is that many on the Left have since abandoned this positive view of the working class. How, when and why has this happened? And does the “whiteness” of the working class have something to do with it?
Much of my academic work over the last 15-20 years has tried to understand the ways in which educated Europeans have contrived to imagine themselves as superior both to non-Europeans and to uneducated Europeans. The maintenance of this illusion over several centuries must surely rank among the greatest intellectual achievements of western civilisation. Where this author’s “we” view the working class as racist, I have learned to think of educated Europeans, in the past and all too often in the present, in precisely those terms. Here, just to take one example from the past, are the opening lines of a notorious footnote from David Hume’s essay “Of National Characters”, first published in 1748 and enthusiastically picked up by Immanuel Kant:

I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent in either action or speculation….

It is not hard to find overtly racist sentiments in the work of other great names in the history of liberal political thought – John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill, for example.
Take Stevenage…
Growing up in 1940s and ’50s England, I lived in Stevenage, about 30 miles north of London – a small town of a few thousand people and a couple of industrial employers that subsequently became one of the many New Towns, built by the postwar Labour Government to house Londoners displaced by urban planning, slum clearance and German bombs.
While the Old Town Stevenage working class was not large it was certainly racist but so too was almost everyone else – the animus being directed, most obviously, against visiting Roma and the “jew-boys” who ran the local wartime and post-war black markets. In this respect, at least, Stevenage was a microcosm of post-war Britain.
Stevenage was not much affected by migrants from South Asia or the West Indies. The immigrants who threatened to, and did in fact overwhelm our limited educational and health services were as English as we were, working class Londoners, with strange accents, curious tastes in clothing and hair-styles and a refreshingly open contempt for school uniforms – and also, so the local press informed us, a dangerous propensity for destroying cinema seats whenever Bill Haley, Elvis Presley and sometimes even Cliff Richards were performing on screen, but not, oddly enough, during ‘family’ movies like South Pacific and The Sound of Music.
These English migrants posed no threat to our housing or jobs, but only because the Stevenage Development Corporation provided them with housing and had thoughtfully encouraged several large industrial employers to move into the area. What the Corporation did not provide for the newcomers were sufficient cinemas, pubs and shops and this insufficiency became an ongoing source of tension between the original inhabitants and the newcomers.
My overall impression of Britain during this period, as it is of the USA today, is that racism could be found all over the place, overtly amongst the white working class and more discreetly elsewhere, if you knew what to look for or found yourself on the receiving end. I recall younger teachers in my secondary school trying, against the disapproval of both their seniors and our parents, to persuade us to abandon racism, but with only limited success.
The most important lesson we took away from their efforts was that the overt expression of racism was best avoided. Some years later, at a time I find difficult to pin down, racism came to be widely regarded as a bad thing, at least among English people with more than the minimum education – or perhaps it was only necessary to avoid racism’s overt expression, a condition easily confused with not being racist. I strongly suspect the latter.
The sense that one should not be racist, and certainly not do so out loud, was one of the many norms that sustained what English people understood by class, enabling those who had absorbed this lesson to feel superior to the many who had not. This gives us a provisional answer, at least in the English case, to my earlier question: “we” started to deplore working class racism around the time “we” learned that the overt expression of racism was not such a good idea. I suspect that something similar might hold in America, but without the complication of English class sensibilities and with a wider range of targets.
This last point suggests one of the two most familiar explanations for working class racism – poor education. I’ll turn to another familiar explanation in a moment. There are numerous American studies purporting to show that white males without a two-year college degree are more likely to endorse racist views, suggesting that education has a countervailing effect. The standard case for the importance of education in this regard takes a romantic view of the impact of the humanities – especially the study of literature and other languages, all of which are often thought to promote empathy, the ability to imagine oneself in the place of another.
Yet, few US two-year college degrees are humanities-based. Most college students take ostensibly vocational courses – advanced secretarial, advertising, aged-care, business communication, commerce, early childhood education, hospitality, human resource management, office administration, nursing, etc. Most such courses are less likely to increase their graduates’ empathy than to marginally improve their employment prospects. Those with two-year degrees may be less vulnerable than those without to competition for jobs from unskilled migrants.
A second explanation

This, in effect, is the second explanation: the white working class is simply responding to the perceived threat to their jobs, housing, schools and welfare provision more generally posed by Blacks, Hispanics and migrants.
Unfortunately, this view rests on the image of an ethnically and nationally homogeneous working class that, while it may appeal to the few remaining English nationalists on the Left, has never been entirely realistic. The English working class has taken in many outsiders over the years – Irish, Jews, Scots and Welsh, most obviously, but also migrants from all over Europe, freed or escaped slaves and sailors from the Middle East, Africa, the Americas, South and East Asia and the Malay archipelago who, after landing in Britain, either failed to return to their ships in time or were cynically abandoned by their employers.
Satnam Virdee’s recent Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider makes the important point that the English working class has always been a multi-ethnic formation. It has often harboured racist sentiments and sometimes a working class anti-racism. The ‘white’ working class of America, like those of other parts of Europe, has a different but no less complex formation, complicated, in particular, by America’s heritage of virulent racisms directed against Blacks, Mexicans/Hispanics and Native Americans.
To conclude, if the working class is not entirely white, the whiteness of its ‘white’ component is somewhat exaggerated and so too, I suspect, is its racism. Certainly, the English and American ‘white’ working classes harbour racist tendencies, along with anti-racist ones, but they hardly stand out in this respect from the remainder of the ‘white’ population.