The changing face of racism

Racism based on crude biological arguments may be increasingly unacceptable, argues James Supple, but racism based on notions of “culture” has become an insidious feature of mainstream politics in Australia

Most commonly, racism is understood as prejudice or discrimination against people based on their skin colour. This is based simply on a person supposedly belonging to a particular race—whether they be Aboriginal, African, Asian or Arab. It is clear that this kind of racism is still around: take the example of Trayvon Martin, who was targeted and killed in Florida by a vigilante simply because he was black.

But respectable politicians and public figures can no longer openly espouse such explicit biological racism. For one thing, the idea that race is a genetically meaningful term has been scientifically discredited. Genetic differences between individuals in any one “race” are vastly greater than the differences between different races as a whole. This has shattered social Darwinist ideas that held some races were inferior to others.

Even more significantly, the horrific consequences of the Holocaust—the outcome of the Nazis’ ideas of racial inferiority—have made biological racism politically unacceptable.

In Australia, there has been a move away from the White Australia Policy and the once fanatical insistence on maintaining Australia’s “British roots” through excluding non-Europeans. In its place governments have attempted to reconstruct Australian nationalism. Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations, as a symbol that Australia has moved on from past abuses, and Australia’s multi-cultural population alike are now considered part of Australia’s “national story”. The racial oppression of Aboriginal people as well as the anti-Asian racism of White Australia is now presented as a thing of the past.

The new racism

In fact racism has only changed, not disappeared. Instead of talking explicitly about race the target has shifted to “culture”. This trend was described as “the new racism” in 1981 by academic Martin Barker. So today respectable racism targets particular groups of people who apparently have “cultural problems” that make them different to supposedly enlightened Western, democratic cultures. There are two particularly common uses in Australia.

The first is the peddling of the idea that Muslims and Arabs are prone to extremism and hold backward ideas about women. The second is the notion that attempts to maintain Aboriginal culture result in Aboriginal people receiving “sit down money” in the form of welfare, supposedly refusing to take personal responsibility and look for gainful employment themselves.

Those making the comments usually deny that this is about race or racism and claim to simply highlight real problems in some cultures or religions. But the old biological racism was never just about skin colour—it has always rested on a series of popular or “common sense” stereotypes about people of particular races. These stereotypes inevitably involve supposedly “cultural” traits. As Ali Rattansi points out in Racism: A very short introduction these racist stereotypes have included, “the supposed avariciousness of Jews, the alleged aggressiveness of Africans and African Americans, the criminality of Afro-Caribbeans or the slyness of ‘Orientals’”.

These traits are treated as something inherent to members of the group, just as inescapable as being born into a particular “race”. In this way they are exactly like the racist prejudice based on skin colour, and assume that the group targeted, whether Muslims, Arabs or Aboriginal people, are monolithic, or all the same. And the effect—of disempowering its victims and building up popular scapegoats for social problems—is the same.

Today’s victims

Since the beginning of the “war on terror” Muslims have been scapegoated as an “enemy within” as part of justifying the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The supposed threat from so-called “home grown terrorism” in particular, like the bombings on public transport in London in 2005 carried out by long-term British residents from Pakistan, was used to scapegoat the entire Muslim community.

John Howard held the whole Muslim community responsible for terrorism by blaming it on their specific religious and cultural values, supposedly seen in their failure to “integrate”. He claimed that extremism in the Muslim community, “is not a problem that we have ever faced with other immigrant communities who become easily absorbed by Australia’s mainstream.”

Howard was always careful to say that only “some” Muslims were at fault. But he also presented terrorism as an Islamic problem and said that the Muslim community had not done enough to counter it. The implication was clear. All Muslims were suspect, whether as potential terrorists, or at least terrorist sympathisers.

All this promoted the racist stereotype that Muslims are fanatical and prone to violence and extremism. Politicians and the media have also promoted a series of other stereotypes, from the claims that oppression of women is a distinctly Muslim problem, to bizarre scare mongering about the supposed “threat” posed by Muslim practices like eating halal meat and refusing to drink alcohol.

The resulting racism has been shown in a series of shocking opinion polls. More than half of Victorian Year 10 and 11 students surveyed in late 2005 viewed Muslims as terrorists, over 50 per cent believed they “behave strangely” and 40 per cent agreed that Muslims “are unclean”. A 2006 Gallup poll found four out of ten Australians believed Islam is “a threat to our way of life”. And an Essential poll conducted last year found 57 per cent were concerned at number of Muslims living in Australia.

There has also been a rise in racist violence, with a study in 2004 showing two-thirds of Muslims had experienced abuse or violence on the street since 9/11, and the racist riot at Cronulla in 2006.

However this new racism aimed at “culture” has caused confusion among some anti-racists because it is often presented in progressive clothing—as a defense of human rights, democratic values or the rights of women.

For instance Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali born woman who now works at a US neo-conservative think tank, presents herself as a feminist who demands an end to “Islamic” values and practices like honour killings of women and female genital mutilation. Yet none of these practices are specifically Islamic or limited to any one culture. Author of The Liberal Defence of Murder Richard Seymour cites Human Rights Watch’s conclusions that the practice of honour killings, “goes across cultures and across religions”.

