What Causes 'Racism'?


There are many stock standard explanations for Australian racism in general circulation. News, however, of the murder of Indian accounting student Nitin Garg, has exposed the inadequacies of public debate on race relations in modern Australia.

For the Indian community, the hope is that the Australian Government will immediately promote an open discussion of the complex causes for these attacks. Occupying a position of doubt or denial for too much longer will only heighten fear in the community and provide the international media with more fuel for their representation of Australia as a racist country. While it may be true that "fear of the other" can be triggered in any society, it is a fact that the way governments act can help minimise — or encourage — racism.

Unfortunately, the Australian media has not promoted a serious public debate on the issue. Too much of the coverage has highlighted the preoccupation that politicians and the educational sector have with the damages that these events may have on bilateral relations and, eventually, on the enrolment of Indian students in Australian universities. Indeed, a recent article in The Age pointed out that the spread of the news by the Asian media could negatively affect the inflow of students from other Asian countries as well.

It has been disturbing to witness how easily an event that should be discussed from a perspective of human solidarity can be linked instrumentally to the economic goal of ensuring that international students will continue to come to Australia.

If we really are concerned about the welfare of international students, we should be engaging more actively with reforms of both higher education and immigration policies. Currently these two sectors send very different signals to international students. While the education sector is keen to recruit international students, reforms in immigration policy make it more difficult for international students to obtain residency after graduation.

In principle, the conflict between these two approaches shouldn’t be a problem. It has become one, however, because both sectors operate within a framework in which the advantage of an Australian education has been marketed internationally not only in terms of its quality, but with the hook of permanent residence.

In India, for instance, agents promoting Australian degrees in the Punjab region usually mention the opportunity to get a resident visa, a scenario covered in detail on Radio National’s Rear Vision last year. Low income families even take out loans to fund what they see as a great life opportunity for their children.

When the students arrive in Melbourne, however, the high cost of living and the lack of accommodation dedicated to international students means that they are pushed to live in the outer suburbs, in less safe areas and they often share houses which are in very poor condition. International students also have to search for casual jobs, and many who study during the day, work night shifts in fast food chains and convenience stores.

It is overly simplistic to focus solely on safety measures in response to the violence that has erupted in Melbourne. This kind of quick fix ignores the structural problems affecting the lives of Indians and other international students in Melbourne, and shifts the burden to the individuals, as if it was a matter of choice where they live and how they travel. Moreover, while educating people to be alert and aware for their own safety may be effective, it is far from the idea of the good quality of life that Australia usually offers and which is advertised to entice international students to Australian institutions.

International experiences in Europe, Brazil and the United States show that racism is often correlated to other social and economic factors (see for example here and here). We could spend decades debating whether it is "pure" racism or not that is motivating the attacks on Indian students without ever coming to a clear-cut conclusion. But when lives are threatened and when young hard-working people and their families are forced to live in fear, governments have the duty of care and must act.

Listening to these young people to learn about their living conditions in Melbourne, and at the same time, ensuring that private education providers are not abusing the good faith of potential newcomers would be a good start.

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