Inviting racism on Harmony Day

The 21st of March is annually the International Day for the Elimination of Racism. In Australia this hallmark is celebrated as Harmony Day. On this day, thousands of schools and community groups celebrate ethnic diversity in Australia.

What a curious day it was then for the Australian Prime Minister to invite racism, by announcing a weakening of the Racial Discrimination Act. Fortunately, key members of the Australian Senate made it clear that they would not support such a change, and the amendment was stalled. This is a third time in four years that the Federal Government has attempted to scale back the Racial Discrimination Act provisions against vilification.

Why weaken the laws? Is it because the laws do more harm than good, or is it because there is widespread community support for change? Neither of those arguments can be established in fact. Careful and sound research shows that most Australians (82%) are not supportive of a freedom to offend, insult and humiliate people on the basis of race, ethnicity and religion. Only 8 per cent support such a freedom. The proposed laws changes speak to a noisy minority. Indeed, for about one-in-ten Australians being racist is important, and that shaggy tail has been wagging the dog of Australian politics.

Those who are targets of racism would like some protection from these unnecessary injuries. The SBS documentary Is Australia Racist? revealed that 17 per cent of Australians have experienced racism in the last 12 months. The survey behind the SBS documentary found that 39 per cent of Australians have at some time in their lives been insulted on the basis of their cultural background. That would be about 9.5 million Australians. The Prime Minister justified the weakening of the 18C anti-racism laws with reference to the discomfort the laws had generated for people accused of race hate. Indeed, research shows that those who author racist speech are less supportive of these laws. Racists do not like anti-racist laws. The Prime Minister’s rationale for weakening anti-racism were the discomforts experienced by a cartoonist, a journalist and three Queensland university students. It is hard to see the public good in that ratio of 9,469,183:5.

The five above-mentioned losers from the current section 18C all come from the dominant cultural group, and from an elite part of Australian society. They are the least likely to be the targets of racism. Aboriginal Australians are twice as likely as non-Aboriginals to report having been insulted on the basis of their cultural background. The changes would have favoured those who are least exposed to racism, and they would have enhances the exposure of those enduring the majority of race hate.

Bill Leak was asked to defend his cartoon in relation to 18C. The cartoon included racist representations of Aboriginals. Leak used large lips, and other exaggerated physical features, as well as buzzing flies, to dehumanise Aboriginal fathers in the Northern Territory. Such illustrations are evocative of the representations of Jews by Nazi propagandists almost 80 years ago. Another example are the cartoons of Chinese people, used 150 years ago by the campaigners for the White Australia Policy.

Globally the 21st March is used to commemorate the infamous Sharpeville shooting of anti-apartheid protestors in South Africa. On that day in 1960, 69 people were shot dead by the police of a racist state. In the post 2WW era the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination was passed to confront racism. Australia adopted the Convention in 1975 through our Racial Discrimination Act. The International Convention and Harmony Day both commenced in 1965, and are key global infrastructure for anti-racism. It was perverse that on Harmony Day the Federal Government proposed a weakening of the anti-racism laws, for the benefit of a minority, against the wishes of the majority, with the support of the racists, and at the cost of those who endure racism.

Research and human history shows that pandering to racists can have dramatic effects. If those who have racist views come to imagine that they are in the majority, and that there is political approval for their views, then they will be more likely to convert their attitudes into racist acts. About one-in-ten Australians believe in racial hierarchies, and they want ethnic groups to remain separated. One-in-ten want the anti-racism laws changed so that they are free to commit racist insults, offends and humiliates. Being racist matters a lot to this group of Australians, and regrettably they have been listened to.

Fortunately, most Australians do not hold these extreme and racist views. The Challenging Racism Project data show that the vast majority of Australians are positive about cultural diversity, they are concerned about racism, they want something done about it, are prepared to act themselves, and they support the current laws against racial vilification. This indicates the underlying strength of multiculturalism in Australia.

However, Australian multiculturalism needs to be defended, especially given the circumstances described above. The Senate Select Committee has been reviewing what might be done to Strengthen Multiculturalism. They have astutely pointed to the threats posed by media and political discourses about religious and ethnic minorities. The news media representation of minority groups like Australian Muslims is unfair and damaging, and there is a deep distrust of the news media among minority groups. Our submission to the Committee concluded that Australia’s multicultural project is ‘unfinished’ business. Multiculturalism is not yet deep enough: there is too much racism, the official data collection is poor (especially for online racism), there is insufficient personal action, and there is unchallenged white privilege. There is an urgent need to deepen and strengthen multiculturalism.

Racial Discrimination Acts at the national and state levels should consistently proscribe religious vilification. Islamaphobia is a national calamity, and requires urgent attention. The data we collected for the SBS’ Is Australia Racist? documentary revealed the high rates of experience of racism among Muslims, and the high rates of unease among non-Muslims about Muslims. Yet our research has shown that almost all Australian Muslims lead everyday lives, with very ordinary hopes and aspirations, and strong sense of belonging in Australia. The concerns are without substance, and are reinforced by media and politics. But this Islamaphobia has substantive real world effects, such as discrimination in employment and housing, municipal refusals to build places of worship, as well as hate speech and attacks. The burden of racism falls heavily on other groups too, including African-Australians, Aboriginals, and there is an emerging worry that anti-Chinese sentiment and racism is on the rise. This was never the time for weakening Racial Discrimination laws, but it is timely to reinforce multiculturalism.

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Kevin Dunn

Prof Kevin Dunn

Professor Kevin Dunn is Dean of the School and Professor in Human Geography and Urban Studies, and commenced at Western Sydney University in May 2008. He was formerly at the University of NSW (1995-2008), and the University of Newcastle (1991-1995). His areas of research include: the geographies of racism and anti-racism; Islam in Australia; and local government and multiculturalism. He leads the national Challenging Racism Project