Thursday 2 November 2017


Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner

Not long ago, I was reminded of a passage from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he reflects upon the nature of the racism:

"I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not ... the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a 'more convenient season'. Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."

It is a passage that challenges our sensibilities. For we often take for granted that on matters of race, what matters most is goodwill. That accepting others can be enough to overcome prejudice and division.

It can be easy to interpret this passage to say that we are doomed to fail on racial equality: that good intentions are bound to be frustrated, that we may never be able to remedy the social ill of discrimination. I don't think that is quite right. Dr King was, after all, someone fond of quoting that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." He knew that progress could be slow, that the cause of justice was difficult, but that wasn't a reason to give up.

It may seem strange to begin a reflection about race by looking back to the America of 1963. Surely, the Australia of 2017 is a very different place.

You might say something like this: Racism is unacceptable and warrants our condemnation, but it is largely a problem of the past. Real racism is what you had with the segregation of the American South, the apartheid regime of South Africa, or the White Australia policy and assimilation of Aboriginal people. Things are different now, though. We are a multicultural society. People get along with people from other races. In fact, we are one of the most tolerant and welcoming countries on earth. We are a society that is now colour blind, a society where race is invisible.

It is true that we are one of the multicultural success stories of the world. According to the evidence, we are also one of the most racially tolerant countries in the world. Yet racism does still exist, and continues to be a blight on the lives of many. And here and now, we too see prejudice that emanates not only from malice but sometimes from goodwill, and from half-hearted acceptance as well as outright rejection.

I'd like here to reflect on how racism today comes in many forms. We seem to find it hard to talk about its more subtle varieties. But such varieties can do as much damage as their more overt or violent forms. This is because racism lives not only through laws and institutions, but also through culture and attitudes. It exists not only through acts done by one person on another, but also through the rules, norms and systems that exist in our society.

The many forms of racism
What is the face of racism in Australia today? We have grown familiar with a certain genre of racism. It involves abuse or vilification, sometimes escalating to physical violence. It's often done in anger, and by someone seemingly possessed by hatred. And when it happens, often somewhere such as on a bus or train or tram, it is sometimes captured by camera. The footage is shared online, perhaps Facebook or Twitter. News outlets then pick up on it, and run it on the nightly news bulletin.

These episodes tend to be roundly condemned. Racist outbursts in public don't enjoy many defenders. We're pretty good at making clear that racist violence has no place in our society. You might say that when it comes to acts of high-level racism, Australians are near-unanimous in having zero tolerance. Few would ever openly endorse the idea of racial discrimination.

This helps explain why quite often the response to episodes of overt racism follow a script. In conversations about nasty or violent racist incidents, we often hear some condemnation, quickly followed by speculation about the state of mind of perpetrators. Racist ranters can be described as clearly having issues with their state of mind, or with their mental health. Because no reasonable person - no one in their right mind - would ever descend to such beastly behaviour.

As an aside, I have observed, on occasions when I've commented on such public incidents, that some people even take issue with describing them as involving racism at all: they don't involve racism, but just anti-social or violent behaviour motivated by mental health. It is curious how some choose not to judge some behaviour based on clearly observable characteristics - for instance, the presence of racial hostility - but rather on some speculative insight into another person's mind and welfare.

Returning to my larger point, nasty or vicious racism isn't the most common form of racism you see in Australian society. There are other forms of it.

There are times, perhaps, when people understand things well enough to know that they can't be openly racist. No one wants the stigma or opprobrium of engaging in naked racial hostility.

There are times, for example, when opinions based on prejudice will be expressed indirectly or between the lines. There can be just enough room left for "plausible deniability." Racism isn't always brutish or boorish; it can sometimes be rather sophisticated. You don't always need a foghorn when sometimes a dog whistle will do.

Then there are those times when racism needn't involve malice. It can be something said or done out of ignorance or insensitivity. Rather than involving a high level of sophistication, such racism can involve the opposite - a clumsiness, if you will. I think here of what we often call casual racism, where people say or do things that have racist implications without necessarily intending on causing racist humiliation.

Psychologists also point to another aspect of racial prejudice and motivations. People can take part in racist speech and behaviour, not because they subscribe to certain beliefs, but because it helps to form bonds within a group - it can help to create a stronger sense of "us" by creating a stronger sense of "them." Racism can involve as much a group's needs for identity as it does actual hatred directed at others.

We don't tend to deal with these varieties of racism as deftly as open racial hostility. When we see casual racism of the sort I've described, we can tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. People can explain away remarks as just a joke or a bit of fun. They can object to the label of racism by saying that those taking issue with something are being "politically correct" or overly sensitive.

Which brings me back to how we define racism. If we believe that racism is essentially about belief or doctrine, that it is just about racial superiority or racial hierarchy, we can end up with an incomplete picture. Racism refers to prejudice, discrimination or hatred directed at someone because of their race. It is something that creates disadvantages for some, and confers privilege on to others. When you understand things this way, you recognise that racism isn't just about intentions; it is ultimately about impact.