Ali has gone so far as to claim that, “we are at war with Islam” as whole—specifically rejecting the idea that it is only some extremist forms of Islam that are a problem, claiming “They’re not interested in peace.” It is an attempt to dress up Muslims as part of a uniquely backward culture—all the better to serve Western interests.

Similarly, attacks on Aboriginal people, are couched in talk of “cultural problems” that serves to justify policies like the Northern Territory Intervention.

Helen Hughes, an ideologue with the rightwing think tank Centre of Independent Studies, referred to Aboriginal culture in remote communities as “stone age” and the need to achieve “freedom from sorcery and fear of spirits” when arguing for Intervention style policies in her 2006 book Lands of Shame. Howard-era Minister Amanda Vanstone argued for forced migration of Aboriginal people and derided remote communities as “cultural museums”.

At the core of these arguments is the claim that the culture and behaviour of Aboriginal people are responsible for social problems and the high levels of poverty facing many communities. It serves to whitewash the history of Aboriginal dispossession and absolve the government of responsibility for the third world living conditions in Aboriginal communities. It also encourages racist stereotypes about Aboriginal people.

In July 2008, a gang of racist thugs bashed an Aboriginal man in Alice Springs, Kwementyaye Ryder, to death. A sharp spike in abuse directed at Aboriginal people in Alice Springs came at the same time as Minister Jenny Macklin, now the architect of the ongoing Intervention, was demonising residents of the town camps in preparation for compulsory acquisition of their land and housing.

Immigration and culture

The attacks on culture and religion are also linked strongly to anti-immigration rhetoric. Throughout Australia’s history anti-immigrant racism has been linked to race. Xenophobic scares and racist attacks on immigrants have never targeted white British migrants. Instead it has been Asian immigration, or more recently immigration from the Middle East and Africa, which has been targeted. Today the supposed “threat” posed to “our culture” by immigration is seen in the hysteria around refugees.

Muslims from the Middle East are among the most recent immigrants to Australia: including Turks from the late 1960s, Lebanese migrants from the 1970s and more recently Iraqis and Afghans. In recent years a series of right-wing as well as liberal commentators have declared that multiculturalism has failed, because of the presence of immigrant groups that reject “Western values” and aggressively promote backward cultures. Again most of this criticism is aimed at Muslims. That is who Howard was talking about when said we don’t want “people like that” who throw their children overboard.

In 2006 Howard claimed that some in Muslim community were, “utterly antagonistic to our kind of society”. Peter Costello, supposedly from the more socially moderate section of Liberals, launched a tirade against “misguided, mushy multiculturalism” saying, “Before becoming an Australian you will be asked to subscribe to certain values. If you have a strong objection to those values don’t come to Australia.”

This mirrors the right-wing fury against multiculturalism that has been so strong in Europe. In Germany a book released in 2010 by former Social Democrat politician Thilo Sarazzin, Germany abolishes itself, has gone through 16 editions and become “one of the most read books in Germany since Mein Kampf”. Its arguments were effectively endorsed by Chancellor Angela Merkel a few months after its publication when she said multiculturalism had “utterly failed” and immigrants had to do more to integrate, such as learning to speak German.

Kevin Rudd tried to mimic Howard’s attacks on multiculturalism before his election in 2007, removing the reference to multiculturalism from his shadow immigration minister’s title. Julia Gillard entrenched this further when she became PM.

Last year Labor under Gillard moved to re-embrace the concept, announcing plans for a new multiculturalism strategy in a speech where Chris Bowen celebrated “the genius of Australian multiculturalism”. But at same time Bowen said that, “if there is any inconsistency between these cultural values [of new migrants] and the values of individual freedom and the rule of law, then these traditional Australian values win out.”

Labor’s refugee policies are increasing racism in the same way that Howard’s did. Gillard said before the last election that, “expressing a desire for a clear and firm policy to deal with a very difficult problem [the refugee issue] does not make you a racist”. She colluded in a conscious effort by the Liberals to blur the divide between refugees and immigrants, and so associate fears about boat people with anti-immigration attitudes and fear about Muslims. Her efforts to draw attention to her supposed efforts to ensure a “sustainable population” during the last election campaign were launched in the same speech where she discussed her plans over refugees.

The government has gone into overdrive to spread the myth that refugees arriving by boat are bad people coming “the wrong way”, working with the “vile scum” people smugglers to cheat the system. They have demonised them for protesting and damaging detention centres, claiming they were doing this because they weren’t real refugees, and in general worked to create the impression that the government doesn’t want them here.

Andrew Bolt demonstrated the consequences of the government’s rhetoric clearly last year, blaming two brawls in Sudanese communities in two different cities five years apart, on the “wilful blindness to the culture of those we brought in”. Violence is part of the culture, he claimed, among Sudanese, Lebanese and Vietnamese refugees, in another transparently racist outburst.


Racism has always been used to create scapegoats and turn workers’ anger in the wrong direction—towards their fellow workers—and away from governments and the bosses.

They hope to deflect anger at their efforts to drive down wages, cut working conditions and slash living standards onto invented enemies, who are supposedly responsible for taking jobs and government money. Regardless of whether the talk is about biological differences or cultural differences, the effects are the same. The new cultural racism has become part of the mainstream. This makes it particularly dangerous—and essential that we drive it back.


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