When violence against international students begets a minor diplomatic crisis people want to know more. But despite much speculation and conjecture, there is no consensus around what’s actually going on here. The reports in the media focus on incidents in which Indian students seem to make up the majority of victims. The obvious implication of this is that the attacks are racially motivated.
All this attention feeds into a strange myth about Australia which is held by many Australians with progressive views. "Of course Australia is racist," says former diplomat Bruce Haigh. For Haigh, the attacks on Indian students exposed the racist "underbelly" of Australian conservatism, Australian sport and Australian society generally. "Like it or not," argued Colleen Egan in the West Australian, "greedy fat cat Sol has a point." (Egan was referring to the parting shot of failed former Telstra CEO Sol Trujillo, who returned to his native USA with a $20 million-plus payout and confirmed for BBC journalist Steve Evans that Australia was, indeed, racist.)
This idea that there is an ingrained racism that was so "naturally Australian" that it’s hardly even acknowledged is a myth that dates back to Humphrey McQueen’s bestselling book A New Britannia (1970) and the emerging debates about Australian identity which preceded it. According to this myth, Australian nationalism has always been, and will always be, primarily racist. The expulsion of Indigenous people on the frontier and then the exclusion of non-Europeans at Federation together work as a kind of original sin double whammy for the Australian nation.
The myth of Australia’s "natural" racism is also popular overseas, and competes with, or perhaps complements, the countervailing foreign impression of Australia as a quaint backwater of Mick Dundees, Steve Irwins and surfing. The attacks on Indian students merely confirm the former. An editorial in the Times of India linked the assaults on Indian students with a "tribe of extreme nationalists who champion an exclusivist, white Aussie identity".
Not that the mere existence of a national myth automatically denies its truth. After all, racists are "curry bashing" Indian students. Good then. Australia is a racist country. So, all we need now is … more education, to let violent people know that racism is just not on? (That was Haigh’s suggestion.) Or perhaps Australian racism is so ingrained that we need Indian students to stop speaking Hindi because that might provoke the Inner Racist in every Norm and Bazza? (That was a police strategy back in January.) Or, as Victorian MP John Pandazopoulos proposed in February, perhaps "curry bashers" should be slapped with a vilification charge (maximum six months jail) on top of their robbery (maximum 15 years) or assault (maximum five years) charges. Good idea. That will make them think twice.
But where is the evidence that the fundamental problem is in fact racism? There is much disagreement among Indians in Australia on this. One high-profile recent assault victim is Mukesh Haikerwal, a former president of the Australian Medical Association. 47-year-old Haikerwal was attacked with a baseball bat in Williamstown last September, and needed emergency brain surgery. Rather than racism per se, Haikerwal puts the problem down to a worrying increase in the level of urban street violence. Senior police officers also problematise the simplistic "racist" theory. Commander Trevor Carter is straightforward: "We need to make that clear. We don’t think it’s about race." While this may be evidence of traditional police blindness to the problem of racism, it may yet contain some real clues.
As it turns out, people of "Indian appearance" are not the only victims of recent violence. People of Indian origin accounted for just over half of one per cent of all reported robberies and assaults during the 2007-08 year. Although it’s difficult to draw anything sensible from such statistics, they do help to put what is after all very anecdotal evidence into some sort of context.
The theory of "ingrained racism" to account for violence against Indian students simply tries too hard to mould the facts to its essential truth. It suggests an element of co-ordination; it hints at a conspiracy.
The theory is, of course, nonsense. There are racists in Australia, but it’s not because of some "ingrained racist" streak running through the national culture that they hate. To the charge that Australia’s national culture is racist, one can reply that it is also multicultural and be just as right or wrong. There is no longer any formal or legal discrimination on the basis of race (apart from specific laws relating to Indigenous people in the Northern Territory); there is legislation outlawing racial discrimination and vilification; and authorities are for the most part conscious of potential issues of institutional or perceived racism. Significantly, in the public sphere racism is socially taboo.
"Racism" does not adequately explain the spate of recent assaults, which in Melbourne have mainly occurred in the northern or western suburbs or in the CBD. Indeed, the "racism" discourse operates to hide the true nature of the problem.
Perhaps the best piece of journalism regarding Melbourne’s alleged racist bashings epidemic was written by John Ferguson in the Herald Sun. After a recent fortnight-long investigation centring on Sunshine, in Melbourne’s west, Ferguson discovered that violence across the entire suburb is endemic and involves many different ethnic combinations.
The problem here is one of juvenile and youth delinquency, of "urban violence" in Rudd’s language, of hot-headed testosterone and unemployment and truancy and senseless sadism. It may well have developed a racial component, but the problem is one of basic social decay.
Thanks to Emile Durkheim, sociologists have long since known about concepts like anomie, whereby changes in social structures lead to individual dysfunction. One modern-day heir of the anomie theory is promulgated by social epidemiologists like Richard Wilkinson, who argues that the root cause of social decay — homelessness, teenage pregnancies, racism, violence — is in the basic fact of inequality.
While there is a prevailing myth of Australians’ "ingrained racism", especially among intellectuals and "progressives" generally, there is no opposing narrative about Australia’s social inequity with anything approaching equivalent status. Since the 1960s, stories of social inequality have had to compete with not one but two dominant national myths: firstly, the Antipodean tradition of egalitarian social relations; and secondly, the "fact" of Australia’s general post-war "affluence", which has become increasingly accepted as common sense.
The dominance of these myths leaves little room for stories of inequality which, when they appear at all, are either attached to a prevailing national myth (as in the case of stories about squalid living conditions for some Aboriginal people) or are given no "national" status whatsoever (as in the case of Tom Reilly’s recent investigation into squalid rental houses, which emphasises the role of bad-apple "slumlord" landlords).
Australians — particularly middle-class Australians who write for and read newspapers — don’t like to think about social problems in terms of the unfair distribution of wealth. In fact, we prefer to imagine that Australia does not have such problems. Those pressure groups which have traditionally emphasised the problems of poverty and inequality — trade unions and churches — have experienced a combination of, on the one hand, increasing marginalisation as a result of declining membership, and on the other, the rising material and social wealth of their remaining members and their general social base.
It is generally recognised among social scientists that the neoliberal era of deregulation, privatisation, tariff reduction and tax cuts, which in Australia began during the mid-1970s, has led to increases in the level of inequality. This story, however, has been swamped by the fetishisation of the GDP figure and "economic growth" as the sole measure of national "success". Stories of inequality and poverty make little sense in this schema. When Kevin Rudd tried to begin a national conversation on homelessness, he found that his only audience was listeners to Radio National’s Life Matters.
But in Melbourne’s west and outer north, Sydney’s west and Adelaide’s north and south, regional towns, outback farms and Aboriginal townships and outstations, the impact of inequality has been difficult to ignore. Investigations into general socio-economic conditions will illuminate much more about the apparent "curry bashing" epidemic than the half-baked attempts at explaining them in terms of Australian "ingrained racism" have managed to date.
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