Racism and class
Class is one reason people can struggle with recognising subtle racism. Many of us like to see racism in terms of class. I often hear in public forums, for example, that the root of racism is not hatred but ignorance - that most of it can be explained by a lack of learning. People will often tell me that the cure to racism is education.

I'm not for a moment here suggesting that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds can't be well educated or educated well enough on matters of race. What I am highlighting is one of the default explanations we offer on racism. In many liberal democracies, racism is seen as a problem not of the middle class but as a problem of the working class, a product of proletarian prejudice.

Consider, for example, recent commentary about the rise of nationalist populism in many Western liberal democracies. The narrative runs that those drawn to anti-immigration, xenophobic political parties are disillusioned members of the working class.

Let's focus, to pick a specific example, on the United States.

Shortly after the election of Donald Trump to the White House, it became received wisdom that the Democrats lost because they had failed to listen to the concerns of the white working-class. By contrast, Trump had made himself the candidate of the anxious and dispossessed. His pledge of making American great again tapped into a reservoir of civic faith. And he embodied in himself something of the everyman. As J.D. Vance described in his memoir Hillbilly Elegy, Trump reminded blue-collar workers of themselves - as a relatable "backslapping swashbuckler unafraid of saying what's on his mind," and a man "who talks about politics and policy as if he were sitting around the dinner table."

According to the conventional wisdom, Trump's authenticity was only a factor; what really explained things is class. In his assessment, Ta-Nehisi Coates neatly characterises the orthodox explanation of Trump populism:

"We are now being told that support for Trump's 'Muslim ban', his scapegoating of immigrants, his defenses of police brutality are somehow the natural outgrowth of the cultural and economic gap between Lena Dunham's America and Jeff Foxworthy's. The collective verdict holds that the Democratic Party lost its way when it abandoned everyday economic issues like job creation for the softer fare of social justice. The indictment continues: To their neoliberal economics, Democrats and liberals have married a condescending elitist affect that sneers at blue-collar culture and mocks the white man as history's greatest monster and prime-time television's biggest doofus. In this rendition, Donald Trump is not the product of white supremacy so much as the product of a backlash against contempt for white working-class people."

Such diagnoses have also emerged within Australian commentary about race. In a much-cited essay for Meanjin, writer Shannon Burns argued that progressive middle-class political discourse has alienated lower-class white Australians. Middle-class grievances about racism and bigotry "now drown out lower class pain," which explains why "the wounded lower classes come to embrace conservative discourses that ridicule middle-class anguish." If there is any kind of backlash against so-called political correctness, it is because "those who cannot afford to see themselves as disadvantaged are instinctively repulsed by those who harp on about disadvantage."

However, is it the case that racial and cultural populism is a symptom of working-class alienation from political elites?

The evidence for the class thesis is far from convincing. One study of pre-election polling data, for example, indicates that those who supported Trump generally had a higher mean household income than those who did not. Another study highlights that of the one in three Americans who earn less than $50,000 a year, a majority voted not for Donald Trump but for Hillary Clinton.

As for the Australian context, data from the Australian Election Survey (AES) would seem to indicate that culture has driven One Nation's electoral return. The AES data shows that 98% of One Nation voters are Australian born. And it shows that the most salient factor behind supporting One Nation is immigration. 82% of One Nation voters consider immigration extremely important when deciding how to vote, with 83% calling for immigration to be cut "a lot." 79% of One Nation voters believe migrants increase crime, and 67% believe they take our jobs.

What some analyses of our contemporary situation reveal is, perhaps, a blind spot on race. American writer Michael Phillips, reflecting on the rise of the white nationalist alt-right - in particular, the figure of Richard Spencer - offers this perceptive insight. While many regard members of the alt-right to be just working-class discontents, it is anything but. There is such a thing as "the well-educated and financially comfortable bigot." In many cases, the only difference between the views of some respective conservative voices and extreme nationalist ones in the United States has not been core assumptions but rather tone. Respectable members of the middle-class and elite classes simply know how to say things about race in more circumspect or acceptable ways.

As Phillips notes, American reporters from middle class backgrounds seem shocked to meet a racist who is apparently one of them, and not a cartoonish working-class caricature. Yet the reality has been that racism and elitism can make for an enduring blend:

"Across the land, elite children have been fed a steady diet of white supremacist thinking. Education alone has never cured racism. In fact, higher education has often promoted it. Prominent American racists, from early twentieth-century eugenicist Madison Grant to President Woodrow Wilson to Charles Murray - the right-wing polemicist and author of the infamous 1994 book The Bell Curve, which argued that black and brown people were congenitally less intelligent than whites - all brandished advanced degrees. The Social Darwinist economy that elites have constructed depends on segmentation by color. Segregation and imperialism sprang from elite minds."

Here in Australia, if we wish to see what middle-class forms of racism looks or sounds like, consider discussions we have about real estate. It takes only the mere mention of property prices sometimes to prompt some people into venting about foreign buyers pricing the rest of us out of the housing market - specifically, Chinese foreign buyers. Tabloid reporting - and, indeed, reporting in the press formerly known as broadsheet - feeds us a regular diet of stories involving Chinese foreign buyers outbidding Aussie first home owners in our suburbs in Sydney and Melbourne.

Yet it is questionable whether Chinese foreign buying is having as significant an effect as being depicted, besides in the luxury housing market. House prices are driven, as much as anything, by issues around supply, low interest rates and tax incentives for investment purchases of homes. Those who are identified as Chinese foreign buyers at auctions are more likely than not to be Australian citizens or permanent residents.

So how are we to respond to all this? It begins, obviously, with a recognition that prejudice and discrimination don't just come in the crude and violent forms we have come to associate with public racism. We must be prepared to deal also with subtle and insidious racism. As a general principle, we must be guided by the idea that it isn't enough for our society to be non-racist; we must be anti-racist.

As I've already noted, there has been a tendency to regard racism as too much of an antiquated feature of the past, as reflecting a repugnant commitment to racial superiority or purity. The modern reality is that it is more-often-than-not something that emerges from other sources. Ignorance and cultural anxiety are as ready sources of contemporary racism as hatred.

Some might say that focusing on less obvious forms of racism - or the banality of racism - can lead us to capturing too much as prejudice and discrimination. That we risk seeing racism in anything and everything. That if you go around wielding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

We must, of course, have tact in our conversations about race. We must also be prepared to give people, where appropriate, the benefit of the doubt. But we must also be prepared to listen to the lived experience of those who experience racism.

All too often, such voices are drowned out by denials of racism, or by those who wish to deflect meaningful conversations about racism. All too often, our conversations feature only those who have the benefit of not being constantly reminded that they are visibly different, but who then are adamant that our society treats race as invisible. All too often, those who respond to their own experience of prejudice are made to feel that they are the ones who have done wrong. All too often, people indulge the idea that responding to racism creates more division than the perpetration of racism itself.

Having leadership on race is essential. Our public debates help to set the tone of our society. Our leaders should do nothing to give licence to any hatred, prejudice or ignorance. Where there is any encouragement of intolerance, we will more likely than not find such encouragement being taken up.

We must also continue to have effective laws against racism. For the past four years or so, we have had an enormous debate about the Racial Discrimination Act and its provisions concerning racial vilification. There have been two attempts to amend the wording of section 18C, which makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate someone because of their race. I believe there remains no compelling reason for changing the current law. Section 18C sets a standard for our society. We must not send any signal that it is acceptable to racially abuse or attack others, without consequences.

A law such as the Racial Discrimination Act can only ever go part of the way. Racism can't be eradicated by a single piece of legislation, however important it is to have legislation prohibiting racism. We must always continue and extend the work of educating people's attitudes.

That's one reason we run our Racism. It Stops with Me campaign, an awareness campaign aimed at empowering people to speak out and stand up against prejudice and discrimination. Since 2012, more than 400 organisations have been supporters of the campaign.

Last month, we released two anti-racism videos as part of the campaign. They deal with scenarios of everyday and casual racism, and highlight how racism needn't always be overt. They reflect research which finds there are some groups that experience significantly higher rates of racial discrimination, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and those from African backgrounds. They also reflect our own experience at the Commission, which finds that nearly 40% of our racial discrimination complaints last year involved either employment or the provision of goods and services. But they aim to help people find the courage and confidence to respond to racism if they see it occurring.

[Videos embedded]

These videos are, in essence, about starting a conversation. But as we all know, a conversation about racism isn't always easy. It can be fraught, it can be met with resistance; it is something that requires tact and nuance.

Let me conclude with some reflections on how it is that we can go about talking about race and racism. Some general principles can guide us.

First, it's not just about racial superiority. As I've said, racism refers to prejudice, discrimination or hatred directed at someone because of their race. It is something that creates disadvantages for some, and confers privilege on to others. Expressions of racism don't always need to involve a belief in racial supremacy or even racial malice.

Second, let's not get too defensive. We know that race can be an uncomfortable topic. Often people say we make too much of a fuss about racism in Australia when racism is much worse in many other countries. We shouldn't divert in this way. Australia is, by international standards, a highly tolerant society. But that doesn't deny that those who experience racial discrimination experience a real harm to their dignity and equality. Those who insist they are colour-blind are often those blind to the lived experience of others who continue to be judged by their colour or race.

Third, we must avoid saying that copping racism must be part of some initiation rite for any immigrant group. Some say that just as the Irish, Italians, Greeks and later migrant groups such as the Vietnamese and Chinese copped ugliness, so too must newer groups. That racism in the past only served to make migrants more resilient. While we may never eradicate racism and bigotry, it isn't good enough to say its targets must grin and bear it, or that there's nothing we can do. That amounts to normalising racism. As for resilience, no doubt there were many who were tough enough to tough it out. But for every story of resilience, I imagine there would be many more stories where racism has broken a migrant. We mustn't think that our society must repeat old ways.

Finally, racism matters to all of us. It implicates all of us. Racism mustn't be an issue that matters only to minorities. Those fortunate not to experience racism must understand they have a part to play - that social progress happens only when society is big enough to stand alongside those who are mistreated or experience injustice. We say, "Racism. It Stops with Me" because racism diminishes all of us, and because all of us can help stop it.

Published in: 
ABC Religion and Ethics